Screenwriting 101: Three-Act Structure I - Origins
Nearly all films are based on a screenplay, yet very few people actually read them, and fewer know how they work. As one of the most in-demand art forms today, screenplays are oddly misunderstood as no one outside of film production reads them. They are not exactly literature, as it belongs to cinematography, but not considered a film either as it has no images; the screenplay finds itself lost between art forms. Its place within art has always been bumpy, especially today as countless screenwriting manuals have been published, each of them claiming different ways to write for screens. Being one of the most popular forms of media, cinema attracts many artists eager to break into the industry, screenwriters included. The objective of this Screenwriting 101 series is to remove the veil from the elusive art of screenwriting, revealing once and for all the true nature of a screenplay.
Screenwriting 101 is divided into six chapters:
Screenwriting 101: Three-Act Structure I - Origins
Screenwriting 101: Three-Act Structure II - Basics
Screenwriting 101: Three-Act Structure III - Rigidity
Screenwriting 101: Three-Act Structure IV - Failure
Screenwriting 101: Three-Act Structure I - Origins
The famous three-act structure is a hotly debated topic among screenwriters today (Maio, 2019). It is so popular that major film studios commonly form contracts requiring screenplays to have a definite three-act structure (Field, 2005, p. 22). The concept is far from new, in fact, Aristotle is credited as the first person to theorize it (Masterclass, 2021). There is a good reason why such an old storytelling tool fascinates screenwriters, playwrights, and novelists: “All stories, from Aristotle through all the constellations of civilization, embody the same dramatic principles.” (Field, 2005, p.3). At first glance, that may seem like a stretch until the three acts are broken down into what they really are: “Beginning, middle, and end; Act I, Act II, Act III.” (Field, 2005, p. 26). Before the popularization of the three-act structure by the famous screenwriting guru Syd Field (2005), story structure was a field of research (Price, 2013, p. 201). Aristotle (c. 335 BC/2008) himself adopted a somewhat middle-ground stance between guru and researcher: “I propose to treat of Poetry in itself and of its various kinds, noting the essential quality of each; to inquire into the structure of the plot as requisite to a good poem” (p. 3). He claimed to have found the key to creating a good poem by having studied the essential quality in other poems. In Aristotle’s case, he refers to poetry as the most popular form of theater at the time: “Epic poetry and Tragedy, Comedy also and Dithyrambic” (Aristotle, c. 335 BC/2008, p. 3). Gustav Freytag and Vladimir Propp, two highly influential authors on story structures, approached the subject as researchers. Propp (1928/1968) calls himself an “investigator” (p. xxv) and his work, Morphology of the Folktale, a “study” (p. xxv). Christopher Vogler, a Hollywood development executive, and his work The Writer's Journey (2007) delineate a clearer path as to how the three-act structure, among the many existing story structures, came to be seen as the default model.
Although Aristotle did not invent the three-act structure nor the five-act structure (Bunting, n.d.), he did, however, get extremely close by isolating the three main acts as defined by Field (2005). As Aristotle said: “A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end” (c. 335 BC/2008, p. 10). To Aristotle (c. 335 BC/2008), a “whole” is a complete action, and a story is one whole action which includes a beginning, middle, and end (p. 10). However, he never specifically mentions anything about three acts, rather he identifies two “movements” (Tierno, 2002, p. 7). These acts are the complication and unraveling: “Every tragedy falls into two parts,—Complication and Unravelling or Denouement” (Aristotle, c. 335 BC/2008, p. 20). The Complication stretches from the beginning to the turning point that indicates good or bad fortune (Aristotle, c. 335 BC/2008, p. 20). He (c. 335 BC/2008) identifies the turning point as the “Reversal” (p. 20) and the “Recognition” (p. 20). The reversal is a moment that veers the story in the opposite direction (Aristotle, 335 BC/2008, p. 13). The recognition is “a change from ignorance into knowledge, leading to either friendship or enmity” (MacFarlane, 2000, p. 367). A reversal is an event that throws the story in another direction and the recognition is a revelation. Aristotle (c. 335 BC/2008) admits that multiple recognitions may occur within a story with some more trivial than others, but the most important recognition is intimately connected to the plot: “the Recognition of persons” (Aristotle, c. 335 BC/2008, p. 13). Stories may contain a reversal, a recognition, or both (Aristotle, c. 335 BC/2008, p. 12). The best stories will have the reversal and recognition scenes coincide (Tierno, 2007, pp. 41-42). Reversals and recognitions mark the turning point from good to bad (or the reverse), from act one to two, complication to unraveling. Neither reversal nor recognition are considered acts: Aristotle (c. 335 BC/2008) merely calls them scenes (p. 9). The unraveling extends from the turning point to the end of the story (Aristotle, c. 335 BC/2008, p. 20). Aristotle (c. 335 BC/2008) does not elaborate much on the unraveling, simply noting that it should be brought about from the plot itself, not a “Deus Ex Machina” (p. 17). Encyclopaedia Britannica (1998) defines the Deus Ex Machina as: “[A] person or thing that appears or is introduced into a situation suddenly and unexpectedly and provides an artificial or contrived solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty.” From this perspective, the unraveling or denouement must derive from the plot itself, not an unexpected external solution. Aristotle’s conception of story structure is imprecise, only being composed of two major movements and a story beat dividing them (Tierno, 2002, p.7).
Playwright and novelist, Gustav Freytag (1900) popularized the five-act structure with his famous pyramid structure (Bunting, n.d.), a tighter approach to story structures. It is not known who came up with the five-act structure, but it existed since Ancient Greece (Ray, n.d.). His theory goes as follows: “the first [act] contains the introduction; the second, the rising action; the third, the climax; the fourth, the return; the fifth, the catastrophe” (Freytag, 1900 p. 195). It should be noted that Freytag focused on the genre of tragedy, which is why the final act is titled “catastrophe.” Similarly to Aristotle, Freytag (1900) conceived structure in two main parts (p. 114). However, he separates these parts into clear acts, an exercise which Aristotle omitted. This division is characterized by the rising action and falling action or return (Freytag, 1900, p. 115). This idea of rise and fall symbolizes a pyramidal structure (Freytag, 1900, pp. 114-115) as shown in figure 1.
The first act, the introduction, generally contains the prologue and the exposition, although that may vary from one story to the other. First acts always contain the beginning of the rising action and it is a concrete rule (Freytag, 1900, pp. 196-197). The second act is the rising action, also called the “ascent” by Freytag (1900, p. 198). It is the first side of the pyramid, leading the tension upwards. The action reaches its highest point at the climax. Generally in the middle of the story and consisting of only one scene, the climax is: “the dark before dawn, the top of the mountain, an epiphany, or a great act of courage—the moment the story’s conflict peaks” (Turner, 2021). From this dramatic peak, the action falls. Freytag (1900) adds that this descent is the most difficult part of the drama as suspense must now come from new sources (p. 133). The climax benefitted from all the tension built up during the rising action, leaving act three dry of any tension. The author offered little information as to how the falling action worked. Rather, he describes the falling action as “Fate wins control over the hero; his battles move toward a momentous close, which affects his whole life” (Freytag, 1900, p. 134). Once again, the author’s focus on tragedy influences the structure, fate being the hero’s downfall. Even if fate were to be interpreted from a different point of view, the idea that the hero needs to fall opposes Aristotle's conception of structure where the hero could rise during the second half of the story (Aristotle, c. 335 BC/2008, p. 13). Aristotle (c. 335 BC/2008) clearly stated that the reversal changes the direction of the story from good or bad fortune to the opposite (p. 13), meaning that both structure theories only align when the story starts from good fortune and falls to bad. Nonetheless, the story continues with the final act: "[The] [c]atastrophe takes place when the character is finally brought to their lowest point [...] a character could die, be financially ruined, or lose everyone’s respect" (Reedsy, 2020). In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (c. 429 BC), it is when the protagonist, Oedipus, finds out he murdered his father and had children with his mother. Jocasta, Oedipus’s mother, commits suicide, and he gouges his eyes out. In Antigone (c. 441 BC), also by Sophocles, Antigone, the main character, is buried alive in addition to her fiancé and mother-in-law committing suicide. The author summarizes the pyramid: “With this conception of the idea, the rising half of the action must show a progressive infatuation of the hero, to the climax [...] then comes a part [...] where the action hovers about the same height; finally in a mad plunge, failure and destruction” (Freytag, 1900, p. 203). Despite Freytag’s obsession for tragedies, this five-act structure is still popular today. Today’s conception of the pyramid uses the word “resolution” instead of “catastrophe” for the final act since it applies to more stories (Turner, 2021). The idea of building tension before releasing it at the climax, leading to a resolution is more universal. More modern theorists advocate for a later climax, Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey (2007) is one of them.
A significantly more precise study of story structure was undertaken by the Soviet scholar Vladimir Propp in 1928 with his book Morphology of the Folktale. Propp’s (1928/1968) research covers 100 tales, claiming that it is more than enough as no new discoveries could be made past that point (p. 23). The research led to the discovery of a full 31 functions, although Propp (1928/1968) himself believes that number to be quite low: “Only some 31 functions may be noted. The action of all tales included in our material develops within the limits of these functions” (p. 64). The functions are defined by what the characters do (Propp, 1928/1968, p. xxi). Propp uses the term “dramatis personae” which are the characters of a story (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). This new conception of structure is based around the characters, an idea that remains today: “structure is character; character is structure.” (McKee, 1997, p. 101). An essential distinction must be made between Propp’s (1928/1968) dramatis personae and the contemporary understanding of the character in screenwriting. Dramatis personae refers to all characters in a story (Merriam-Webster, n.d.) while modern screenwriting prefers to structure around a protagonist (McKee, 1997, p. 101). Thus, secondary characters and antagonists have their own functions in Morphology of the Folktale (1928/1968). A function can be thought of as a story beat: “a moment that propels the story forward” (MasterClass, 2021). Propp himself does not provide a clear division of acts but does indicate the purpose of each function in a story. For instance, function number nine is “misfortune or lack is made known; the hero is approached with a request or command; he is allowed to go or he is dispatched” (Propp, 1928/1968, p. 36). Propp (1928/1968) identifies this function as the connective incident, the moment that brings the hero into the tale (p. 36). It would be natural to assume this is the beginning of act two. From Freytag’s (1900) point of view, if the hero is brought into the action, then the rising action has started, which is a new act (p. 198). Function nine has several variants to it, from simply “misfortune [...] is made known” to “[hero] is dispatched” (Propp, 1928/1968, p. 36). For example, in The Hunger Games film (2012), the protagonist, Katniss, volunteers as a tribute at around the 15-minute mark. The Hunger Games (2012) presents a dystopian society where the rich, referred to as the Capitol, force districts under its control to compete to the death in an event called the Hunger Games. The misfortune is Katniss volunteers in order to save her sister, Prim, from the death games. The action, however, has not yet started, act one is still ongoing. She is not dispatched until minute 20 when she boards the train heading to the Capitol and she doesn’t arrive there until minute 27. Propp’s (1928/1968) conception of the tale states that the hero is brought into the story at function nine (p. 36), yet Katniss’ misfortune and dispatch are at least five minutes apart, both of which are function nine. Function ten is “the seeker to or decides upon counteraction” (Propp, 1928, p. 38). This is where the hero agrees to go on the quest. In The Hunger Games (2012), however, Katniss agreed to the quest in the same scene as the misfortune at minute 15, making functions nine and ten one and the same. Furthermore, function eight may also apply in this scenario: “the villain causes harm or injury to a member of a family” (Propp, 1928/1968, p. 30). In The Hunger Games (2012), the villain is the Capitol who selects Katniss’ sister to compete in the games. Once again, this happens during the same scene at minute 15. The proliferation of similar functions is not a coincidence, but an intentional exercise in precision. Propp (1928/1968) did not advocate a single formula; rather he studied ways in which tales tell stories based on common functions: “The citation of examples should only illustrate and show the presence of the function as a certain generic unit” (p. 25). Therefore, several functions can follow each other in a single scene just as their order may vary greatly and some functions can be absent altogether. Unsurprisingly, the sheer number of functions combined with the number of variations makes for complex structures (figure 2). A general breakdown of Propp’s functions into spheres (Propp, 1928/1968, pp. 79-80) instead of acts works as follows: First, the introductory phase, from functions one to seven (Myers, 2014). Second, functions eight to 11, “Villainy and lack: the need is identified” to “Departure: hero leave on mission” (Myers, 2014). Third, in functions 12 to 19, “Testing: Hero is challenged to prove heroic qualities” to “Resolution: Initial lack or misfortune is resolved” (Myers, 2014). Fourth, functions 20 to 31, "Return: Hero sets out for home" to " Wedding: Hero marries and ascends the throne" (Myers, 2014). Most tales end by function 22 (Media Studies, n.d.). Propp (1928/1968) notes that there can sometimes be a second movement of villainy: adding more functions (p. 59). These functions are 23 to 31: “The hero, unrecognized, arrives home or in another country” to “The hero is married and ascends to the throne (Propp, 1928/1968, pp. 60-63). The Morphology of the Folktale is an impressive work of research in the field of structure, but it is highly specific to the folktale and fairly complex.
A more digestible approach to narrative structures comes with Vogler’s (1998) take on Joseph Campbell’s, professor of literature, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). With The Writer’s Journey (1998), Vogler (2007) attempted to make a writer’s guide based on Campbell's (1949) research (p.ix). This version of the structure is more universal than Propp’s (1928/1968) theory because "at heart, despite its infinite variety, the hero’s story is always a journey" (Vogler, 2007, p. 7). The new structure is explicitly set up around three acts: "Movies are often built in three acts, which can be regarded as representing 1) the hero’s decision to act, 2) the action itself, and 3) the consequences of the action" (Vogler, 2007, p. 13). Immediately, a parallel to Propp (1928/1968) can be made. Act one is the hero’s decision to act according to Vogler (2007, p. 13). For Propp (1928/1968), this decision was function ten (p. 38). At this point, the hero was already brought into the story by the previous function (Propp, 1928/1968, p. 36). Vogler brings two story beats (functions) that Propp (1928/1968) omitted: the call to adventure and the refusal of the call. The call to adventure is when "the hero is presented with a problem, challenge, or adventure to undertake" (Vogler, 2007, p. 10). In the Hunger Games (2012) example, this is when Prim gets selected for the games. Katniss decides to volunteer for her sister. This beat is followed by the refusal of the call. Naturally, Katniss can’t refuse the call since she already accepted the adventure. This beat does not need to be a refusal, but it is the hero’s reluctance to fully accept the quest (Vogler, 2007, p. 11). She says her goodbyes and reluctantly leaves her family (00:17:15). The next beat is the mentor: "The function of Mentors is to prepare the hero to face the unknown." (Vogler, 2007, p. 12). Not every story has a mentor, the preparation phase can be done by the protagonist during the refusal of the call, especially in cases where the call cannot be refused, such is the case for Hunger Games (2012). Nonetheless, Hunger Games (2012) does present a mentor in the form of Haymitch, a previous winner of the games. Traditionally, mentors are meant to help the hero prepare for the unknown. Technically, Haymitch does accomplish this function by revealing what is truly in store for Katniss: ‘embrace the probability of your imminent death’ (00:23:13). Instead of helping Katniss prepare for the games, he reveals that it is already a lost cause.
Next is crossing the first threshold. The moment when the hero fully commits to the adventure and the story takes off is the crossing of the first threshold (Vogler, 2007, p.12). This is the turning point that brings act one to act two (Vogler, 2007, p. 13). In Hunger Games (2012), it is the moment when Katniss enters the Capitol at around the 27-minute mark. In the first half of act two, the protagonist learns about the rules of the new world they entered (Vogler, 2007, p. 19). They face challenges and make allies and enemies (Vogler, 2007, p. 13). In Freytag’s (1900) pyramid, this would be the bulk of the rising action. Here Katniss meets new characters, makes friends and enemies, develops her relationships with Peeta and Haymitch and learns how the Capitol works (00:28:00 - 01:04:00). Freytag (1900) qualifies the next beat as the climax, but for Vogler (2007), it is the approach to the inmost cave (p. 14). The inmost cave is: "the edge of a dangerous place, sometimes deep underground, where the object of the quest is hidden." (Vogler, 2007, p. 14). For stories with an object as a quest, Vogler’s (2007, p. 14) explanation is straightforward. Many stories can’t relate to this definition, Hunger Games (2012) is one example. Aristotle (c. 335 BC/2008) describes this moment as the reversal and/or the recognition (p. 20). In Hunger Games (2012), this moment is when the games start. That is not exactly a recognition or revelation, Katniss has explicitly been preparing for them, and she knows how dangerous they are. In truth, it is a reversal. Not exactly a complete 180 where the story veers directly to its opposite, rather it is a change in direction. The game starting was an expected event in the story. The change is much closer to the character herself. Katniss goes from preparing and training for the games, maximizing her odds of survival, to actually fighting for her life, which is an example of preparation towards survival. It is not exactly a reversal in the Aristotelian (c. 335/2008, p. 13) sense, but it works in the same way. The inmost cave beat is approximately at the halfway mark of the story (Vogler, 2007, p. 8). Pushing further into act two, an event pulls the protagonist to rock bottom: the ordeal (Vogler, 2007, pp. 14-15). In Hunger Games (2012), this is the moment that Katniss’ new friend, Rue, dies, 95 minutes in. Rue’s passing has two purposes. The first is a reminder that death is always looming close by in the games. The second is latent. It is a reminder that Peeta is alive and an ally. Katniss knows that he is alive, but as far as she is concerned, everyone is an enemy. This changes with the next beat, reward (seizing the sword) (Vogler, 2007, p. 16). In this case, the reward is Peeta himself as an announcer says that there can now be two victors if they are from the same district (01:42:00). The latent purpose of Rue’s death activates as Katniss now has a shot of saving someone. She manages to save Peeta, and they head straight to act three: the road back (Vogler, 2007, p. 17). Again, this beat works well for quests that involve an object. Once the hero has seized the reward, they head home, pursued by the forces disturbed (Vogler, 2007, p. 17). In Hunger Games (2012), Katniss and Peeta take on beasts spawned by the Capitol and an old enemy (01:58:00). These antagonists are not exactly the forces disturbed by the reward. Instead, this beat works as a final confrontation, where the hero prevails—or fails—against the antagonist. This brings the characters to the resurrection, as explained by Vogler (2007):
Death and darkness get in one last, desperate shot before being finally defeated. It’s a kind of final exam for the hero, who must be tested once more to see if he has really learned the lessons of the Ordeal. (p. 17).
For Katniss, this is the moment when the Capitol withdraws the ‘two victors’ rule, forcing her to fight Peeta. Tested one last time, the characters decide to eat poisoned berries, killing both of them in open defiance of The Capitol, who needs a victor (02:03:30). Finally, when the dust settles, the hero returns to their ordinary world (Vogler, 2007, p. 18). They do not return empty-handed, however. They return with an elixir, treasure, or a lesson (Vogler, 2007, p. 18). In the case of Hunger Games (2012), Katniss returns with proof that the Capitol can be beaten and freedom can be earned.
In conclusion, the three-act structure did not clearly find its form until recently. In fact, the story structure started with Aristotle’s (c. 335 BC/2008) simple two-act structure. Freytag (1900) later popularized the five-act structure, a more precise theory than Aristotle’s (c. 335 BC/2008). Even more precise, is Propp’s (1928/1968) analysis of the folktale. Although Propp’s (1928/1968) extensive work shed much-needed light on tales, its complex form is too convoluted to use efficiently in the process of storytelling. Morphology of the Folktale is not a ‘how-to’ guide, but a study (Propp, 1928/1968, p.xxv). Vogler (2007) offered a much more friendly approach to writers discovering story structures by adapting Campbell's (1949) previous work. With digestible beats separated into three acts, The Writer’s Journey (2007) is much closer to the current understanding of the storytelling structure and why it is so prevalent in Hollywood today that studios can include a comprehensive three-act structure in contract stipulations (Field, 2005, p. 22). Regardless of which structure is best suited for which story, the only truth is found within the idea of beginning, middle and end (Field, 2005, p. 22). Although even that conception is contested. It is best for a writer to write the story they want to tell.
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Cover image: Classical Wisdom. (2018). Was Ancient Greek Theater Only for Men? https://classicalwisdom.com/culture/theater/ancient-greek-theater-men/
Figure 1: Wikimedia Commons. (2019).
Figure 2: Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). The Secret Histories of 'Catastrophe', 'Debacle', and More. https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/debacle-catastrophe-and-disaster-before-they-were-bad
Figure 3: Propp, V. (1968). Morphology of the Folktale (2nd ed.). University of Texas Press. (Original work published in 1928).
Figure 4: Vogler, C. (2007). The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers (3rd. ed.). Michael Wiese Productions.
Figure 5: Lawrence, F. & G. Ross. (Directors). (2012). The Hunger Games [Still]. Color Force.