Solid plotting is critical to screenwriters. Movies are expected to deliver stories with the complexity and depth of a novel but in much less time. The average screenplay is 110 pages with lots of white on the page. That means we have to be very efficient. As a result, Hollywood has developed a “three act structure” concept of plotting.
But before I get into the three act structure, I want to discuss the foundation of narrative. This may seem a little basic at first, but there is a method to my madness. I want to show that the three act approach is not some Hollywood formula but grows out of the fundamental nature of storytelling.
So let me start by addressing the question: What is a story?
A story needs three things. First, we need a character. The character need not be human, but he or she must behave in recognizably human fashion — Mickey Mouse, for example. If you don’t have a character you may be writing a travel guide, op-ed essay, or a scientific treatise but you are not writing a story.
Next, the character must be facing some kind of dilemma. I don’t really care to hear about someone whose life is just fine. I mean, that’s great for them, but how does it affect me? Whatever it is that causes us to respond to made-up stories has something to do with watching how people deal with problems.
Finally, a story needs a resolution. I’m watching/listening/reading to find out how this character deals with their problem. I’m not going to be satisfied until I see how it all comes out.
If you have those three things, you have a story — even a thirty-second narrative commercial has them. A young man (character) is not getting good gas mileage (dilemma) so he tries a different type of gasoline and his mileage improves (resolution).
But simply having a character, dilemma, and resolution doesn’t necessarily make the story dramatic. If you have a guy sitting in his living room whose dilemma is that he’s hungry and he goes into the kitchen to make a sandwich you have a story…but not a very dramatic one.
There are two things that affect how dramatic your story is: stakes and obstacles. The more that’s at stake for the character and the greater the obstacles standing in the way of successfully resolving the dilemma, the more dramatic your story becomes. Of course “dramatic” isn’t quite the same as “good” but we’ll get to that.
Those five things — character, dilemma, resolution, stakes and obstacles — are the basis of three-act structure. In act one we introduce a character with a dilemma and show what’s at stake. In act two the character tries to resolve their dilemma but faces increasing obstacles. And in act three we get some kind of resolution (not necessarily successful, but final.)
Now let’s look at the components of three act structure. Probably the most important is the Dramatic Question. If you understand nothing else but the Dramatic Question and the Moment of Failure (which I’ll get to in a bit) you’ll probably end up with a fairly well structured story.
What the Dramatic Question Is
The Dramatic Question is the structural spine of your story. On some level all Dramatic Questions can be boiled down to “Will the character solve their dilemma?” Of course that’s not very helpful to the writer trying to crack a particular story. You need to ask that question with the specifics of your character and dilemma.
So in Star Wars (written by George Lucas) the question is “Will Luke Skywalker defeat Darth Vadar?” In E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (written by Melissa Mathison) it’s “Can Elliot save E.T.?” In Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) it’s “Will Olive win the beauty pageant?”
Those sound simple, right? Simpler is better when it comes to the Dramatic Question. But it’s not always easy to be simple. You have to know who your character is and what their dilemma is before you can craft a nice simple Dramatic Question. But then if you haven’t figured out your character and their dilemma, you’re not really ready to start writing yet anyway!
I also think it’s good to phrase the Dramatic Question as a yes or no question. So it’s not “Who will Susan marry?” it’s “Will Susan marry Bill?” Keeping it yes/no helps you tightly focus your narrative.
What the Dramatic Question Is Not
The Dramatic Question is not the theme of your movie. It’s not the hook. It’s not necessarily the character arc (sometimes it is, but not usually.) It doesn’t define whether your story is sophisticated or facile.
Do not think the Dramatic Question determines the quality of your story. It’s simply the spine on which you’re going to build your story. What you hang on that spine is going to determine how good your script is. Just because a person doesn’t collapse under the weight of their own body doesn’t mean they’re beautiful, intelligent, interesting, or emotionally complex. However, if your spine isn’t solid, none of the other stuff is going to work properly either.
How to use the Dramatic Question in your story
The Dramatic Question is an unspoken agreement with the audience. It tells them what the scope and shape of the story is going to be. They need to know what the question is fairly early in the proceedings or you will lose them. If too much time passes before they understand the Dramatic Question they’re liable to walk out of the theater or turn the DVD off or put down your script. They’ll say something like, “I couldn’t figure out what the movie was about.”
The moment when the Dramatic Question becomes clear is called the Catalyst. The Catalyst is where the audience understands who the main character is and what their basic dilemma is. They may not understand the entire dimension of the problem, but they have an idea what the story arc will be about.
So in E.T. the catalyst is when Elliot sees E.T. for the first time. We don’t yet know that his mission will ultimately be to get E.T. home or even that first he’ll have to hide E.T. And we don’t know that E.T. will start dying from the Earth environment. But we know that this kid who nobody takes seriously just found a little lost alien — and that some scary men are looking for it. We have a character with a dilemma.
Similarly, when the audience knows the outcome of the Dramatic Question, your story is over. The audience will stick with you for a few minutes of wrap up, but if you go on too long after resolving the dramatic question, they’re going to get restless. They’ll say things like, “it was anti-climactic” or “it had too many endings.”
Once E.T. takes off in his space ship, the movie ends. Credits roll. The story is over. Compare that to the Lord of the Rings trilogy (screenplay by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson). The Dramatic Question is “Can Frodo destroy the ring?” He does, but then the movie continues for another forty minutes or so. Kind of got tedious didn’t it? The story was over. We wanted to go home.
The structural beat where you answer the Dramatic Question is called the Resolution.
There’s one other critical structural concept you need to understand. That is the moment of apparent failure (or success). Whatever the Resolution to your Dramatic Question is, there needs to be a moment where the opposite appears to be inevitable. If your character succeeds at the end, you need a moment where it appears the character must fail. And if your character fails at the end, you need a moment where they appear about to succeed.
This moment should come late in the story as the tension is building toward the climax. We need it so the audience can’t predict how the movie’s going to unfold. We may know that in a big Hollywood movie the hero will beat the bad guy and get the girl, but we shouldn’t be able to figure out how they’ll accomplish that. In screenwriting, we call this moment of apparent failure/success the Act Two Break.
Breaking Your Story into Three Acts
Now let’s discuss how you apply the three act structure to your story. It might be useful if I first point out that there are no actual act breaks in a movie. A movie is a continuous experience. In a play there often are act breaks — the curtain comes down, the lights come up and the audience goes out to the lobby for a drink. In TV there are act breaks that are filled by commercials. But in feature films there are no actual breaks in the narrative.
Instead, when we say “act break,” we’re talking about a literary concept. We use act breaks to discuss critical turning points in the story. Since this is a literary concept it can be subjective. You and I might disagree on the act breaks in a given story. There’s no way to tell who’s right and who’s wrong. As a writer you identify the act breaks in the way that is most useful to you in telling your story.
So, we have our Dramatic Question that is introduced in the Catalyst and answered in the Resolution. Typically, the Catalyst comes around page ten of your screenplay. The Resolution should probably come in the last six to eight pages. That leaves a lot of pages in between. We could use some structural landmarks to help us out.
As I said earlier, the first act is the section of your story where you introduce your character, their dilemma, and what’s at stake. This typically takes up the first fourth of your screenplay. Sometime around page twenty-five or thirty there will be an act break — The First Act Break. This is the point at which your character embarks on the journey of the movie, sometimes known as the “point of no return.”
The second act takes up roughly the middle half of your screenplay. This is where the character tries to solve their problem but faces escalating obstacles and, ideally, escalating stakes. It ends at the Second Act Break, which I’ve already mentioned is the point of apparent success or failure.
The third act, then, takes up roughly the last quarter of your screenplay. It provides the climactic resolution to your story.
So now let’s look at the major signposts of the three act structure in order, adding a few other beats to help keep things moving:
Generally you want to spend a little time showing the character in their status quo before introducing the catalyst of the story. We need to get to know who the character is so we can understand how the story changes them.
For example, in E.T. we see Elliot at home. His parents are divorced and his father has moved out. His older brother and his friends are playing a game. Elliot wants to play, but they won’t let him. And when he claims something strange is out in the shed, nobody takes him seriously. He’s longing to fit in but ignored.
It’s usually best if you show the most interesting part of your character’s status quo, not the most boring. We meet Indiana Jones escaping traps, traitorous assistants and angry tribesmen — not doing his laundry! This is why it’s usually not a good idea to open your movie with your character waking up in the morning — that’s seldom the most interesting part of someone’s day.
The Catalyst is the point at which the main character and their dilemma are made clear to the audience. It’s when the Dramatic Question gets asked. So in Little Miss Sunshine the catalyst is when we learn that Olive has gotten into the pageant, but it’s in Los Angeles in a couple days. Now interestingly, the main character of this movie is the father, Richard. He’s the one whose decisions are driving the action. But the Dramatic Question centers on Olive: Will she win the pageant? In this case Richard’s goal is to help his daughter be a winner.
In Star Wars, the catalyst is when Luke Skywalker sees R2D2 project the hologram of Princess Leia and decides he wants to help her. The audience knows that Leia is being held by Darth Vadar and that Vadar is looking for R2D2. The Dramatic Question becomes, “Will Luke beat Darth Vadar?” Note that Luke doesn’t even know about Vadar yet and that the audience doesn’t know the Death Star will eventually come to threaten the rebel base. We don’t need all these details, we simply need to understand what the core of the story is going to be about. We know Luke has a dilemma even if he doesn’t!
Act One Break
The Act One Break is the point at which the character actually embarks on the journey of the story. It’s sometimes known as the “point of no return.” I think that’s a good way to look at it — from here on out the character has no choice but to see this through to the end. If the character can walk away from the story without losing anything there isn’t much tension. At the Act One Break you have to trap them in the story.
The Act One Break in Little Miss Sunshine is when the family sets out on their road trip to California. In Star Wars the Act One Break is when Luke goes with Obi Wan to Mos Eisley to find a pilot to take them into space. The Act One Break in E.T. is when Elliot first feels E.T.’s feelings when E.T. is scared by an umbrella. At that point E.T. and Elliot are linked. If Elliot doesn’t help the little alien, there are going to be serious consequences for him.
In all these cases, if the character walks away from the story after this point they will fail in their goal and suffer for it. They are locked in.
As you might expect, the Midpoint is a beat that occurs in the middle of the movie, which also makes it the middle of Act Two. The concept of the Midpoint is fairly straightforward, though its use and purpose can vary a lot. I know several successful screenwriters who don’t give any thought to the midpoint and I’ve seen movies that don’t have a traditional midpoint. It doesn’t really seem to be a required beat. But it can be a valuable milestone to help us keep things moving. If used well, it can be the tent pole that supports Act Two.
Traditionally the Midpoint mirrors the Resolution and is opposite to the Act Two Break. If your character is going to succeed at their goal in the Resolution, then the Midpoint should be a moment of success and the Act Two Break will be a moment of failure. If the character will fail in the Resolution, then the Midpoint will be a moment of failure and the Act Two Break a moment of success. In this way we’ll have a story that has dramatic peaks and valleys.
So in Star Wars, the midpoint is Luke rescuing Princess Leia from the prison cell. It’s a moment of success in a movie where ultimately Luke will succeed in defeating Darth Vadar.
In Little Miss Sunshine Olive actually fails to win the pageant at the resolution. Though the movie has a “happy” ending emotionally, in terms of the Dramatic Question Richard is ultimately unsuccessful. The Act Two Break is when the family finally arrives at the pageant and Richard manages to get registered in the nick of time — a moment of success. The Midpoint, then, is when Grandpa dies, a big setback that mirrors the resolution.
The Midpoint often twists the story in a new direction or adds a new element. It’s also a good place to raise the stakes. In E.T. the Midpoint is when E.T. figures out his plan to “phone home,” but it’s also the point when they first realize E.T. and Eliot are getting sick. So we both add a new element — the plan — and increase the consequences of failure.
The Act Two Break
The Act Two Break is one of the most critical beats of your story. It’s often referred to as the “lowest moment,” though I don’t like that because I think it’s misleading. Seldom do I see a successful story where things start getting better right after the Act Two Break. I think “moment of greatest failure” is a better description. It’s also sometimes called the “all is lost” moment, which is pretty good. The point is that this is when it looks like your character is doomed to fail. The Act Two Break in E.T. is E.T. apparently dying and the breaking of the psychic link with Elliot.
That assumes, of course, that ultimately your character will succeed. Some stories, like Little Miss Sunshine, end with the character failing in their goal, and in this case you have to reverse the Act Two Break. It becomes the moment of greatest success. Gangster movies often work this way — the gangster seizes control of the gang at the end of Act Two and looks like he’ll be unstoppable. But by the end he’ll be lying dead in the street, riddled with bullets.
Why is this so important? Because the ending won’t be satisfying unless it’s hard to achieve. And you don’t want your movie to feel completely predictable. This is the point where the audience needs to think, “Boy, I know the hero must be going to beat the bad guy and get the girl (this is a movie, after all), but I sure don’t know how he’s going to do it. It seems hopeless.”
Hope and fear come into play here. What is the audience rooting for? Do they want the character to succeed or fail? (Both are possibilities depending on your premise.) This is the moment where you make them think the opposite might actually happen. Or in a tragedy you make them think they might get the ending they want, only to snatch it away from them. Romeo and Juliet hatch a plan to run away together… maybe it will all work out after all….
The Act Two Break in Star Wars is when our heroes escape the Death Star in the Millennium Falcon… but we learn that Darth Vadar has put a tracking device on their ship. It’s their biggest failure because they’re going to lead the bad guys right to the rebel base.
When the character has really hit rock bottom (or the height of their success), that’s when the Epiphany comes. This is the twist that shows us how the character is going to succeed (or fail) after all. In Star Wars the Epiphany is the briefing scene when the general explains the weakness in the Death Star. Luke now knows how he can beat Darth Vader. Most often the character themselves has the realization, but sometimes the character has already figured it out and it’s the audience who’s let in on the secret.
It’s important here that you avoid the Deus Ex Machina ending. This is an ending where some outside force saves the day for the character. The term comes from Aristotle and means literally “God in the Machine,” referring to those ancient plays where an actor playing Zeus would be lowered in a basket to sort everything out for the characters. A more modern equivalent would be the cavalry to the rescue in a western. Endings where the character succeeds by pure luck also fall into this category.
To avoid this, the Epiphany must be set up. Whatever realization the character has must be planted, usually around the midpoint. We know Princess Leia has put something into R2D2. Luke has rescued Leia and brought her and the ’droid back to the rebels. When it is revealed that the robot contains the Death Star plans and that these reveal a weakness, it feels organic because the elements have been planted and Luke was critical to bringing them together. But the audience was kept in the dark just enough so that they didn’t know how this twist would come about.
In Little Miss Sunshine, the epiphany is when Richard realizes he loves Olive more than he cares about winning. He wants to stop her from competing in the pageant for fear she’ll be humiliated. He hasn’t quite figured out how he’s going to succeed (Olive does compete) but he’s had the key realization he needs for the Resolution.
In E.T., the epiphany is when Elliot realizes E.T. isn’t actually dead and they’ve succeeded in contacting his people after all. This may seem a bit convenient, but notice that Elliot is far from done here. He now has to get E.T. out of the heavily guarded house and to the landing site. He knows how to succeed, but he still has to do it.
The Resolution is the climax of the movie. It should be big and exciting and emotional. It is also the moment when the Dramatic Question is answered either positively or negatively. Thus, it is what we’ve been waiting for since the Catalyst.
In addition to making this a big moment, it is crucial that you make it a final moment. The Dramatic Question must be answered definitively. If our hero can just go out and try again, then we don’t feel like the question is resolved. The Resolution must be the last chance for success or failure. If Luke can’t destroy the Death Star, then the rebellion will be crushed. It’s not just another battle; it’s the climactic battle.
The resolution is usually pretty obvious. Luke destroys the Death Star. E.T. gets to the spaceship. In Little Miss Sunshine, Richard gets up onstage with Olive and dances with her in support, and in defiance of the pageant people who want Olive off the stage. Olive may lose the pageant, answering the Dramatic Question in the negative, but the previously dysfunctional family has come together.
These are the structural stages Hollywood screenwriters use to build well-plotted scripts. Of course, a well-structured script isn’t the same as a good script. You still have to write the actual characters and scenes. But if you have a strong plot, then you have a solid foundation that will allow you to tell a truly great story.
Douglas J. Eboch wrote the original script for the movie Sweet Home Alabama. He teaches at Art Center College of Design and lectures internationally. He writes a blog about screenwriting where he shares techniques like the ones in this article. Check out his other projects, including his Sweet Home Alabama prequel novels and his novel Totally Rad Wormhole here.