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The Four Act Structure in Film and TV

The Problem with the Three-Act Structure

Writing a script is a bit like a helter-skelter ride. All bumps and twists and no end to the dizziness.

Probably the most problematic part of any script is its structure, and more specifically, the three-act structure. Here we’ve got the second act, the murky midpoint where the writer’s expected to jam everything important–your conflict, climax and resolution–between page 30 and page 90. You can see the problem.

Act one is managed into a relatively easy 30 pages, ditto the third act. It’s the second act that can get tedious. If you’ve written a script using the third-act structure before, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Structure is heavy. You need those healthy intermissions every thirty pages.

Kristin Thompson, author of Storytelling in the New Hollywood, found severe flaws within the three-act structure definition, claiming that the three-act structure has a negative effect on films, as it’s more based on page numbers than dramatic logic.

This is what she says about the four-act structure: “A great many of these films — indeed, I would contend, the bulk of them — break perspicuously into four large-scale parts, with major turning points usually providing the transitions.”

What she believes is that the third act structure fails to explain how the bulk of Hollywood’s films are put together. Instead the four-act structure helps put everything into perspective.  She breaks it down into the setup, the complicating action, the development, and the climax.

The second act therefore, is divided into manageable, bite-sized portions, that can help you, as a writer, get through this murky wasteland.

The Benefits

There are major benefits to writing according to the four-act structure.  Number one, you get to really focus your second act on what’s important: the hero-flaw confrontation. This means your protagonist confronts his or her major flaw, which will then allow him or her to face their antagonist (and this flaw) in the third act. This gives room to make the final flaw or failure to overcome all that more powerful in the later act, because we’ve focused on the protagonist’s inner struggles beforehand. Using the three-act structure, you might have skimmed over this detail because you were too busy confronting the second half of act two, which, let’s face it, when squished together, is thoroughly confusing.

 

1. Set up

The set up (page 1-30) establishes the initial set up, introducing our character, their flaw, the antagonist and paves the way for the life-changing circumstances (the inciting incident) at the end of it. Much like the three act structure, the four act structure starts off pretty much the same in terms of initial action sequence, making use of the Typical Day in the Life of the character. This follows the daily routine of the main character, right up until the inciting incident disrupts life as they know it.

2. Complicating Action

The second act (30-60) then has to deal with the second set up, the life-changing scenario, the hero reacting to the inciting incident and seeking out the way in which they will eventually overcome this flaw of theirs (having already been established in the first act), the hero-flaw confrontation. Act two covers overcoming the problem presented by the inciting incident and this act will then end on imminent doom, as the character fails to overcome the antagonist/source of evil, ending on a cliff-hanger, with the major crisis revealed.

The Midpoint

One of the interesting components of Thompson’s four act structure is that she found there was a midpoint in films where act two and act three meet that often manifests itself in a particular scene. She argues that these sequences have a major turn where less effective films tend to sag, and this turning point effectively breaks Syd Field’s long-winded act two into two separate portions. This major turn (near the halfway point) takes the story into a new direction, a shift, and is based on the protagonist’s goal.

What does this mean? Basically, the character’s goal might be achieved and replaced with another, or the protagonist realises he/she needs a change of tactics to reach said goal and puts them into motion, introducing a whole new scenario.

This scene is not only the turning point of the story but where the goal of the protagonist or theme is articulated–here the scene portrays the film’s overall theme, or purpose, which can often go against the protagonist’s actual goal later on. The midpoint’s goal reflects the final act’s moral lesson. A character’s goal of revenge for example, might be thwarted by this same character’s realisation that something else much more important is at stake. But the point is, the midpoint needs to happen so that the audience can understand the character’s goal, it’s a breather, a pause where this is somehow outlined.

3. Development

The third act (60-90) will then see your protagonist fully accepting the flaw and working to overcome it alongside the allies. The development stage portray the obstacles and delays used as tools to further your character, action, plot, etc.

They have to accept the fact that their plan was shot to pieces, but there must be a new approach they then put it into action. Your hero will be ready to face the upcoming battle. This leads up to the climactic event at the end where your character will (or won’t) defeat their antagonist, but now your character has gone through a fully developed life-changing character arc; they are not the same person they were at the beginning of the script, having accepted their flaw and are ready to face the battle. But all hope is lost, or is it?

4. Climax

The fourth act (90-120) will then of course, cover the final battle, see your hero face the antagonist, and witness their victory or loss. Act four mostly covers the resolution and the final scene, so that your story can wrap up any loose ends, ending on a high note.

To put into visual terms, Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky is a very good example of a successful four-act structure. The first act introduces us to Rocky and his self-doubts, and the inciting incident, how Rocky has the chance to compete in the heavyweight championship. The second is Rocky reacting to the inciting incident. He’s training but he’s weighed down by his self-doubt, his major “antagonist”. In the third act, Rocky comes to accept his flaw and works hard against it, so that finally in the fourth act, he’s ready to overcome it and battles, literally, in the ring for victory.

The middle section of a script is a bit like a wasteland, and if you just try writing your script according to the four-act structure, you might find it a lot easier to navigate through the swampy, boggy bits. Also, in the middle you’ll be able to pause and concentrate on the heart of your story, focusing on what your story is about, your main theme. Using the four-act structure doesn’t mean adding any extra acts, you’d simply be splitting the second act down the middle, dividing it into two thirty-page chunks.

TV

In TV series, scripts depend on the four-act structure. Pick any and you’ll see this division is mostly noticeable thanks to the way the programme is separated by the advertisements, or commercial breaks. With hour-long episodes, there’s an ad every 15 minutes or so, breaking the episode into four perfectly even-timed chunks. You’ll be doing the same thing with your script. Buffy, Lost, House of Cards, they all run according to the four-act structure, so even if it’s just for peace of mind, to give you that little extra push as a writer, it’s well worth considering.

The Third Act: The Grand Finale

So, you’ve reached the end. It’s time for your protagonist to give us their last sweeping wave before the curtain falls and the lights come back on.

Hopefully you’re planning on going out with a bang, but before you dust off your hands completely, there are a few things you should know.

What goes inside the third act?

The Resolution Stage

Final Confrontation: Victory or Defeat

Based on the resolution section of the script, this act is usually the shortest (between 20 and 30 pages) it’s the final twist or metaphorical battle, and then the return to home or normality (though life for the main character will never be the same again–definition of a successful character arc).

This is what Snyder would call the Break Into Three. It’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for. Here your story will reach its final twist, the moment everyone’s been waiting for since you unleashed the inciting incident. It’s the climax of the story, the final battle. Your character has been pursuing a goal throughout the entire second act, and now they’ll either get it, or they’ll change the goal to coordinate better with the theme, i.e. the moral lesson they’ve learnt. If you ended the second act on a low point, now it’s time for your character to get back off the ground and re-group.

During the final confrontation, the main character is forced to reexamine their beliefs. They will put everything she or he has learnt over the course of the film to good use to defeat the antagonist, always incorporating and exposing the nugget of truth, the film’s overall theme. In the Hunger Games, Katniss stops obeying the game’s rules, and starts to fight back herself, using what politics she’s learnt during the first and second act. Instead of murdering Peeta, she tricks the capitol into thinking they’d rather kill themselves by eating poisonous berries, when in fact it’s a survival tactic.

Character Arc in the Third Act

Another determining factor of the third act is the character, unlike in the second act where they’re surrounded by other characters, will mostly work alone (in the absence of their mentor) against the antagonist. In the Silence of the Lambs, Clarice has to stop Buffalo Bill by herself, because the police have gone to the wrong place and Hannibal, her “mentor” didn’t hang about long to help her.

Basically, your audience has witnessed your character go through hell and back, and now they’re waiting for the reassurance that it wasn’t all for nothing, that your character has beaten the odds and grown because of it, developed in some positive way.

Normally, this character arc is represented through a mirror effect. For example, if the character’s flaw in the beginning was to lie or connive, in the third act the character will do exactly the opposite of his/her previous nature.

Denouement (the Afterward)

The resolution at the very end will give us a glimpse of the new status quo, or the state of your protagonist’s life after all has been said and done. In the Hunger Games, the ending isn’t Katniss and Peeta defying the capitol with the berries, it’s Katniss and Peeta back in District 12 as the crowning victors, hinting at the change in Katniss as she struggles to familiarize herself with her surroundings.

This–very short–section ties up any of the film’s loose ends and answers lingering questions about the plotline.

It’s Blake Snyder’s final image. It’s what he calls the opposite of the opening image, the final shot that demonstrates the absolute mirror change that has occurred. In Pride and Prejudice, the opening image has Lizzie walking through the grounds of her father’s cottage, alone with her head stuck in a book. One of the final images of this film sees her walking at dawn, still alone, but then Darcy comes striding out the mist towards her. She’s no longer alone, and more than that, she’s completely changed since the opening. She’s less proud and quick to judge.

Script to Screen

Scripts which transition into films will most certainly go through test screenings to gauge the audience reaction so that producers can decide whether or not they’ll be a box office hit. Third acts and character arcs are often changed as a result of a negative test screening.  

In Blade Runner, Ridley Scott was pressured to change Ford’s Character into a more ironic, upbeat version than his original, darker self. This eventually affected the ending, in which the original dark ending was changed into a more upbeat one to reflect Ford’s character. Instead of dooming the entire human race, the ending scene touches on a hopeful ending in the sunshine.

In Pretty in Pink, according to the original script, Andie’s character arc saw her develop feelings for Duckie, whose own unrequited love for her form the emotional bulk of the film. But when tested on audiences, this romantic development wasn’t at all favoured, and so Blane and Andie end up together. Receiving mixed reviews, some thought this made Andie’s character slightly more realistic and less fickle, because she continues to like the same character she did in the beginning, and still appreciates Duckie’s relationship.

Hancock was originally a script entitled, Tonight, he comes, and Hancock’s character was much darker, dabbling between alcoholism and depression. The end result, produced nearly a decade after the script was written, became a much lighter, quirkier version than its predecessor, all for story purpose.