The Basics On... Structure

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"The Basics On..." investigate one aspect of screenwriting in depth. This entry is about structure, one of the most crucial elements of a screenplay and the key to crafting a commercially viable script.

Films are structured into three acts, a concept which dates back to Aristotle. Here is each act in brief:

The First Act

The first act is the set-up. The setting is established, the characters are introduced, and the audience gets a feel for the world and how the world might change. I’m going to use "Wall-E" as an example, because I’m literally looking at a toy Wall-E on my bookshelf as I write this (I’m obsessed). The first act of “Wall–E” introduces both the future world and Wall-E himself, who enjoys life but is a little lonely. It sets up a character arch: Wall-E has a desire for love.

The first act is typically the first twenty minutes of the film, until the Inciting Incident. This is when something changes to make the hero take action. In Wall-E, it’s the arrival of Eve, a smokin-hot robot sent to look for plant life on earth. Wall-E takes action to woo her.

The Second Act

The second act is the bulk of the movie, and the most important part of the film, yet oftentimes the hardest to write. It fulfills the premise, which means that whatever the first act promises (Wall-E will do anything to gain Eve’s love) will play out to delight the audience. It often includes a Midpoint Shift, when the movie changes tone or direction halfway through. In Wall-E, it’s when Wall-E hitches a ride to the space station and discovers what’s left of the human race. The second act ends with a Crisis, in which the hero is at his lowest point and he cannot possibly achieve his goal (Wall-E is about to be crushed in the trash chute). The second act is about an hour, depending on the length of the film.

The Third Act

The third act contains the main point of rising action- the Climax. The hero must face his main obstacle and, more often than not, comes out on top. Following the Climax is the Resolution, when any loose ends are tied up. So, Wall–E gets the ship turned back to earth, wins Eve’s heart, and is reunited with his pet cockroach. The third act is about 20 or 30 minutes.

Because the three act structure has been used since the dawn of drama, audiences can get bored or confused if the structure is tampered with (although they won’t know that - they’ll think they’re just watching a bad movie).  It’s important for budding screenwriters to study structure and practice using it, so they can later manipulate it to suit their artistic vision.