You can compose an interesting text for a presentation, blog, magazine in many ways, including without any system, but it is not a fact that the expected effect of reader involvement will be achieved. The three-act structure is a universal and widespread device for revealing the plot; it can be traced in most classical dramatic works. This is the backbone of any story, a certain scheme that helps build the plot and make it fascinating from the very beginning to the end.
It is interesting that the three-act structure is used by the authors not intentionally, but intuitively. It is logical and obvious. Why, then, to understand it, if everything is so simple? – such a question may arise. It is useful to know about the system in order to prevent errors in the composition of the text, and any: commercial, philistine, for a blog and social networks.
You can learn about the effective presentation of thoughts on the Storytelling program. It includes, among other things, work with the compilation of texts that work, are interesting and useful. Speakers and people working with presentations will benefit from the Modern Rhetoric program – it also has basic principles for working with interesting articles and scenarios.
We continue the conversation about the three-act structure of the text with examples.
What is a three-act structure?
Any work is based on the development of some kind of conflict , and we are not talking directly about a quarrel or a fight. The author reveals some event or phenomenon, surrounding it with the action of heroes, circumstances and a description of the dynamics of events with a concise conclusion at the end.
For the first time, the Russian director Alexander Naumovich Mitta wrote about the formalized three-act structure of the text in his book “Cinema between Hell and Heaven” [ A. Mitta, 1999 ]. This is a comprehensive guide for aspiring filmmakers and actors that has resonated with playwrights. It is believed that Aristotle was the first to speak of such a structure , but he only indicated the fact that any story must have a beginning, middle and end.
The three-act structure of the text is understood as a backbone consisting of three main blocks , as its name implies:
- The plot (thesis), which contains the beginning of the story and lays the initial data for the future plot. Acquaintance with the characters, staging the conflict and designating the location.
- The development of conflict and antithesis, the unwinding of the plot. At this stage, the bulk of the action occurs, regardless of the length of the story and the number of pages in the book / minutes in the movie.
- The denouement of the story and the ending. Consistent and logical conclusion of the plot. At this stage, conflicts are either resolved or terminated.
Playwrights use different tools for plot development, but the backbone is usually the same and it consists of three acts. This is how any theatrical script is built, the scheme is suitable for journalism and storytelling.
Where is the three-act structure used?
The use of the three-act structure can be traced in classical literature, in screenwriting and in cinema. It allows you to most fully and clearly define what the author wants to talk about.
The classic three-act structure of the screenplay is most often found in the cinema of all genres – comedy, drama, documentaries.
The system of revealing the plot in three acts is universal. Using it, you can write a play script or any story that should capture the reader’s attention.
If you look back, any presentation is built on a three-act structure: the headmaster’s speech at the graduation line (introduction, basis, congratulations as a result), the President’s New Year’s address on December 31, the plots of Pushkin’s fairy tales, any piece of drama, even articles on 4brain , feature films and series. Pay attention to blogs – in good readable publics, most of the stories are also presented mainly in the three-act system. It can be traced wherever there is an emphasis on the development of the plot.
Why know about the three-act structure?
The three-act structure of the narrative allows you to correctly build the story of any genre, which will be useful for a beginner to know. It helps to make the narrative organic, especially for those who are not very friendly with the presentation of thoughts.
But some experts have a different opinion. Thus, script consultant and teacher John Truby believes that such a structure is not useful, but harmful to the author [ Raindance , 2013 ]. In his opinion, binding to a rigid frame of the model limits the variety of plot, the authors repeat each other, and stories become predictable . Most of these stories have a happy ending, that is, a predictable one. Accordingly, it becomes uninteresting for the reader or viewer to get acquainted with history.
In addition, with a similar structure, both successful and unsuccessful books, scripts, and longreads are obtained. John Truby called the three-act structure of the text a “dramatic lifeline” that would be really helpful for beginners. For experienced authors, in his opinion, this is a problem.
In dramaturgy , there are other ways of revealing the plot: rearranging the blocks of the beginning, end and middle, the method from the opposite, etc. These are the tools of authors who master the art of storytelling. The three acts of the text are, conditionally, the alphabet, but universal. Adhering to its simple algorithm, you can create a unique and fascinating article using various lexical tools (metaphors, epithets , etc.), as well as techniques (exposure, progressions, and some others), which will be discussed later.
What are the pros and cons of a three-act structure
The advantages of a text drawn up according to the system of three acts are obvious:
- universality – you can compose any text and script;
- simplicity – the method can be used by an experienced and novice author;
- consistency – the structure is intuitive and easy to learn.
We will designate the cons, based on the opinion of John Truby [ Raindance , 2013 ]. He defines a three-act structure as a rigid framework that restricts authors and does not guarantee a great outcome. And now for the points.
- The concept of “act” is inherent in the theatrical scenario , where there is a raising and lowering of the curtain, i.e. the beginning and end of the act are technically formalized. For more mobile art, this is not suitable. You can play this moment in the movie, but in storytelling it will be problematic.
- The three-act division is too simple for an interesting film. Each block will have to be expanded, and this may lead to the division of the entrance, middle and exit into even smaller parts. In addition, it is not difficult for a beginner to get confused in such a structure. Hence the many failed scenarios that will never see implementation – a very simple system for a complex story.
- Most of the terms are difficult to apply within the framework of a large story. For example, a character is chasing a hero. What is this moment? Climax, denouement or standalone scene? In a pure three-act system, it’s harder to write down plot lines if the storytelling tools lack precision.
- Characters are left out of the main story, because there is no separate place for them in the system. Usually, with a weak elaboration of history, secondary characters turn out to be faded and uninteresting.
- The main disadvantage of the system is the often weak plot, especially for screenwriters who need to create a spectacular and exciting product in the face of competition from films with concentrated stories.
If we summarize the shortcomings, it turns out that a possible problem with the three-act structure is the weak return of the author. If he masterfully masters the word and understands how to build a plot, his work has every chance of success.
Description of acts
Now let’s take a closer look at the main acts of the structure: the plot – development – denouement. At the same time, we will give examples of their use in works, based on the methodology of the French writer and director Yves Lavandieu “Dramaturgy. The art of storytelling: cinema, theater, opera, radio, television, comics” [ I. Lavandie, 2019 ].
Act one: the plot
In the first act, the main task of the author is to bring the reader up to date. There should be such a lure in this part that the reader will fall into the story. If the first lines do not interest him, the work will most likely be put aside.
The rule to bring the reader up to date is relevant for everything: dramaturgy, prose, comedy, etc. In the first act, the author must:
- include the main character in the story;
- introduce the antagonist of the protagonist;
- show the reader where the action will take place;
- lay the foundation for the development of future history in the aspect of conflict;
- identify the essence and causes of the conflict .
It would not be superfluous to designate a plot twist, which will be unpredictable and, perhaps, not entirely logical at first glance. Another interesting move for the author at the beginning of the story is to take the reader away from the logical understanding of what will happen at the end.
The first act is characterized by a slow pace of development of the plot, it should accelerate towards the end of the second act, closer to the denouement. However, at the end of the first part, the effect of surprise will not be out of place – it both distracts the reader from the logical outcome and draws him into reading. Ideally, by the end of the first act, arrange a mini-happy ending. So the reader gets a false feeling that everything will be fine with the hero.
Act Two: Plot Development
The unspoken rule of dramaturgy : “If you want to keep attention, do it worse.” It works in literature, cinema and theater. The people love “bread and circuses”, and in this case “worse” refers precisely to this human need.
The more complex the plot develops, the more the characters experience emotions of suffering and pain, the more likely the reader will be drawn into the story and not stop reading.
The second act itself is characterized by the immediate development of the conflict. Its structure can be any, it all depends on the author’s imagination, but the main task is to disperse the conflict from a slight swaying by the end of the first act to a peak and a quick conclusion in the third.
The second act contains all the storylines of the development of the story.
Act three: denouement
The denouement of the story is literally a disaster, so much tension must gather for the reader. Resolution of the situation at this point:
- breaks off;
- completely allowed;
- allowed for a while.
Will the reader be left with a sense of understatement, will the author leave him the opportunity to independently complete the story in his fantasies? In any case, in the third act, the high tension of the development of the story is preserved, which will remain an aftertaste and form the impression of a book or work, and if we are talking about storytelling or a selling text, the final often determines whether a potential client will buy a service or not.
The three acts of writing a text in theory look like this. And then we will talk about them using the examples of the series and the work of art.
Three-act structure by examples
Tracing the system of three acts in cinema will be traced by the example of the analysis of the film “Fight Club” according to the three-act structure, written based on the novel by the American writer Chuck Palahniuk. The tape was released in 1999, but at the turn of the millennium the film was not fully understood. The protagonist of the story is a wealthy young man who suffers from insomnia caused by the rejection of the culture of social consumption, leading to social chaos, and as a result people become slaves to their desires. The concept was not accepted with a bang, when such trends were only gaining weight in society; the film and book became cult a bit later, in 2009 [ New York Times, 2009 ].
Now consider the three-act structure of the script on the example of the film.
Act 1: plot
At the very beginning of the story, the author introduces the reader to the nameless protagonist, who tells the story about himself. He has everything for a comfortable existence, he works as a manager in a serious company, communicates with people of the appropriate level, he has a successful career.
Despite all this, he has a psychological disorder that causes him to sleepless every night, and sometimes he cannot distinguish between felt pain and fantasy. The hero goes to a psychotherapist, who suggests visiting a gym or an anonymous meeting of men with similar problems to solve the problem. A sort of “circle of interest.”
The hero first attends an anonymous meeting. At the sight of terminally ill men suffering from testicular cancer, he comes to his senses for a while, but he is quickly covered again.
The action takes place at the turn of the 90s and 2000s. One day the hero meets Tyler, a soap seller. By nature, he is the opposite of the main character. After this acquaintance, the manager returns home and discovers a pogrom at home – an explosion occurred, the cause of which could not be established.
What did the author do? He introduced the audience to the main characters, showed the location of the action and set the action from which the story is repelled – an explosion in the main character’s house and designation of his position as an almost insensitive person.
In the film, this moment is quite accurately put to the point.
Act 2: plot
Throughout the film and book, the characters interact and fight, and the plot unwinds around this. Already in the second act, the narrator and Tyler organize an underground men’s club, where the main array of actions takes place.
The film features a large number of characters. The plot is very twisted, although it develops almost predictably. For 1999, for an inexperienced viewer, it is not bad. In history, thoughts aimed at consumerism are woven into the line of action – the author and Palahniuk skillfully show what the craving for acquiring new things and various benefits leads to.
Already at the end of the twentieth century, sorting of consumers for advertising on a number of grounds is shown, the struggle of marketers for the attention of the public in the desire to sell as much as possible of anything. In this reality, people cease to be aware of themselves and seem to be in a fog. Fashion for branded items is demonstrated: sneakers, watches, perfume. The authors talk about targeted search engine advertising that kindles the fires of desire to acquire and consume.
Act 3: denouement
To understand that the end of the film is coming, the viewer can concentrate the plot to the end of the main part of the tape. In the movie and book Fight Club, the denouement begins when Tyler disappears from the narrator’s life after a car accident. Another member of the club, Bob, dies while performing the next task, and with this the narrator tries to put an end to his own destructive activity.
Following in Tyler’s footsteps, he discovers clubs like his have popped up in every major city. Moreover, their members mistake him for Tyler. As it turns out in the end, Tyler is the storyteller, the main character, i.e. his alter ego , the second side of the personality that the hero does not advertise, a projection, a bunch of repressed desires. It turns out that the main character himself defeated his own “glamorous” house. In the meantime, the narrator was unconscious, his alter ego conceived to destroy several large financial corporations.
The finale of the story is concentrated, the most interesting actions take place in it: the police, who are part of the Rout gang, an attempt to defuse explosives on their own, and the end of Tyler’s life.
The three-act structure of the script in this case clearly showed that it can be enough, if skillfully used, to create a quality movie that has become a cult one [ New York Times, 2009 ]. However, do not forget that the film was shot in the late 90s, when there was no such flow of films as it is now.
The three-act classic script structure is rarely used today, and writers have to use much deeper plot structures to keep the audience’s attention. The good old classics can only be found in sketches, serials within the same series, in plain films.
Three-Act Structure Techniques for the Copywriter and Blogger
Three acts in a story is a universal formula for those who write. Scripts, blogs, commercials, articles – in any three-act structure of the cinema, where there is a protagonist who tells the story in his own name or about the hero in the third person.
Alexander Nazaikin, Professor of Philosophy at Moscow State University, in his lecture “Three acts in history for a copywriter’s text” gave a concise instruction for those who write [ A. Nazaikin, 2022 ]. The author believes that the structure helps to ensure the scale and complexity of the story, to avoid repetition. Together, these factors correspond to the creative capabilities of authors who work in different genres.
Alexander Nazaikin deepens the understanding of acts by dividing them into separate parts, where each action develops, in turn, in three small acts. This contributes to the maximum increase in conflict and warns against circulation, which, by the way, can help to avoid the mistakes that John Truby spoke about. History with such a construction develops incrementally.
Now consider the construction of acts from the point of view of A. Nazaikin.
The act is the plot, which accounts for up to 25% of the total volume of the story. To diversify and make it interesting, you can use one of several tricks:
- The exposition gives an idea of what is happening, prepares the ground for conflict. No deep dialogues, only “proposed circumstances” and consideration of the hero from all major sides. The task of the exposition is to acquaint the viewer or reader with the future history, but not to dwell on it. The principle is “Show, don’t tell”. If there is no conflict, according to Nazaikin’s theory, the audience is more immersed in the story, the slower it unwinds, the more difficult it is to get information. So, the backstory is better distributed throughout the first act. Some of the facts need to be used for involvement, the other part – to accumulate the concentration of the plot and its unexpected turn.
- The flashback story in the first act is a device that brings the audience up to date quickly while creating a strong dramatic tension . Such a story gives an understanding of what and when happened before the main event, why the main character experiences his condition. The flashback scene comes in handy in the exposition of the story to quickly engage the audience at the moment of transition to the main action.
- The hero’s dream is a device that can be used to describe the backstory of a story. A dream can become a complete introductory or part of it.
- Voice-over is a technique for scripts that allows you to bring more data and humor to the first act, versatility.
- A flash of interest is the final stage of the first act, the moment in which enough tension has accumulated for the development of the plot and the transition to the main events. The point of the plot is an event that pushes the story to active development. A flash of interest implies an action that is realized in the form of an inducement of the protagonist to leave the familiar zone into a dramatic situation. According to the author, the event can become a crisis for the hero and at the same time the most successful.
These tools greatly expand the possibilities for the author who needs to start a story and make it non-trivial.
Story Complication Progression
The most voluminous part of the text, occupies up to 50% of the entire story. It connects the context and unites it into one whole, creates the basis for the denouement.
To keep the interest of the audience, it is important to use details that are memorable for the audience and create a vivid picture. There are several tools for this:
- Deepening the drama of the situation in which the protagonist finds himself, making it more difficult, raising the stakes in the struggle that he leads. For example, at first something threatened his career, and with the development of the plot, there were threats to life, to humanity. For example, if the hero is on a journey, he may experience or go through an adventure in this part.
- Expansion of the conflict by joining the influences of antagonists. The increase in stressful situations to complicate the path of the protagonist in a three-act structure in cinema, to overcome internal resistance is one of the main rules for the success of the tape.
- irony . It gives the contrast of actions and results. At the same time, excessive irony can destroy the main line of history, so it should be dosed. It is ideal to present the facts in such a way that the audience itself concludes “This is irony!”
Progression is able to keep the attention of the audience after a flash of interest. If it is absent, there is a risk that the article or book will not be read, and in the middle of watching the film they will start to get bored. So that the long second act is not tiresome, it should be divided into several separate acts.
The denouement in the three-act structure of the film accounts for 25% of the total volume of the story. The third act may be the shortest of all three parts. In it, the story is dramatically complicated up to the catastrophic position of the protagonist. At the point of highest tension, there is a climax, in which everything is resolved – a solution to the problem is found or the death of the hero occurs. There is a balance in history, the situation changes irreversibly for better or for worse. At least it becomes clear where she is going.
The beginning of the third act of the denouement should be traced from the climax of the second act, and it ends with the solution of the main question of the story. Not a completion, but a resolution, i.e. logical action regarding the main problem, for example, good defeated evil, even if the main character is defeated.
And before summing up, we propose to consolidate the material of the article with the help of a small test: