April 14, 2010

Getting Cinemate #11: The Three-Act Paradigm

The classical storytelling in cinema involves three distinct acts. All linear screenplays, more or less, knowingly or unknowingly, have this structure, which I would share briefly.

Act I or The Setup is the first quarter of the screenplay. The main characters are introduced, the dramatic premise is established and the main dramatic need of the protagonist is communicated - what he/she wants to win or achieve during the course of the film. All good scripts have an extremely tight and engaging Act I.

Act II or The Confrontation is the second and the third quarters of the screenplay. During this part, the protagonist confronts obstacles in the pursuit of his/her dramatic need. The attempt to overcome these obstacles creates conflicts that are essential for any good story. It is generally the most difficult part to write.

Act III or The Resolution is the last quarter of the screenplay. The story need not end, but must resolve itself, reach “the solution”. The protagonist succeeds (or fails) in achieving his/her dramatic need.

Both the acts – I and II, end with a Plot Point – a scene or an event that spins the story around into another direction, leading into the next act. Apart from the end and the beginning, these two Plot Points are the most important events in the film. Act II, the longest part of the film, can be divided into two parts, separated by the Mid Point.

It must be noted that Hindi cinema, due to its unique concept of Intermission, does not adhere to this structure. We tend to write our films in two halves, rather than acts, and for us the Interval Point is more important an event than the Plot Points mentioned above. And this, I believe, is a main reason why most of our screenplays are inconsistent and flawed. The Three Act structure discussed above is not an invention of cinema – just an adaptation of the classical storytelling pattern evolved by man. Adhering to it is not always desirable and all innovations like Memento, Pulp Fiction, 21 Grams, Amores Perros etc. have successfully managed to break the convention. But mostly, it is a pattern safe enough to result into a gripping narrative and powerful cinema.

I would illustrate this paradigm in the next post with an example.


  1. Thank God, now I know in a nutshell, what this 'Three acts' thing is all about. Had Wanted to know about it for a long long time. You may think that if I was so eager to know about it, why didn't I google it! Actually I even didn't know what this thing was called. Had heard about it earlier in reference to Shakespearean dramas, and even in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's 'Chupke Chupke' dialogues...
    So, good to know now!
    I for a fact never give your 'Getting Cinemate' sections a miss...

  2. December, 2008: I attended the Film Writers Association conference and all main writers Abbas Tyrewala, Anjum Rajabali and all talked in these terms - Act I, first Plot Point. I felt like an illiterate.
    Just after the conference, I read Syd Field's book (he is one of the most reputed screenwriting gurus) and realized that it was a simple theory to learn. (although very difficult when it actually comes to writing)...

    The best thing to learn here is: You should know the end of your script before you know the beginning. The end, the beginning, and the two Plot Points (thus deciding upon the three-act paradigm).... after knowing these in ur head, and only after being sure, you should start writing. Or your screenplay would be stuck at a point and you will say: yaar i am writing a damn good script. 80% of it is over. But i am not sure how to end it!!!

  3. after this really cool insight into writing for cinema , i kind of feel that adapted screenplays would be a lot less taxing for the writer than the original ones.. dunno if thats the case , just wondering !!

  4. adapted screenplays are easier beacuse the end, the beginning, the plot points and the act structure - everything is provided. so, the pre-write stage where we try to create the characters and the back story etc is shorter and easier.

    but adapted screenplays are difficult because there is a baggage - the merits of the original source, the impression on people, the popularity (if it is popular) etc. Also, changing the medium from play/novel to screenplay requires imagination. The toughest thing however is the question of taking liberty, deviating from the original. You just can not stick to the original - since the medium is totally different. so, you need to make good decisions on how much to deviate and that is always a risk.

    general feeling is that adapting from a novel or something requires more talent.

    i personally, love adapting from novels. Are my adapted screenplays good enough? Only time will tell...

  5. its quite a debate i guess .. i remember watching 'Guide' and then hearing from someone that RK Narayan was not really happy with the movie .. delved deeper and realised that authors seldom are ..unlike some like Grisham and Crichton who themselves got onto the bandwagon of adapting potboilers for the screen ..
    although i am not qualified enough to be generic here but i felt that in some cases movies made the novels seem better .. Shawshank Redemption being a case in point .. i had for a change read the novel before watching the movie ..
    and i totally agree that adapting any great work can be quite a overbearing thought sometimes for the screenwriter, just for the novelty factor even if we dont consider the running risk of deviating from ethos of the work ..
    And as far your endeavours go , believe me when i say that i pray far more for your success than i did for my own survial in some really scary engineering papers :) ..and i am sure i am not alone there ..so just keep doing what you do best !!!

  6. Since only 4096 characters are acceptable at a time, I am splitting my thoughts in three-parts here:
    Part I:
    One of the scariest things about learning the "methods of cinema" for me, was and still is, the fear in me that, 'what if?' I am never able to transcend all those rules & constitution wired in me during all those 'learning times'. What if, my spontaneity and intuitiveness towards the medium (need not necessarily be cinema), instead of being more refined & polished, better trained, and more enlightened, is forever, or for the most part, accepts that 'learning' as a a set of sacred rules, deviation from which is unexplored, and hence scary & sinful, rather accepting 'it' as a 'viewpoint' of how cinema has been working all these times since its inception...
    An example case in point being this 'three-act paradigm' v/s "innovations like Memento, Pulp Fiction, 21 Grams, Amores Perros etc."
    I have this fear, that if I study this 'Three-Act Paradigm' thing (have just use this as a case example, as there are plenty of others storytelling discoveries whose mention can be brought about here), will I be able to break its shackles and transcend my thoughts to some other undiscovered paradigm, or am I forever doomed to objectify all my storytelling in perspective of that bloody 3-act-paradigm rule thing! On the downside to it, if I don’t learn about it, I will be missing on a very important discovery in the science of storytelling! So how do I achieve an unconstrained imaginative paradigm and yet not let go of such wonderful discoveries? For one, I think, one should not give the status of ‘rules’ to them, as ‘rules’ by their very nature are ‘limiting’ and have a ‘constraining’ effect.
    Am working on hard to derive more answers!

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  11. (cont...)

    Part II:

    For what I believe and eventually am trying to make sense of is (subject to obvious corrections over the course of time):
    It's obviously 'very' important to know the history of this science of storytelling, of both mediums, one being the written medium, and the other being this cinematic visual medium; study the various methods, their origin, evolution & extinction over time (cinematic & storytelling styles of one generation may well mostly be ‘defects in art’ for another generation), and their existing state at this age.

    a. Important why?, because every coming generation has this obvious & simple privilege of immense importance (obvious & simple, and hence the importance is rarely understood), that it gets to ‘know’ such things, within its short learning time frame, that may have taken generations over generations to be discovered. I may lack a little clarity in my expression of thoughts here, so as an e.g. take the fact and think, what we learn in colleges in 3-4 years may be, are actually worth in many cases, a condensed form of learning of what mankind took more than 1000 years to come to!

    b. Another reason for its importance, apart for the above reason of ‘knowledge for knowledge’s sake’, is that (limiting myself to storytelling area), one will know what worked (as a device to storytelling) and what didn’t, in an era. And probably, one will have a certain ‘rulebook’ of kind with him, to refer to, if he is complying with what can work, if risks such as economic ones are involved.

    c. There may be a lot more reasons to it, but they elude me at this time of writing.

  12. (cont...)

    Part III:
    Now comes the big ‘missing-link’ or ‘void’ if one may call, in my line of thinking! How does this already existing knowledge assist me in breaking away from this ‘rulebook’ convention that is a natural consequence of the discovered knowledge, and help me come to that level, that helps me discover those rules! Or is it something else, that you need to discover those rules for your to have an independent creative expression, because these ‘rules’ didn’t exist for those masters, when they discovered these ‘rules’, which in period of time got further refined by each generation that laid its hands upon it.

    I think, the spirit should be always to seek those greater generic principles & rules, of which these lesser rules are instances, i.e. such principles from which other principles are derived. (Actually this 'Rule of which all other rules are instances of' is the driving force in the search of that 'all unified theory' of the sciences...) I would pretty much like to conclude with this last though here...

    And am terribly sorry, if I don’t make any sense here, coz these thoughts have been laying in a vague and apart form in my mental ‘enquirer’ space for quite some time now, and this is the first attempt I have made to put them down in a much lesser vague form! Obviously, the efforts to come to an all unifying answer are still on...

  13. I congratulate you for this honest outburst. I understand your doubts.

    Let the following one-liners answer those:

    "Storytelling was born first; the rules were defined later."

    "You have to know the rules before you break them."

    "Geniuses redefine technique and craft by their sheer belief and conviction; for all who are less-than-a-genius, convention and rules come handy."

    And now the most important rule, my personal favourite:

    "There are no absolutes in cinema."

  14. Right now, am going with ur "personal favourites"!
    I will try to dissect this "There are no absolutes in cinema" thought for its better understanding.
    Will let that thought stay with me for a while, till I make friends with it.