It has become pretty much axiomatic that cinematic stories are structured in three acts. It seems extreme ignorance to think otherwise. Of course, there is plenty of evidence to support this. The dramatic rule of threes has been around since the time of Aristotle. (By the way, if you're like me and have actually read Aristotle's Poetics from beginning to end, you have to wonder why this moldy remnant still gets so much attention for anything other than a historical record. Half of it is too untranslatable to make any sense, and that which can be understood is in total “no shit” territory.)
A story in three acts seems elementary. Since childhood we are taught stories have a beginning, middle, and end. Or, as the “script gurus” unhelpfully put it, “setup, rising action, and resolution.” Even I have been a staunch proponent that a cinematic story always has three acts, no more, no less. Yet still, whenever I looked at a visual representation of the three-act model, it always seemed like something was, well – a little jacked up.
Why are things so unbalanced? What is with this oblong stretched-out middle? What sense does it make that there must be one short act, then one very long act, and then another short act? It is no mystery why 2nd Acts put developing screenwriters into a cold sweat. They have a beginning. They have an ending. But how the hell are they going to fill this vast wasteland in between? How are they going to keep the story going, keeps things developing and escalating, and at the same time keep the audience's attention for nearly an hour's length of time? There is good reason why the 2nd Act is where most screenplays stumble, sag, or run out of energy. It is like trying to drive across the desert without a gas station another 100 miles.
Second act sagginess usually comes from the act's apparent lack of a major dramatic turning point for almost an hour of screen time. According to the sequence method, a properly-structured story requires a turning point every ten to fifteen minutes to provide development, escalation, and maintain story momentum. However, the 3-Act model relies on certain MAJOR dramatic turning points occurring at specific periods within the story. These moments create such a large and permanent dramatic change to the story situation that they essentially break the story into separate blocks. 3-Act structure has such success with its model because these major dramatic turning points have the effect of reigniting the audience's interest in the story's main conflict by right at the moment where the story most needs a boost. These moments give a forceful dramatic push that re-glue keeps the audience to their seats right when their attentions start to wane.
Most books on the subject teach that proper script structure contains only three major dramatic turning points, each one located at the end of each act:
Unfortunately, there is a problem when it comes to the second act. Major dramatic turning points provide only so much “push” to a feature-length narrative. After less than thirty minutes, the momentum wears off and the audience's attentions again start to wane. This is fine and dandy for the short first and third acts, since the audience does not have to wait long before its next shot in the arm. But then we have that long unwieldy second act. And not surprisingly, it is smack dab in the middle of the second act where most beginner scripts start... to slow... down....
But then, why are the films we see in theaters so successful with their second acts? How do they manage to maintain our attention and excitement from beginning to end with no lag through their middle? What do they do right that most spec script get wrong? The reality is that most “script gurus” overlook a piece of the puzzle absolutely fundamental to the 3-Act structure they wholeheartedly preach. Analyze any handful of well-written, well-structured feature films and you will quickly find there is an overlooked FOURTH major dramatic turning point occurring smack-dab in the middle of the second act.
Alien – the monster alien explodes from Kane's chest, turning the story from a mystery to a fight for survival.
Good Will Hunting – Will finally starts to open up to his therapist, permanently changing the main character relationship and how Will approaches the story conflict.
Rocky – Rocky allows Mick to become his manager, changing the main character relationship between the hero and his mentor and given him his first real chance to succeed.
Iron Man – Tony Stark for the first time uses his invention to fight evil, forever turning him from selfish playboy to world hero.
Schindler's List – Likewise, Oskar Schindler commits his first truly unselfish act by using his watch to save an old couple, beginning his transformation from profiteer to hero.
Die Hard – John McClane finally gets the attention of the police, permanently changing the landscape of the story conflict.
Star Wars – The heroes become trapped on the Death Star, creating the first direct one-on-one conflict between the heroes and the force of antagonism.
The Shining – The characters have their first meaningful physical contact with the evil that resides in the hotel, changing the conflict from abstract to tangible.
Now, many books mention something about a “Midpoint scene.” But like much in these books, the information provided on what this midpoint does and how it should be used tends to be vague and unhelpful. The “midpoint” is actually a quite simple concept. It is nothing more than a mid-second act turning point of higher than usual dramatic significance. Its event creates a “hinge” in the narrative that essentially splits the story in two: the story situation as it existed before the mid-second act turning point, and the drastically altered situation that exists after the turning point occurs, as pointed out by the examples above. The mid-second act turning point does not only create a major moment of development and escalation, but provides a powerful boost that reignites the audience's interest and launches the narrative forcefully into the second half of the second act.
The mid-second act turning point sounds just like and end-of-act turning point, doesn't it? That's because it is one! The mid-second act turning point DOES end an act! Here is where all the confusion over 3-Act structure originates. 3-Act structure does not in fact have three acts. It has four. Cinematic stories are not told with one short act, one very long act, and then another short act, but rather FOUR ACTS OF EQUAL LENGTH.
Successful cinematic stories become elegantly simple once one considers them in four equal parts instead of three:
Act 1 – Heroes investigate a distress signal. (TP: A creature attaches itself to Kane and is brought onboard the ship.
Act 2A – Heroes try to figure out what this creature attached to Kane is. (TP: Monster bursts from Kane's and is now loose on the ship)
Act 2B – Heroes try to capture or kill the monster. (TP: Heroes realize monster is unkillable and must destroy the ship.)
Act 3 – Destroying the ship and escaping the monster for good.
Act 1 – Hero struggles with life as a worthless bum. (TP: Rocky is offered a match with the world champion.)
Act 2A – Hero hopeless tries to prepare for the match on his own. (TP: Rocky reconciles with his mentor and agrees to let him become his manager.)
Act 2B – Hero develops from bum to contender with the help of his mentor. (TP: Rocky realizes he still has no chance, but sets a new goal for himself to “go the distance” with the champion.)
Act 3 – Rocky succeeds at his new goal, proving his self-worth.
Act 1 – Hero finds a message that will help defeat the evil empire, but is unwilling to take the risk. (TP: Hero's home is destroyed by members of the evil empire, giving him no choice but to leave to deliver the message.)
Act 2A – Hero journeys away from home to deliver the message. (TP: The hero becomes trapped in the Death Star, the heart of the evil empire.)
Act 2B – Escape from the Death Star. (TP: Hero succeeds, allowing him to deliver the message.)
Act 3 – Hero joins the rebels to use the message's information to defeat the evil empire.
Here now is a new visual model for 3-Act structure:
Isn't this simpler? Isn't this easier to manage? Doesn't this make more sense? With nothing but the simple recognition of an additional end-of-act turning point, the classic 3-Act model goes from wonky and difficult, to balanced, simple, and easy enough for any beginner to manage in his or her own script. Second acts need no longer strike fear in the hearts of developing writers. Or any act for that matter.
(Note that to avoid confusion, I have not relabeled the acts as Acts 1, 2, 3, & 4. To remain in line with established terminology, “3rd Act” shall always refer to a story's final act, and “4th Act” as something nonexistent muttered only by amateurs who don't know the difference between a movie script and a stage play. It is best to keep everyone using the same language.)