Overthinking Acts

I'm not 100% sure how common this is in other writing media like fiction or playwrighting, but screenwriting very much has this default structure. I can't say for sure how many movies abide by it, but I'd wager most screenplays follow it (whether closely or loosely), and I definitely think more modern movies follow this structure than follow any other structure. It looks something like this:


This is a super-simplified version of it, using terms from a couple different sources, but it gets the idea across. A lot of people will use their own versions of it, some more useful than others, but generally speaking, Blake Snyder's Beat Sheet, the Hero's Journey, the Story Circle, they all often find themselves (rightly or wrongly) laid out to look something like this.

(I do want to be clear that I'm not necessarily saying this maps to the Beat Sheet, the Hero's Journey, or any other story structure that gets used, and I'm not endorsing it or speaking against it. I'm just saying, a lot of books and websites will explain movie structure in a way that looks like this, and a lot of movies can be mapped to this structure without too much bending.)

The curious thing is that this is often referred to as "The Three-Act Structure." Yes, it is interesting that it's "The" three-act structure and not "A" three-act structure, but I want to talk more about what an "Act" is, and how this structure certainly seems to have four of them.

So the word "act" gets used in two ways that are simultaneously really similar but also different in some significant ways. There's sort of the Aristotlian beginning, middle, and end acts, where there are always three and they always map to something like Introduction, Rising Action, and Climax. This is the sort of act generally referred to when people are talking about a first, second or third act; it's just sort of a different way of referring to beginning, middle, and end.

Then there's the more "contiguous story chunk" acts, where each act follows one general emotional throughline, and a single story can have anywhere from one act to a billion. This is the sort of act referenced in theatre - for example, a one-act play.

You can, of course, write a story with three contiguous story chunks that map roughly to the beginning, middle and end of your story, and in this case each use of the word act would be synonymous. The trouble is, a lot of people sort of take this as a given and think both versions of "act" are always synonymous - or perhaps more often, take one definition as the default and get confused whenever anyone uses the word act by the other definition. In order to avoid some of that confusion here, I'm going to refer to Aristotlian acts with an uppercase A, and contiguous story chunk acts with a lowercase a.

So suppose there's a four-act story whose third act is slow and boring, but the rest of the acts are tight and well-paced. Charlie complains about the story sagging in the second Act, but Addison says that's crazy, it's the third act that struggles. They're both right and in fact both agree with each other, but if they don't take the time to stop and define their terms, they're both going to think the other one is blind and talking nonsense. This is a conversation that seems to play out over and over again on screenwriting forums and writers' groups.

This is made even more confusing by the "standard" structure's act numbering scheme. In order to try to keep both Act and act synonymous, it calls its middle two acts 2a and 2b, instead of 2 and 3. That works fine enough when everybody in a given discussion is referring to that same general structure and using the same terminology, but then someone wants to start discussing a movie with five acts, or two, or basically any number other than three or four.

That's when everyone starts trying to stretch and strain and explain how and where the various Acts and acts are divided up, and how no, this story pretty clearly has a beginning, middle, and end (because of course it does!), so it obviously has three acts, not five. Meanwhile the other side is busy talking over them and explaining how it clearly has five acts and why are you so slavishly devoted to trying to make everything fit into three acts and it's just a huge mess where everybody is arguing over absolutely nothing.

I don't know that I have a point here other than pointing out that Acts and acts are different things, but hopefully this is useful to someone in preventing and argument, or at least in fleeing one they can tell is pointless. It just bugs me.

Ordinary World - sets up what the world looks like before the story starts.
Setup - shows how the plot gets started
Inciting Incident - the protagonist starts pursuing the goal of the story
Stuff Happens - shows the consequences of pursuing the goal, good and bad
Midpoint - A turning point; typically where things transition from fun and games to difficulty and turmoil
Life Gets Hard - The bad guys get the upper hand
Darkest Point - It looks like the bad guys have won
Build to Climax - The protagonist pushes on regardless
Climax - The protagonist either wins or loses