The three-act structure is constantly held up as a nearly universal feature of Western storytelling. Three-act proponents talk about the structure like it’s a deeply influential idea passed down to us from ancient Greece, the collective wisdom of storytellers who have come before us. Meanwhile, critics see the three-act structure as an instrument of Western hegemony, crowding out all other ways to tell a story. The main thing these two sides agree on is that the three-act structure is everywhere, easily visible when you open a book or press play on a streaming site.
They’re both wrong. The three-act structure isn’t a universal guide for storytelling, nor is it a boot pressing down on creativity and expression. In fact, much like The Hero’s Journey, it’s nothing at all.
What Is the Three-Act Structure?
This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. The three-act structure’s origins are largely a big set of question marks, as even its biggest proponents will acknowledge. The best we can do is vaguely point out Aristotle mentioning that the plays he’d seen usually had a beginning, a middle, and an end, things that literally all stories have. Oh boy, what a compelling paper trail!
To make matters more confusing, the three-act structure is often confused with other storytelling theories like Freytag’s Pyramid, which usually has two, four, or five distinct sections. Seriously, how am I supposed to turn this into three acts?
Should the entire pyramid be a single act? So act one is just introduction, and act three is just denouement? That doesn’t sound right. Wait, I’ve got it.
At its most abstract, the three-act structure is nothing but dividing a story into three sections, something you can do with literally any piece of media. In fact, thanks to the linear nature of time, you can apply the same process to any object, idea, or experience. Eating breakfast can have a three-act structure if you want.
- Act One: Take bacon out of the fridge.
- Act Two: Fry bacon until it is charred and blackened.
- Act Three: Shovel bacon into mouthparts.
How do you decide that you’re finished with the beginning of a story and it’s time for the middle? It could be after the first scene, the first chapter, or the first third. In my example, I could decide that cooking the bacon is actually act one, eating it is act two, and tossing my plate in the dishwasher is act three. When the ending starts is even more nebulous. That could be the literal end, after which there is no story, or it could be when the protagonists reach their final goal. The list of permutations is endless!
If you zoom in past the point of drawing arbitrary lines, any agreement about the three-act structure disappears. What is actually supposed to happen in these poorly defined stages changes radically from advice giver to advice giver. Some will place the climax in act three, some at the end of act two, and some claim it should be at the story’s midpoint. More importantly, there’s very little about what the climax actually is or why it’s important, let alone why that function is complemented by dividing the story into three acts.
Syd Field’s Three-Act Structure
It’s impossible to critique the three-act structure as a whole because no such thing exists. Instead, for demonstration purposes, let’s take a look at author Syd Field’s version, as laid out in Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. Originally published in 1979, it’s one of the more popular three-act iterations out there, though it’s surprisingly difficult to dig the structure out from the book itself. Fortunately, the book’s official website is kind enough to lay it all out for our perusal.
The only thing you need to know before we get started is that Field originally included specific page numbers for each of these points to occur on.* However, Field also admits that the page numbers don’t actually matter, so I’ve removed them to make the points easier to read.
Act One – sets up the world of the story and introduces the main character.
So the opening of a story should introduce the things we need to understand what’s happening. This is one of those things that’s technically true, but only in the trivial way that every story does it. It’s like sticking a vegetarian label on broccoli. If there’s meat in there, something has gone horribly wrong. If a story doesn’t open with what we need to understand what’s happening, that’s a serious problem, but a reminder to explain things is hardly a structure.
Inciting Incident – Inciting Incident and Plot Point One are within Act One. Inciting Incident happens first. Plot Point One happens at the end of Act One. The Inciting Incident is the circumstance that brings the lead character to the forefront; the situation that emotionally involves the character in the story. The scene without which there would be no story.
Ah yes, the inciting incident, an idea that persists for exactly one reason: Luke Skywalker’s introduction in A New Hope. We begin the film following R2-D2 and C-3PO; we don’t meet Luke until he joins with a plot already in progress,* so it’s easy to point out that moment as the one that incites Luke’s story. It’s certainly when he joins the film, though I don’t know how emotionally involved we can consider him. He’s emotionally involved in wanting to visit Tosche Station and pick up some power converters, that’s for sure.
Most stories, even the Hollywood screenplays that Field was writing about, don’t have anything nearly so clear cut. Where is the inciting incident in The Empire Strikes Back? Is it Luke seeing a vision of Obi-Wan? That starts Luke’s training plot, but said plot is only one part of Empire’s story. For that matter, it’s only one part of Luke’s story. Is the inciting incident when Vader learns about the rebel base on Hoth? That’s what leads to the Imperial attack, but it’s more like a twist in an existing plot, since the rebels were already fighting Vader and his forces.
Maybe Empire Strikes Back isn’t fair, since it’s a sequel film in an ongoing story. So what about Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan? The inciting incident could be Kirk taking command of the Enterprise, Khan capturing Chekov and Terrell, or Khan sending out a signal to lure in the Enterprise. The story certainly couldn’t occur as written without any of those scenes. But if we’re looking for emotional involvement, we’d have to wait until the first battle between the Enterprise and the Reliant, which is quite a ways into the movie.
If we use a generous definition of “inciting incident,” it could mean the moment where the protagonist gets involved in the main external conflict (or throughline). But for many stories, the protagonist is involved from the first page, so there’s no incident to identify. In others, the protagonist becomes involved through a series of incidents, making it impossible to pinpoint a specific one.
Plot Point One – moves Act One into Act Two. The true beginning of the story, embarking the lead character on a NEW journey.
The story doesn’t truly start until act two? That’s quite a while to wait. Again, this seems to have been written specifically with A New Hope in mind, since we can identify the deaths of Owen and Beru as the moment when Luke fully commits to fighting the Empire, thus setting off on a new journey to Alderaan. For this to fit, we need the Mos Eisley and Death Star escape scenes to both fall under act two even though they really feel like separate segments, but that’s still much closer than most stories get.
Where is this plot point in films like Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country or Villeneuve’s Dune? Undiscovered Country does have a scene where Kirk and co. are sent on a new mission to escort the Klingon High Chancellor, but that happens way before anything that could be considered act two. There’s also a major plot twist around the one-quarter mark, where Kirk and McCoy are arrested by the Klingons, but if we’re being that liberal with what constitutes the beginning of act two or a “journey,” then any twist at any time would count.
Dune is an even starker example. Paul and Jessica begin a new journey when they escape the destruction of House Atreides to live among the Fremen… except this happens at the end of the movie. The book is actually closer to Field’s ideal, with the same sequence playing out at about the one-third mark, but it’s also just one of many times that Paul could be said to set out on a “NEW journey.”
Act Two – confrontation, obstacles, and tests on the character.
In act two, things apparently happen! That’s as specific as the structure gets, since the items it lists could be just about anything. A confrontation might be between two characters, between a character and a monster, or between two forces of nature if we stretch the definition far enough. Obstacles are even looser and can encompass anything from a deadly wall of saws to a bout of ennui. And the character is abstractly “tested” any time they encounter adversity, so the third one somehow means the least.
Midpoint – Syd Field’s «discovery» in his second book, The Screenwriter’s Workbook. In this volume, Syd presents «the new paradigm» and includes the scene called Midpoint: «What happens to your main character from Plot Point I to Plot Point II? Knowing the Midpoint is a tool; with it you have a way of focusing your story line into a specific line of action». Syd recommends dividing Act Two into two sections. The division is called Midpoint. This scene spins the action into a different direction.
Even if it weren’t specifically called out, I might have guessed that this point was added retroactively, as it doesn’t make any sense. Something that “spins the action in a different direction” could just as easily be said to start a “NEW journey.”
In just A New Hope, there are probably a dozen scenes that fit this descriptor from around the middle of the film. Just to name a few:
- Option 1: Tarkin destroys Alderaan, spinning the action into a direction that doesn’t have Alderaan in it.
- Option 2: Our heroes are tractored aboard the Death Star, so now they have action around escaping.
- Option 3: Obi-Wan leaves to disable the tractorbeam. Now the action will happen with our heroes in different places.
- Option 4: Luke decides to rescue Princess Leia. Now the action is spinning Luke toward making out with his sister.
I could go on, but you get the idea. The midpoint’s description is so vague that it could refer to nearly any scene in a half-decent story.
Plot Point Two – takes Act Two into Act Three, from conflict to resolution. After the obstacles the hero, literally or metaphorically, returns or finds «home».
Hey, it’s the first time Field’s structure mentions conflict! Since there wasn’t anything about it before, I guess we’re supposed to insert some here for the hero to resolve. It’ll probably feel random and out of nowhere, but supposedly that’s how the pros do it.
The line about returning home makes this point even weirder. You should always be careful when writing advice mentions that something is “metaphorical,” because that can mean anything. Does Luke find a home with the rebels after destroying the Death Star? Sort of, in that he’s staying with them now, but nothing in A New Hope suggests he was looking for a home. At the end of Wrath of Khan, Kirk is still on the Enterprise, where he’s been for most of the movie. But he’s gotten emotionally closer to his crew after Spock’s death, so that’s kind of a home, maybe, if you don’t care what words mean.
It’s also weird to put this at the end of act two, because it sounds like we’re transitioning into falling action and epilogue. Field can’t be saying that all of act three should be falling action and epilogue, is he?
Act Three – where all loose ends are tied up, where closure begins. It goes from Plot Point Two to the end of the screenplay.
Update: Field is indeed saying that all of act three should be falling action and epilogue. That’s certainly a… unique take on the three-act structure. Under this model, A New Hope’s entire third act is Luke’s landing and the medal ceremony. Be honest, does anyone really think of the first Star Wars movie that way? I’ll bet 50 Republic credits that for most people, A New Hope’s third act is the Death Star space battle, with the medal ceremony closing things out.
Final Scene – by understanding the ending, writers can construct what must be built for the development of the characters.
Well, Field certainly made this section easy for me. There aren’t any instructions at all, just a statement about how understanding the ending is good for writing. That’s great and all, but what should actually be in the ending? Isn’t that what Field is supposed to tell me? I thought that was the whole point of this structure.
My Neighbor Totoro in Three Acts
Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro is often held up as antithetical to the three-act structure, though the reasons for why vary. Sometimes, the claim is that Totoro has little to no conflict or tension, even though that has nothing to do with the three-act structure. A more cogent argument is that the film lacks an inciting incident and climax, which is about half true. The film does lack an obvious inciting incident, the same way that most films do. It absolutely has a climax though: when Mei goes missing and is feared dead.*
The point is that Totoro is a very different film from the big-budget action movies that are usually used to demonstrate the three-act structure. However, even Field’s more detailed iteration is so vague that any movie can be made to fit it, including My Neighbor Totoro. Don’t believe me?
We right away introduce the main characters, Satsuki and Mei, along with the idyllic country setting and the fact that their mom is in the hospital. We notably don’t start the movie by introducing a civilization of aliens on Mars, so Miyazaki must be following Field’s advice.
Inciting Incident: This is when Satsuki and Mei arrive at their new house, which is old, decaying, and probably haunted. They’re very emotional, and more importantly, if they weren’t here then the rest of the story couldn’t happen.
Plot Point One: Mei sees the small white spirit creature, which happens at almost exactly the one-third mark. This is where we embark on a new journey of discovering different kinds of magical creatures like Totoro and the Catbus.
After the family settles in, they confront each other over who makes lunch. Then the characters have to face the obstacle that Mei is unhappy, and we test Satsuki’s patience with Kanta, who is being an ass to her for no reason.
Midpoint: When Satsuki and Mei meet Totoro at the bus stop. This happens somewhere around the middle of the film, and it spins the action in a different direction. The new direction is that Satsuki knows about Totoro and the other spirits, whereas before she’d only caught brief glimpses of soot sprites.
Plot Point Two: Mei goes missing, and Satsuki has to find her. Suddenly the story has way more conflict than it did before, and there’s even a fear that Mei might be dead. Satsuki resolves this conflict by enlisting Totoro’s help, and afterwards, they eventually go back to their house, which is a literal home rather than a metaphorical one.
Satsuki and Mei briefly check in on their mom and discover she’s fine, tying up that loose end. Mei gets some extra closure by giving her mom a piece of corn that’s supposed to make a sick person get well.* The whole section, as I’ve decided to measure it, is about 10 minutes, which fits very well with Field’s idea for a third act.
Final Scene: This is Totoro and his buddies standing on top of a tall tree with their umbrellas. Does it show that Miyazaki understands endings and can construct what must be built for the development of his characters? I have no idea.
To be clear, this is a terrible way to analyze what happens in My Neighbor Totoro, let alone understand why fans love it so much. It’s also a terrible way to analyze Western stories, even the most conventional action blockbuster. The three-act structure doesn’t describe stories; the best anyone can manage is to awkwardly apply it after the fact, like an itchy sweater two sizes too small.
Field’s three-act structure is largely useless for the same reason Vogel’s Hero’s Journey is largely useless: neither of them give us any idea of what needs to be in the story. Instead, they both create a list of incredibly specific points, then fill those points with exceptionally vague advice. Somehow, they are too limiting and too permissive at the same time.
How It Distorts the Conversation
It’s critical to understand how unimportant the three-act structure is, whether one is for or against it. When writers can’t see through the mirage, it’s easy for them to get caught up contorting their story to fit arbitrary requirements, whether it’s from a famous name like Field or one of the countless writing advice sites that extol some version of the three-act structure.
At best, arranging your story like that won’t make it any better. More likely, you’ll end up straining the plot until the story isn’t even coherent anymore. At the same time, studying the three-act structure won’t teach you the skills needed to improve your story. There’s nothing in there about tension, plot arcs, or how to craft a satisfying turning point. At best, the three-act structure might provide some inspiration, and authors need to understand that limitation.
Likewise, critics waste their time tilting at three-act windmills. They feel pressured to write their stories a certain way, but the three-act structure isn’t doing that. It’s not coherent enough to. No one can look at a story and say that it’s bad because it didn’t follow the three-act structure, since what that means is entirely arbitrary. There are plenty of systemic issues in Anglophone storytelling; the three-act structure just isn’t one of them.
Worse, such critics often throw out anything that’s even associated with the three-act structure. That’s why so much of the Totoro discussion is dominated by questions of whether it has conflict or not. Conflict has nothing to do with the three-act structure, but the two are mentioned together so often that critics often conflate them.
Once we acknowledge that the three-act structure isn’t real, we can get on to discussions that actually matter. Maybe we could look into why so many authors feel pressure to write their stories as violent power fantasies, or consider what conflict is for and how to craft a light story that won’t bore people. And if someone summarizes a story in such a way that it looks to be written in three acts, we can remember that it’s all smoke and mirrors. The three-act structure persists by being too nebulous to pin down on anything, and we shouldn’t let it get away with that anymore.
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