Trilane Trln_w500_gray_mill
[Home] [Script Analysis] [Spec Script Format] [Trilane Store] [contact]

Three Acts or What?
Screnwriting Paradigms Compared

What structure to use for a screenplay is often the topic of fervent discussions.

Most movies – both successful and unsuccessful – adhere to a three act structure that goes way back to Aristotle who observed that stage plays in ancient Greece have a beginning, a middle and an end with distinct functions for each of these components.

Syd Field was one of the first authors to speak of three acts in a screenplay. He receives credit for being the first one to lay out these rules for movie scripts. In his book Screenplay he outlines functions of these three acts.

Currently the three act structure appears to be the standard that professionals look for when assessing the quality of a movie script. That alone suggests that it’s the format of choice for aspiring screenwriters.

Plus, a good story still needs to be well told and three acts as outlined below are a good way to do that. I’ll compare here the rules/approaches/paradigms laid out by three major names in the movie business - Syd Field, Robert McKee and Blake Snyder.

Syd Field is considered one of the gurus of screenwriting. Not everybody seems to like his views but I still recommend reading some of his books. The best start probably is Screenplay. I also appreciated The Screenwriter’s Problem Solver. It alerts you to many quality issues of movie scripts and it’s good to read it before you run into one of them.

That said, you shouldn’t settle for any one of the books mentioned here. If for some reason you must, then choose Story by Robert McKee. (All my opinion, of course.)

Many people in Hollywood are said to swear by Save The Cat by Blake Snyder. It’s worth a read. However, I don’t agree with it’s subtitle that it’s ‘The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need.’ At least not if it’s your first.

I’ll quote Blake Snyder’s beat sheet and add some explanations.

Syd Field and the three act structure

The statement that a good play consists of three acts goes way back until Aristotle who observed this fact in stage plays in the amphitheaters of ancient Greece. Aristotle spoke of a beginning, middle and end - parts of a play that have very specific purposes. Field made it more concrete when he spoke of three acts which should cover 25%, 50% and 25% of a script, respectively.

In his books he assumes a maximum length of 120 pages for a well done script. Make that 110 or less nowadays and adjust the percentages accordingly.

Here the table:




Act 1

first 25%

All main characters and their surrounding situation should be introduced here. What is the hero’s goal - externally and internally? Who are the supporting characters.

The first act ends with plot point 1 - an incident that turns the plot in a new direction.

Act 2

next 50%

The protagonist fights for his goal encountering one obstacle after the other. It ends with plot point 2 which puts him into a situation where it is almost impossible to succeed.

Because the second act is very long, Syd Field suggests three orientation points for the writer. One is the midpoint - it’s in the middle of the movie. You knew that, right? Often this is the point where the hero and his enemy clash directly for the first time. Kind of a point of no return, the last chance for reconciliation has passed.

It’s not easy to fill 30 pages with meaningful action that drives the plot towards its goal. So Field introduced two more orientation points: pinch 1 and pinch 2. Pinch 1 occurs half way between plot point 1 and the midpoint. Pinch 2 occurs half way between midpoint and plot point 2.

The second act ends with plot point 2 - also called the crisis. Here the hero faces a situation that seems impossible to solve. We certainly don’t want to be in his shoes here, but would really like to know what he does now.

Act 3

final 25%

At the beginning the hero is in the pits, approaching the crisis. Except in tragedies he wins over all adversities and gets back on top, using everything she learnt and accomplished in act 1 and 2.

Table 1: Three acts according to Syd Field

Field originally assumed 120 pages for a well-behaved script, but that assumption is obsolete. Nowadays readers expect 110 pages or less. Comedies better be under 100.

Blake Snyder and Three Acts

In his book Save the Cat Blake Snyder gives explicit page numbers. Here his beat sheat:

Project Title:


Opening Image

The first thing you see; sets tone, style and mood of the movie


Theme Stated

A statement like “Love is more important than money”. Usually made by a character other than the hero. This is called the thematic premise.



All character in the A story should be introduced within the first 10 or 12 pages. Indicate the character arc to come, what the hero wants or needs etc.



A life changing event that propels the hero out of the comfort zone and confronts him with the need to act in order to restore the balance



Sometimes the hero has a choice after the catalyst event, sometimes not. In any case, the pages between catalyst and break into act two should show how daunting the task ahead is, for example by having the hero struggle with the decision or show how he and/or others hesitate face the unavoidable.


Break into Two

Major changes take place on all level as the movie progresses from the ordinary world into the world of the adventure. At the heart of the change is the hero’s decision to act.


B Story

It’s not entirely clear what the B story is really. In most screenplays, Snyder says, it’s the love story. The B story gives the viewer a breather after the abrupt break into act two. Characters of the B story don’t necessarily appear in act one. Snyder says ‘the B story does a lot’, but not how it contributes to plot and character arcs. Anyway, it starts on page 30.


Fun and Games

The story begins to develop, based on the setup until here. This part is lighter in tone, because the heavy work of introducing characters and situations has been done. (Writing this part might be less fun than watching it, though.)



This can be an up-point where the hero is seemingly at his peak or a down-point where everything around him sees to crumble. However, both peak (victory) or low (defeat) will be false. The dynamics of the film change. Fun and games are over. It’s back to the story now. Matching beat: All Is Lost (75).


Bad Guys Close In

If the midpoint was a high (false victory) then the bad guys regroup. The book says nothing about the case that the midpoint was a low (false defeat) but it seems clear that the hero gathers new strength in this case while the bad guys consolidate and prepare for the final attack.


All Is Lost

The hero reached the end of her wits, often facing death in one way or another.


Dark Night of the Soul

Expands on the hero’s dilemma. How does he feel about it? How does he react? Will he accept the situation? Will he break? Is there a solution?


Break into Three

Based on all previous development in both A and B story a solution is found that now needs to be implemented.



The lessons learned are applied. The bad guys are defeated in ascending order. The finale ends with the hero’s triumph.


Final Image

The last thing you see. The opposite of the opening image, reflecting the development and outcome of the movie. proof of change.

Table 2: The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet

The columns Break into Two and Break into Three denote the breaks into act two and three, respectively. So also Snyder suggests three acts for a well formatted movie script and the breaks (23% and 77%, respectively) come at roughly the same moment as in Field’s table. Throw in the fact that Field isn’t fanatic about the exact percentages and there’s no difference at all. Just more details.

The explanations in the book are a bit thin and don’t cover all the options. However, the beat sheet is clearly one possible goal to shoot for. It helps keeping focus.

The Hero’s Journey

The Hero’s Journey is a story based approach. It structures the story into stations that the hero should pass. The table below lists the main stations. The details can be extensive.


Ordinary World

The ordinary world of mundane, everyday affairs is the hero’s background and origin. This can be a fantasy world but it is a world that the hero* is used to. It contrasts strongly with the special world that he will soon enter.


Call To Adventure

An event that destabilizes the ordinary world of the hero and makes him understand the need to change. This can be a message, an internal voice, a loss, running out of options etc. Also called the inciting incident or catalyst.


Refusal of the Call

The hero may hesitate to heed the call to adventure. This leads to complications until she finally follows the call. The way the hero hesitates can be used to reveal character or special circumstances/dangers of the adventure. The refusal can also happen later or several times or not at all (willing hero).


Meeting with the Mentor*

Before the hero embarks on the journey he meets his mentor who teaches him what he needs. Even if there is no explicit mentor character the hero normally accesses some special knowledge in preparation of his quest. A mentor can also become overprotective or turn against the hero. Mentors can be evolved heroes.


Crossing the First Threshold
(break into act two)

An act of will through which the hero commits to the adventure. Might be brought about by an external event or it can be a decision made by the hero as she is running out of options. This corresponds to the break into act two often symbolized by crossing a physical threshold (a river, an ocean, a border etc.)


Tests, Allies, Enemies

The hero enters a strange new world which is very different from the ordinary world - externally, internally or both. He must learn the rules of the new world and faces harder tests. These can come from continued training by the Mentor or originate in the new environment. In the process the hero makes allies and enemies. Teams may be forged at this stage.


Approach to the Inmost Cave

Being acquainted with the basic rules of the new world, the hero makes plans, further explores the environment, organizes the group, arms himself etc. He and the group faces further obstacles as they progress toward the goal.



The ordeal is the most important event of the story. Vogler also calls it the Supreme Ordeal. It can happen at the midpoint or at the end of act two. Often the hero faces death - his own, that of an opponent, of an ally or all of the above. The ordeal can also be a change of heart - the death of the hero’s old personality.


(break into act three)

The hero reaps the fruits of having confronted and survived death. She is recognized as being different and may acquire special powers, gain new insights and support. She now goes to get what she came for in the first place. This can be an external object or an intangible, internal value.


The Road Back

Most heroes now return to the ordinary world. They arrive at the decision through inner resolve or it is brought about by external circumstances. For example, enemies defeated in the previous stage regroup and attack to take back the prize.



The climax of the movie. The hero faces a second ordeal, usually on a broader scale than the Supreme Ordeal in act two. It is the final test where he must prove he learned the lessons of act two and ‘qualify’ to return to the ordinary world.


Return with the Elixier

The hero applies the lessons learnt, changing his life or the life of others, healing wounds. Subplots unwind, final rewards and punishments are handed out, remaining questions are answered. The story still can end with a surprise, with a twist, some new questions can be raised, some may be left unanswered (open ending).

Table 3: The Hero’s Journey (based on to The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler)

Structuring the Hero’s Journey into three acts should be approached with flexibility. The Hero’s Journey is first of all a story approach. For example, willing heroes will not refuse the call to adventure. In this case the dangers of the adventure will be communicated in a different way, for example by a character that warns the hero and advises against the enterprise (threshold guardian*.) Mentors* can appear at various stages throughout the movie. In tragedies the hero may die in the resurrection stage.

The Hero’s Journey can also be applied to sub-plots and to internal and external aspects of the main character’s plot. The Reward may be an internal victory while an external goal will be accomplished in the resurrection stage.

Still, the efforts of The Writer’s Journey to apply the three act structure seem to speak for its continued importance in script writing.

Exceptions from the rule can be found in MeKee’s book Story which analyzes several movies with four and five acts.

*Hero, herald, mentor and threshold guardian are names of archetypes, which are explained in detail in The Writer’s Journey and in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.





Robert McGee

Hard Cover
480 pages

Trilane aStorebuy-from-amazon


Syd Field

336 pages

Trilane aStorebuy-from-amazon

Save The Cat_Snyder

Save The Cat
Blake Snyder

216 pages

Trilane aStorebuy-from-amazon

Thousand Faces_Campbell

The Hero With a Thousand Faces
Joseph Campbell

Hard Cover
480 pages

Trilane aStorebuy-from-amazon

Writer's Journey_Vogler

The Writer’s Journey
Christopher Vogler

300 pages

Trilane aStorebuy-from-amazon