• Anthony Hett

How to write a short film - Three act structure

Hello and welcome to my blog, where I offer simple and practical advice on how to write and make an interesting, engaging and hopefully successful short film.

In today‘s blog post I will be taking a look at the Three act structure. Not my favourite topic but something that I feel it is important to cover.

The three-act structure is a model used in narrative fiction that divides a story into three sections known as acts, often referred to as the Setup, the Confrontation or Build and the Resolution or Payoff. In very simply terms, the three act structure enables you to make sure that your story has a strong and well defined beginning, middle and end.

So what should each act include:

Act I – The setup

Act one is used to set up the world of the story. It introduces the main characters, their relationships with one another and also to the world in which they live. The first act should also include an inciting incident (at around 10 pages in a feature script) which removes the character from their comfortable zone and sets them on a journey of some kind.

In a short film, it is usually a good idea to keep the setup as short as possible. I would recommend trying to keep it to 1-2 pages - for a 10-15 minute short. Otherwise a long first act will lead to one of two problems. A film that is longer than it needs to be (checkout my last blog on: How long should a short film be?) or an unbalanced script with a really long first act and shorter second and third acts.

Act II – Confrontation or Build

The second act is where the majority of the action takes place and should take up around 60% of your screenplay (with the first and third acts both making up around 20% of your script). At the end of the first act the protagonist is usually faced with a problem or a challenge. In the second act they attempt to solve this issue. However, they find several obstacles in their way which are stopping them from achieving their goal.

Again in a short film, this needs to be condensed. That could mean either less obstacles, or obstacles that are easier to overcome.

Act III – Resolution or Payoff

Act three is where the main plot as well (as several subplots in a feature film or episode of a series) come to a head and are resolved. This may be a happy, sad or more ambiguous ending but the protagonist has faced the antagonist and we are left with some sort of resolution.

When writing a feature film or an episode of a series, you might be looking to fill somewhere between 60-120 pages. In order to do this in a way that will keep the audience engaged until the end (as well as returning for future episodes or sequels) it is important to have several different storylines threading their way through the screenplay. When writing multiple storylines within the three act structure, it is important to remember to bring a resolution to all of these subplots and not just the main plot. While when writing a short film, it is often helpful to concentrate on trying to tell one story and trying to tell it well (checkout my post on the advantages of writing a film with Two characters and one location for more information).

So that is my fairly simple take on the three act structure. Hopefully you find it helpful. In order to fully understand the three act structure and how to use it, I would also recommend further research - there are lots of materials available; blogs, videos and books. I would highly recommend reading Screenplay by Syd Field which breaks down the three acts structure into an easy to follow formulae and also Saving the Cat by Blake Snyder which breaks down the three act structure into 15 beats. This further information will hopefully help you to use the three act structure within your screenplays because the three act structure is not the only structure used in films but it is the structure used in the majority of both features films and shorts film. While it is also important to remember that, if you should wish to use an alternative structure, it is always a good idea to learn the rules before you start to bend/break them.

One more short(ish) point I would also like to make is; I would highly recommend trying to write the first draft of your short film without thinking too much or at all about its structure. Instead concentrate on your character(s) and the story you want to tell. Simply start out by telling the story you want to in the way that you want to, with the amount of stories you have consumed through films/books/plays/etc over the years, it is quite likely that you will automatically structure your script as a three act story. Once your script is finished, you can then compare it to the three act structure and then you decide if and what changes need to be made.

So those are my thoughts on the Three act structure. I hope that you found it helpful. Let me know what you think in the comments below and also be sure to check out my YouTube videos. Thank you for reading and I will be back next week with a post looking at The Dan Harmon story circle.