The best way to learn about the structure of a movie is to look at
real examples and find the important points for yourself. To help you
along, I have worked an example for you. The example that I
have chosen is The Matrix, written by Larry and Andy Wachowski.
The script I'm using is the final shooting script, dated August
12 1998 and reproduced in The Art of The Matrix, published
by Newmarket Press. If you have a copy, all the better for you.
If you have a copy of the movie, I encourage you to read through this
article, then watch the movie, noticing the major points in the plot,
then read the guide through again. If you don't have a copy, or you
haven't seen the movie more than once or twice, you may get a bit lost.
Sorry about that. I tried to pick a movie that a) pretty much everyone
here will have seen, b) a lot of people will have a copy of, c) is
a good example of three-act structure and d) I have a copy of the
script for. Needless to say, my choices were somewhat limited.
Oh, and if you haven't seen the movie, be warned: there will be
spoilers and plenty of them.
Last week we mentioned that you have ten minutes to grab the audience's
attention. The screenwriter, of course, has no control over physical
time (that's up to the director and editor, a theme which will return in
later articles). However, the writer does have one tool at their disposal.
Time in movies is measured in various ways. Animators tend to deal in
frames. (Frames are important when you have to draw each one by
hand.) Editors tend to deal in feet. The reason this works is that
the length of each frame or foot is fixed. There are 24 frames which are
displayed per second, and 36ft of film pass through a camera or projector
The writer also has a unit, and that is the page. Screenplays
are specially formatted (details in a later article) so that one page of script
approximately equals one minute of screen time. This is not 100%
accurate. A page containing only dialogue will generally take less
than a minute to perform, and a page containing only action will
generally take more. From now on, unless otherwise specified, we will
work in pages.
(Just to confuse things, assistant directors and unit production
managers work in eighths of pages in order to work out the shooting
schedules. We will take their cue and round fractions of pages to the
nearest eighth if we need that precision.)
An average-length screenplay weighs in at 120 pages, or approximately
two hours of screen time. (For comparison, The Matrix shooting
script is 121 3/8 pages.) This gives the editor some room to move,
cutting the film down to the average length of 100 minutes (3600ft).
About half of that 20 minutes will be a line or a piece of action here and
there to tighten up the pacing of the film. The rest will be "cut scenes",
which gives the studio something to put on the DVD.
What is an act?
An act is a difficult thing to pin down in screenwriting. In
live theatre, an act is easy to spot because between ats, the audience
gets to get up, go outside, get a drink or whatever. In commercial
television, an act is similarly easy to spot because there is a
commerical break (thus, once again, allowing the audience to get up
and move around, though in television this is not as common).
In movies, there is generally no break between acts, but the same
general idea is there as in other media: an act peaks with a climactic
scene which causes a major change for the protagonist, sending the
story off in a different direction. We will clarify this in future
The first act of a traditional three act movie is about 30 pages
long, taking up about a quarter of the available time. (In
The Matrix, it is 31 pages.) We have already looked at the
opening, in which the protagonist is introduced and the inciting
incident occurs (10--15 pages in; in The Matrix it's around
pages 11--14). The task of the rest of the act
is to introduce the rest of the main characters, culminating in the
first act turning point, or 1TP for short. The inciting
incident is what sets the story in motion, but the first act
turning point is what commits the protagonist to the story. Generally
it is a point from which there is no return.
The 1TP can always be phrased in the form of a question to be
answered later. More on this below.
The second act is about 60 pages long (64 in The Matrix),
taking up half the available time. The second act usually has a
structure which we will look at in a moment, but it can be summed up
as complications and conflict. The 1TP gave the
protagonist a goal, and in the second act, the protagonist edges
towards that goal, encountering obstacles to achieving it and
conflicting with the antagonists along the way.
The second act climaxes at the second act turning point (2TP),
a point at which the story takes another twist. In some movies, the
2TP may be a false ending, where the story appears to end
(e.g. in E.T., E.T. (Debra Winger/Pat Welsh) appears to die at
the 2TP, but doesn't really).
The third act is about 30 pages long (26 in The Matrix; in
films which have a large action component the third act is often short).
The two major tasks in the third act are to take us from the 2TP to
the climax, where the weight of the story so far plays out in
escalating action, usually ending in a confrontation between protagonist
and antagonist. After the climax is resolved, comes the resolution,
which concludes the chain of events and provides an answer to the question
posed by the 1TP.
More on Act II
One thing we mentioned in part 2 is that screen time cannot be
wasted. Generally the time between significant events in the movie
should be about 10--15 minutes or so. So from the start of the movie
to the inciting incident should be about 10--15 mins, from the
inciting incident to the 1TP should be about the same, from the 2TP to the
climax should be about that too, and from the climax to the end of the
movie should be about the same. These are, of course, only guides, and
if there is stuff to keep the audience's minds occupied, you can be quite
flexible with these timings.
That leaves 60 pages to fill in the middle of the movie. Many
poor scripts fall down here. The writer has thought up the start and
the end of the movie, but can't think of what to put in the middle.
This problem (and it's not unique to screenwriting; novels in particular
often suffer from this) is often referred to as sagging middle
for obvious reasons. Because of this, the second act is also structured.
Half-way through at about page 60 (page 61 in The Matrix) is
the mid point (MP for short). The mid point is often the point
in the movie where the protagonist is at his or her lowest, and a
decision is taken to press on regardless. It is often associated
with the revealing of a large clue. Often, it is the point at which
the protagonist faces (and barely escapes from) the first major obstacle.
To keep the story going around the midpoint, there will be two key
scenes to keep the story going, one half-way between the start of the
second act and the midpoint (around page 45; around pages 48--49 in
The Matrix) and the other between the midpoint and the 2TP,
around page 75 (pages 79--81 in The Matrix). After Syd Field,
we will call these pinch 1 and pinch 2. The pinches
are often related in some way, as we will see in the example.
A worked example
To illustrate the three-act structure, we will go through The
Matrix showing the major points in the plot and noting some
interesting things along the way.
The movie opens with an action sequence from pages 3--8 where Trinity
(Carrie-Anne Moss), who is later revealed as a relationship line
antagonist, escapes from Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), the action line antagonist. This illustrates
an interesting point, that an opening action sequence need not even
involve the protagonist.
In part 2, we noted that you have ten minutes (or a little over if
you have an opening action sequence) to introduce the normal life of the
protagonist and cause the inciting incident. If the
movie does open with an action sequence, it is very important to get to
the inciting incident as quickly as possible. If the action sequence
involves the protagonist (e.g. Raiders of the Lost Ark), this can
often double as exposition of normality. After all, if the protagonist
is an action hero, action sequences are their normal life! If
it does not, in the case of The Matrix, then the writer has a
problem. They have a very short amount of time left to introduce the
protagonist and cause the inciting incident. Put yourself in the shoes
of the writers for a moment. What would you do? Have a think about this
before you go on.
Okay, you didn't wait, so I'll tell you anyway: The Wachowski
brothers' solution is to interleave the two. This way we can
get to the inciting incident early (and thus start the story), and we
can also take our time with establishing normality. The first scene
shows Neo in his apartment "that seems overgrown with technology"
(p8), asleep in front of his computer. This establishes Neo as a
night-owl hacker. The contents of his screen are not mentioned in the
script, but in the movie, he is performing some kind of search on a
person named "Morpheus" (Lawrence Fishburne), later revealed as another relationship line antagonist. This is a useful addition because it establishes Neo's
interest in Morpheus. Neo wakes up as some cryptic messages appear on
his screen, telling him to "follow the white rabbit" (p9). This starts
the inciting incident: being contacted by Trinity and later Morpheus.
This is followed by Neo engaging in an illegal transaction with
Choi (Marc Gray), establishing that Neo does illegal things with his
hacking skills, during which he notices the white rabbit, which leads him
to the industrial music party. He is shown "feeling completely out of
place" (p12), establishing him as something of a loner. There he meets
Trinity and, in a conversation with her, establishes something of the
quest that he has set himself, to answer the question "What is the
Matrix?" (p14). This is followed by him being late for work next day
and being chewed out by his boss, establishing that this is not the first
time he has been in trouble for being late before. This is followed by
Morpheus contacting Neo himself.
This is actually quite a clever technique, and one worth emulating
if a writer is ever faced with the problem of both introducing a
protagonist and causing the inciting incident in a very short time.
Note how this is structured: Introduce a bit of Neo's life, then show
it being upset. Introduce a bit more, upset that. Repeat until the
inciting incident takes over.
This also establishes Neo's goal: To find out what is wrong with the
world, and to discover what the Matrix is for and what can be done
about it. The rest of the movie is Neo's voyage of discovery along
In the next part of the first act, the other major characters are
introduced to the protagonist: first, the action line antagonist,
Agent Smith, and his offsiders. Then, Morpheus' offsiders, followed
by Morpheus himself. The first act turning point occurs when Neo
leaves the Matrix and enters the "real world". Note that this is a
point of no return for our protagonist, though he does not realise
it at the time.
The second act starts in the "real world", and features a long exposition
sequence where Neo learns what's really going on. After this, Neo starts
his training. This culminates in the first pinch scene, where Neo first
fights Morpheus, and then attempts to jump between two rooftops "but
comes up drastically short" (p49). Neo learns two important lessons
here: First, ability is not enough by itself; you also need will. The
second is an expository point that people can die inside the Matrix.
This is followed by a number of scenes where Neo alternates between
learning and failing in various ways (obstacles) as well as feeling like
an outsider in a ship full of people who already know each other well
(conflicts; note that we have already established that Neo is a loner).
There is also a cryptic scene where Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) is revealed
(to us; not to Neo) as betraying the group. This sets up another
obstacle for Neo and sets the stage for more conflict later.
The midpoint occurs when Neo is taken back into the Matrix to
see the Oracle (Gloria Foster). This is the lowest point for Neo as
he recalls scenes and memories from his old life and reflects that "none
of them really happened" (p63). Neo then meets the Oracle and infers
from the meeting that he is not "the one" (an obstacle).
There follows a big action sequence as the trap laid by the agents
(with Cypher on their side) is sprung (more conflicts and obstacles).
The key scene is pinch 2, where Morpheus fights with Agent Smith,
apparently sacrificing himself to save Neo, who he believes is "the
one" (though we the audience know that Neo does not believe this, even
though we all hope he really is). Note how this mirrors the first
pinch where Morpheus fights Neo, followed by Neo failing on his "leap
of faith". As mentioned earlier, the two pinches are often related
in in some way.
They escape and Cypher dies (as many foils do), and so does most of
the crew, but Morpheus is still inside. This leads us to the second
act turning point where Neo decides to re-enter the Matrix believing
"I can bring him back" (p94). He re-enters with Trinity.
To cut a long story short, they save Morpheus, and he and Trinity
escape. A number of action scenes end with the climax, which is a
final showdown between the protagonist and the action line antagonist.
Neo wins and proves once and for all that "He is the One" (p119). He
escapes in the nick of time, gets the girl (the resolution), and sets
us all up for the sequels. FADE OUT.
The three act structure is now a fairly well developed structure in
Western literature. Many novels and plays (with the notable exception
of Elizabethan plays) are based on this structure.
I should stress that three acts is a minimum number for a feature-length film.
Short films may have less. Many feature films
have more. A.I., for example, has four acts. Four
Weddings and a Funeral has five, mirroring the Elizabethan
structure. Raiders of the Lost Ark has seven acts.
In a flashback narrative film, the "inner" story and the
"outer" story often both follow a three act structure. Rather than
go into these advanced structures and run the risk of total confusion,
we'll look at some of these in a later article.
First, the answer to last week's quiz question: The movie based on
Jack and the Beanstalk was Being John Malkovich. Two
people got it right. Those who have seen the movie should now realise
what was meant by the cryptic comment "the jewel thief movie", as noted
in one answer.
Your own-your-own homework for this week is: Pick a move you've already
seen. It can be the same as last week's. Identify the major characters
if you haven't already. Identify the protatonist's normality and the
inciting incident, if you haven't already.
Now identify the first act turning point, the midpoint, the second
act turning point and the climax. What question is raised by the
1TP? What is the resolution? Does it answer the question? Find
the first and second pinches. (You can use the timer feature of your
VCR or DVD player if you're having trouble with this.) Are they
What is the protagonist's goal? What are some of the obstacles
introduced to prevent the protagonist from attaining that goal? What
are some of the conflicts with other characters, or within the protagonist,
which also stand between the protagonist and the goal?
Are there any special problems in structure that the writer had to overcome? If so, what are they? How did the writer solve these? Did the
writer actually solve these problems successfully
at all? If you think there may be a
weakness in the script structure, but you're not able to articulate what it is, say so. Others may be able to help you out with your chosen movie.
Either way, please report back what you find.
Writing exercise: Flesh out your film. You have the opening
(I hope). Design the first and second act turning points and the
climax and resolution. For the second act, think of as many possible
obstacles to the protagonist achieving their goal as you can. This
is brainstorming time. Think of at least a dozen, and more if you can.
You can cut the list down later.
Design the midpoint and the two pinches. Do not write any dialogue
yet. It is very important that you have these points worked out in
advance, because this will provide you with a "road map" on where you
are going when it actually comes time to write.
Next week we will look into developing characters. What makes a
character interesting? Just how interesting does a character have to
be anyway? How can you help the audience to identify with a
One of these days I'll get around to doing the bibliography, too. I