There are various explanations of three-act story structure out there, and I find most of them unhelpful, including this basic one. I’m particularly amazed that some people even describe Act I as the beginning, Act II as the middle, and Act III as the ending, as though this very simple explanation somehow unlocks the mysteries of story structure for writers.

Nevertheless, I do have my own way of thinking about story acts that I’ve found helpful. I prefer to think of the three acts not so much as fixed sections that will occupy a certain percentage of the story but as three essential elements of a story.

(I should emphasize that my approach to three-act structure doesn’t work for all stories, but it does work for a certain type of story that is very common, particularly stories that focus on a character learning a lesson. If you’ve read some of my other posts, you know that I have a bias toward this type of story.)

Here is how I see the three essential elements/acts of a story:

Act 1 establishes the main character’s mistaken belief or misguided behavior.

Act 2 is the extraordinary journey or experience that forces the main character to confront and re-examine his or her mistaken belief or misguided behavior.

Act 3 involves the main character choosing a new way of acting that shows that he or she has learned their lesson.

This approach to stories can be found across various genres in many movies, several of which I’ll discuss below.

But because we recently had the holiday season, I wanted to examine in greater detail how these three acts work in the Christmas classic It’s A Wonderful Life, which has remained a timeless story because it so effectively executes on these three essential story elements.

I’ll add one final disclaimer to this post: screenplays, of course, don’t have designated acts. Acts are a construct to help conceptualize story structure, so reasonable people can disagree on where a particular act begins and ends. That’s why I prefer to think of acts more as elements or movements within a piece. The acts I’ve defined below for It’s A Wonderful Life do not in fact exist. They simply represent my way of breaking up and understanding the structure of the story.

Act 1 of It’s A Wonderful Life

 

Act 1 establishes the main character’s mistaken belief or misguided behavior.

George Bailey’s mistaken belief is that it would have been better if he had never been born.

Of course, we don’t actually hear George say this until the end of Act 1, which is one of the longest first acts in a movie because it needs to establish a lot of background information so that the audience understands why George would think that.

In the opening pages of the script, we hear various people praying for George and learn from heavenly voices that George Bailey is thinking of killing himself. The angel Clarence gets his mission to help George and will spend an hour learning (with the audience) about George.

This set-up in effect establishes two related questions: who is George Bailey and what happens to him that makes him want to kill himself? It is these two questions that make all of the background we get in the first act interesting.

If the story had instead started without Clarence’s mission and these two questions, showing only various vignettes from George’s life, the audience would have become bored very quickly and wondered where all of it was going. But because of the framing questions, we watch the vignettes like detectives examining clues that will add up to answer the two questions.

It also helps that each of the opening vignettes has its own self-contained drama, generally involving bad things happening to George, including the repeated thwarting of his plans for his life as well as the eventual threat of him going to jail.

These vignettes take up the first 131 pages of the 169-page script. While most films give us 10 to 35 pages of first-act material, It’s A Wonderful Life gives us much more, and I suspect that part of the lasting appeal of the movie is that we know considerably more about this character than most film characters.

Compare George Bailey to Peter Quill of Guardians of the Galaxy. The only background things we know about Quill are that his mom died when he was a boy, he was kidnapped by aliens, and his mom made mixtapes for him.

On the other hand, with George, we know two significant moments from his childhood (rescuing his brother and preventing Mr. Gower from poisoning someone), we know his family members, we know how George and his wife, Mary, ended up together, we know about George’s kids, and we know about the various people George has helped in Bedford Falls. That’s considerably more information.

I suspect the show Lost was hugely popular for a similar reason. With each episode, the flashbacks would feed us background information about the characters, so, over time, we learned more and more about them and how they had suffered in the past. As a result, we cared more about the characters’ fate.

Although we learn a lot about George in the first act, none of the information is extraneous. All the information factors into the second and third acts.

You can read the screenplay for It’s A Wonderful Life here.

 

Other Examples of Mistaken Beliefs or Misguided Behavior in First Acts  

 

Inside Out: The first act establishes Joy’s mistaken belief that Sadness has no value. We see Joy trying to contain Sadness, who is always upsetting Riley and ruining her mood.

Silver Linings Playbook: The first act establishes Pat’s misguided behavior of trying to get back with his ex-wife as he takes various actions to improve himself to win her back.

The Mule: The first act establishes Clint Eastwood’s character’s misguided behavior: namely, he always chooses work over family.

 

Act 2 of It’s A Wonderful Life

 

Act 2 is the extraordinary journey or experience that forces the main character to confront and re-examine his or her mistaken belief or misguided behavior.

In Act 2, Clarence the angel takes George on the extraordinary journey of seeing what the world would be like if he hadn’t been born. This journey forces George to directly confront his mistaken belief that everyone would be better off if he hadn’t been born.

This part of the script begins on page 137 and ends on page 159 of the 169-page script. It is a very short second act that quickly pays off all of the background context that the first act set up. For example, the first act setup about Mr. Gower pays off with the revelation that Mr. Gower is now an object of ridicule and a former convict in Bedford Falls.

 

Other Examples of Second-Act Extraordinary Journeys

 

Inside Out: What’s the extraordinary journey that forces Joy to confront her mistaken belief that Sadness has no value? Joy must travel with Sadness through Riley’s mind as they try to get back to headquarters and restore Riley’s core memories. Through this journey, Joy comes across a sad memory that reveals how Riley’s sadness led to Riley’s parents and friends supporting her during a low moment. As a result, Joy realizes that Sadness has value.

Silver Linings Playbook: The extraordinary journey of the second act needn’t be a high-concept idea. The journey or experience must merely be something that is out of the ordinary for the character. In Silving Linings Playbook, what is unusual for Pat is hanging out with Tiffany and preparing for the dance competition. This experience forces him to re-examine his fixation on his ex-wife.

The Mule: The second act of this movie involves the extraordinary experience of an elderly male serving as a mule for a drug cartel. This experience forces Clint Eastwood’s character to once again choose between work and his family and thereby confront his past misguided behavior of always choosing work over family.

 

Act 3 of It’s A Wonderful Life

 

Act 3 involves the main character choosing a new way of acting that shows that he or she has learned their lesson.

Act 3 of the movie, as I define it, occupies pages 160 to 169, but the actual choice George makes is only a very short paragraph on page 160. George runs to the bridge and declares to Clarence, who is not there, that he wants to live again. This shows that George has abandoned his mistaken belief that it would have better if he’d never been born.

The rest of the third act consists of the resolution scenes, showing how George now sees his life in Bedford Falls as beautiful and how the people he helped during his life come to his house to save him.

 

Other Examples of Third-Act Climatic Choices

 

All of the below movies find different ways to dramatize the climactic choice.

Inside Out: Joy realizes the value of Sadness at the end of the second act and, then, in the third act, chooses to get Sadness back to headquarters, where Sadness can “drive” Riley. Joy’s struggle to return Sadness to headquarters, a goal Sadness resists, is how the writers dramatize the third act and Joy’s choice.

Silver Linings Playbook: The dance competition presents Pat with a choice between his ex-wife, who is in attendance, and Tiffany. Before we learn his choice, we get the drama of whether Pat and Tiffany will earn a 5 for their performance, which they do. Pat then talks to his ex-wife, but we don’t hear what is said, which adds to the suspense surrounding what he will choose. Pat then chases after Tiffany, and we learn that he had in fact chosen Tiffany off-screen a week before.

The Mule: Clint Eastwood’s character must choose between following his mule route to a T (or otherwise being killed by the cartel) and departing from his mule route to see his ex-wife, who is dying. In other words, he must choose between work and family with life-and-death consequences involved in both options. He chooses his family, even though it means the cartel will then try to kill him.

In the case of The Mule, the drama involves suspense: first, as to what choice he will make, and second, as to what will befall Clint Eastwood’s character for disobeying the cartel.

 

The Limits of Three-Act Structure

 

Knowing the three acts as defined in this post won’t tell you the exact details of all the scenes you need to write.  

For example, even knowing the broad journey of Joy in Inside Out wouldn’t necessarily tell us that there would be a specific scene in the third act where Joy uses an imaginary-boyfriend generator to help her snatch Sadness off a cloud and get back to headquarters.  

So, three-act structure isn’t everything.

Nevertheless, these three elements provide a high-level view of your story that will help you navigate the extraordinary journey of writing a screenplay or novel. 

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