Screenplay Structure (Part #4)


Getting Busy

In this 4-Act structural scenario, “Act Three” is the latter half of the old Act Two.  This is the section of your story from the midpoint up to the events that make the end inevitable.  This is the period in which the main character comes to understand what it is that s/he must do.  It’s the point in action movies when the hero forms a plan of attack against the villains.  In a love story, it’s usually the point where the main character realizes they’re chasing the wrong person.  In a horror movies, it’s the point when the characters realize what kind of demon they are up against.  From this point forward, it becomes about the main character using his or her acquired knowledge, skills and allies to escape, conquer, vanquish or win over the people or things they need to resolve their situation.  Usually, there is still some piece of the puzzle missing that the main character doesn’t learn until Act Three. The detective knows how the victim died but not who the victim is yet; a lover knows who s/he wants to be with, but that person is about to become unattainable because it’s too late; and the action hero’s most important object/family member/lover/friend is kidnapped and needs to be rescued.

Rising Conflict

Throughout this period, the hero becomes more confident and directed, which demands a greater response from the antagonist to stop them.  This is what complicates the main character’s situation and ups the stakes.  In “This is Where I Leave You,” this is when Jason Bateman’s character Judd’s shows up to tell him that she’s pregnant.  In “Die Hard,” it’s when John McClane finds out what the bad guys are really doing and has the detonators to stop them.  As the protagonist becomes wiser and more skilled, the antagonist has to become more determined and focused in order to keep putting challenges in front of the main character.  This should lead to a moment when the antagonist in your story does something that forces the main character to to make a choice that will irrevocably alter his or her course.  In “Lethal Weapon,” it’s when the bad guys kidnap Murtaugh’s daughter.  Murtaugh has to choose whether to do things his way, which aren’t working, or Riggs’ way which is the violence Murtaugh wanted to avoid.  In “This is Where I Leave You,” it’s when Judd Altman has to decide whether to forgive his ex-wife and move on with his life or to remain lost his own anger.   In “Say Anything,” it’s when Diane (Ione Skye) breaks up with Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) to spend more time with her father.  Lloyd has to decide whether to give up or fight for her, which he does by standing outside her window with his boombox.

The Lowest Moment

The end of this act is what is known as the “Lowest Moment” because it is the moment when the main character has exhausted all of his or her resources – time, money, emotion, intellect and allies – and has to decide if s/he should surrender or dig deeper and find the strength to confront the antagonist.  Usually, this involves confronting all aspects of the characters weakness.  There’s usually a physical component: the character has get somewhere difficult; s/he is out-manned; s/he has no resources left.  There’s an emotional component: what’s at stake is terribly valuable to them, and failure would devastate them.  There is a psychological element: they don’t know if they have the confidence in themselves to pull it off.  And there is often an outright survival component: if the main character fails, they won’t be able to survive physically or emotionally.  The more developed your character and the greater the challenges that s/he has faced along the way, the more your audience will fear for your character and root for their survival.  This is what will compel your characters into the inevitable final act.


Act Four, as we’re now calling it, is everything that happens from the moment the main character makes the choice to take on the final challenge facing him or her.  This decision must be inevitable.  The stakes must be huge.  If not, there is nothing to root for and the audience won’t be satisfied when the conflict is resolved.  This act is when the main character takes everything that s/he has learned and all the changes that s/he has gone through and puts them to effective use.  As a result, the main character will end up getting not necessarily what s/he thought was needed at the beginning of the story but what they truly need.  In romantic comedies, it’s never the boy or girl the main character thought they wanted, it’s the one who always loved them.  In action movies, it’s usually what the main character had previously lost, usually some sense of family or love.  In horror movies, it’s a new appreciation for life that the main characters took for granted at the stop of the story.  In mysteries, it’s the self-esteem that the main character was secretly lacking (and concealing) at the beginning of the story.



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