Nearly every academic look at screenwriting will touch on the importance of the Three Act Structure in a classically satisfying narrative. The modern consensus has settled on Syd Field’s Paradigm as the prime example, from his indispensable book; Screenplay – The Foundations of Screenwriting. The Paradigm is a series of specific plot beats (which won’t be covered here). Field has concluded that since the second act is typically twice as long as Act 1 and 3, and usually twice as boring, it is actually two acts: Act 2A and Act 2B, separated by an important dramatic event at the mid-point of the film.
Example: Iron Man. Act One features exposition in the form of Tony’s flashback after being captured by terrorists in the inciting incident. He escapes using a crude suit he’s built. He’s changed, and this is the catalyst to his struggle with abandoning weapons of war, and building the Iron Man suit in Act Two. 2A is mostly Tony perfecting the suit, hiding it from romantic interest Pepper Pots, and coming into conflict with his associate Sade. It reaches the midpoint, where he uses the completed suit to take out the terrorists. In 2B, Pepper Pots discovers Tony is Iron Man and that Sade was in league with the terrorists and has constructed his own suit. Act Three is the battle between Tony and Sade, with Tony winning, and revealing his identity at a press conference.
The Five Act Structure is most commonly highlighted in Shakespeare’s work, as well as other plays. The terminology originally used for the Five Act structure has changed somewhat. It features Exposition (setting up the world, characters, and key conflict of the story), Complication (a ratcheting of tension and conflict to a fever pitch), Climax (not the conclusion of the story, but the midpoint where the tension breaks in a defining moment), Falling Action (characters deal with the fallout from the “climax”, they will either fail or rise to the occasion in the wake of this), and Catastrophe (this is the conclusion of the film, with a final confrontation, where your protagonist succeeds or fails).
The five act structure is, however, not an outdated formula, but a structure present in many modern popular and streamlined films. Circling back to Iron Man, if one were to line up its plot with the Five Act structure, it would also fit nicely. If the midpoint between 2A and 2B constitutes a fair amount of screen time, which it should, then it constitutes an act within the broader Act Two. This means that in a typical film with a three act structure, more than likely, what you actually have, is Act One, an Act Two so long it constitutes three briefer acts, and the resolving Third Act.
Saying a film has Five Acts is akin to acknowledging that the act breaks in the middle of your story exist. As with everything in storytelling, these things can shift and adapt to different stories, i.e. the fourth act of five shifting into the position of the third act of three, rather than forming the conclusion of 2B (as in The Lion King, which has an extraordinarily long first act, and so crams this fourth beat in right before the climax of the final act). Knowing this may help you better keep track of your story’s form, without having to adhere to the more vacuous understanding of the “Three Act Structure”. Use it to make your Second Act more compelling!
For a more detailed account on this idea, check out this video:
Syd Field, Screenplay – The Foundations of Screenwriting.
Syd Field, The Screenwriter’s Handbook.
Michael Tucker, Lessons from the Screenplay – The Avengers – Defining an Act.
Gustav Freytag, Die Technik des Dramas.
John Yorke, Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into Story.