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Three-Act Structure Storytelling in Cinema

Categories: CinemaStar Wars

Course Title: BA Film and Television (Year 2)

Essay Title: Using TWO film examples of your own choice, discuss the strengths and limitations of the three-act structure as a method of storytelling in cinema. You may wish to compare classical narrative with the alternative strategies of art cinema.

“Good screenwriting is the art of discovery.”- Syd Field, from his book Four Screenplays

Discovery is the route of innovation. To understand the crux of attaining a “great screenplay” one must follow a structure that fits the story one wants to narrate.

There are several different styles of structures that screenwriters follow. Few of the most popular ones include; the hero’s journey, Syn fields paradigm, the sequence approach (8 scene structure) and last but most widely used style, the three-act structure.

Over the years, the 3-act structure has received criticism for restraining one’s creativity, yet it is the most widely used structure in cinema, and is also the first structure taught to budding writers.

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The 3 act structure does possess a few limitations, yet it has produced classics like Die Hard, Titanic, Star Wars, Raiders of the lost arc, etc. This essay will be focusing on Titanic and Star Wars in order to assess and encode the strengths and limitations of the three-act structure as a method of storytelling in cinema.

The 3-act structure follows a simple flow; Act 1 includes the set up and introduction. Act 2 is the confrontation and rising action, which leads us to a crisis point and eventually the final act- the resolution.

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Act one and two contain plot points that initiates the beginning of a new act.

With regards to Titanic, we see a compelling love story retold as the centerpiece of the historical sinking of a ship and how two star crossed lovers try to fight against prejudice in social classes. The rich detailing of the characters in the story structure, and the tragedy they experience in the face of the sinking cause us to sympathize with them and maybe even shed some tears. This is what good story telling can do- it can create a masterpiece which remains etched in the memories of its viewers forever.

Act 1 – Step and Introduction

The introduction of a story is basically where the writer introduces its readers to the characters of the story, the world they live in, the conflict that arises and the action that compounds the conflict. The writer uses this base to recreate a historical situation with some distortions to reality, in order to make the audiences believe in the magic of the story. A gripping story is one which convinces its audience about the truth of an incident, no matter how much it may differ from the actual historical moment. In the world of movies, there is a very thin line between fact and fiction and the writer has to maintain the right kind of balance to evoke appropriate emotion from his/her audiences. The first act must include an inciting incident to hook in the audience and keep them hooked till the climax.

We are introduced to the protagonist and story teller Ms Rose DeWitt Bukate who narrates her voyage on the Titanic to her granddaughter and a crew of men in search of necklace named as ‘The Heart of the Ocean’. We go back in years to April 1912 in Southampton, when the Titanic sets sail and the 17year old Rose meets Jack. In the first act we understand the class situation surrounding both Jack and Rose and what prejudices, they must face in order to be together. Rose has already been engaged to the affluent Cal Hockley and Rose’s mother Ruth who accompanies them, believes that this union will solve many of the family’s financial problems and help them retain upper class status, that she so much desires.

The delighted passengers who bid adieu to their family friends are unaware of the tragic end that meets them at the bottom of the Atlantic ocean. The set up involves a flashback which takes through the story line in real time. As we understand Rose’s character better, we know that she loves art as proved by the stock of paintings which she brings along with her. Cal (Billy Zane), her fianc?e doesn’t understand her interests and we know that Rose is unhappy and is explains why she is drawn to Jack (Leonardo Dicaprio) later. Jack who is the stark opposite for everything Cal stands for. We see several instances of social class classes where Rose befriends Molly Brown (Kathy Bates), someone who is looked down by Ruth as she comes from a world of ‘new money’. Rose is a ‘new world’ kind of girl herself; she smokes cigarettes, she doesn’t judge people by their economical status or otherwise and she detests social fallacies.

The inciting incident comes in when a very unhappy Rose runs away from the snobbish classes in the dining hall and tries to commit suicide by trying to jump out of the ship. Jack saves her and convinces her to climb back onto the ship. Thus, begins this unlikely friendship which later gives birth to a passionate undying romance. This forms the crux of the plot in the movie.

The script of Titanic has structural integrity but has a few flaws. The strength of this story lies in the breathtaking visuals offered and the emotive potential of the characterization of everyone in the movie, from the main actors to the supporting casts. The vision of the lifeless bodies floating adrift, helpless people clamoring for safety, and the heartbreaking scenes of family men giving their places to their wives and children on lifeboats tugged at every heartstring in the country.

The limitations of the script is wherein we see so many things happening in the background, that its suddenly becomes quite overwhelming for the spectator to ingest all of it at one go. The historical tragedy of the sinking, the live story between Jack and Rose, which was fictional and the tragic ending causes the viewer to have a distorted idea of what the movie was really like. Intense emotions can blind the critical viewpoint of a viewer and sometimes one feels that the love story may have been a little out of place in this historical setting.

Act 2 is the confrontation and rising action

The second act poses a challenge to the writer as the writer has to now justify the enticing intro to his story. He has now created the characters, the base, the surroundings, but it’s not the end. He has to tell us what happens to the characters and how it all ends for them. The stakes are high and decisions have to be made because emotions run high in the climax we have to build the crescendo for it.

Rose decides to give into her budding feelings for Jack when she sees him waiting for on the bow of the ship. The overall ambience of the movie now helps in building this romance so that the viewer feels the same sense of anticipation as the actors. The second act doesn’t start until much later as the writer has taken his time to get us introduced to the characters in the movie. This is really important has creating this relationship ensures that we empathize with the characters when they die. The allies, subplot characters and the opponents who face the similar fate as Jack and Rose show us that death comes to the poor and rich alike.

The second instance of confrontation and rising action is the tussle between her existing relationship with Cal, the constant pressure from her mother and Jack’s deepening influence on her. The sexual and romantic tension we experience when Jack draws a portrait of her as she lies down wearing nothing but the necklace and how they make love at the backseat of car is all the part of the rising action in the script. After this the script makes rapid headstart towards the climax. We are constantly moved around to see different parts of the story happening at the same time. The moment when the ship hits the iceberg, the reaction of the captain when he realizes that ‘Titanic’ is not unsinkable, Rose deciding to run away with Jack , Jack getting arrested for a diamond in his pocket which was planted by Love Joy. Rose and Jack reach the lifeboat and Cal tells her to go forward saying that Jack would follow on another lifeboat. It doesn’t take her long to realize that Cal has tricked her and Jack will meet a deathly end. Rose jumps out without a thought. She makes the decision to join Jack back into the ship where she shows that the movie considers Love to be the central point of the plot. The crisis point is here and now with Jack and Rose trying to escape from the sinking ship. Cal tries to shoot them and then gives up the chase to escape into a lifeboat. We are led into a panic chase where Rose and Jack try to move through flood hallways and locked gates. Intercut into parallel story lines to show us the end of the characters we were introduced earlier. The viewer privately mourns as we witness the death of an elderly couple in bed, mothers, childrens and the captain who went down into the ship. Rose and jack stay afloat on a plank and Jack lets go so that Rose can hold on. The intense fact paced action and crisis leads to subdued horror as we look at an end we didn’t expect.

Act 3 Resolution:

Rose in today’s age ends her tale and we can see that she is grateful to Jack for saving her life and showing her what true love and sacrifice is. Flashbacks come in to show us that Cal met his end with financial depression. Rose gives them the ‘Heart of the Ocean’ and the scriptwriter creates a surreal moment where Rose and Jack unite on the ship along with other lost souls aboard the Titanic.

Stars Wars

All of Star Wars movie contain a 3 act structure and similar to each film. Act 1 involves an escape. Act 2 delves on infiltration and third act is confrontation. The strengths of the Star Wars movie is the characterisation, the strong storylines, the connection between its sequels and the structural definition which takes us from one act to the next.

Act 1:

The first act of a Star Wars movie is always theatrical, both the situation and principle behind it. The characters are introduced to us in a dramatic manner so that we can mirror the mood and the ambience of the storyline. In the new hope Leia is kidnapped by Darth Vader. Her prince in shining armor is a simpleton who lives on the farm with his uncle and aunt. He dreams of greener pastures outside of the farm, inspite of his restrictions. The incitement occurs when Luke purchases R2D2 and C3PO. He realises that Leia is miserable but feels helpless as he is needed back in the farm.

Act 2 :

The second act is about making decisions. Luke needs to make a choice between helping Leia or his family. This choice makes a pathway for the evolving storyline. A twist in the story shows us that his farm is burnt down and the family gone with it. Luke then makes a decision to go along with Ben and leaves his old life behind.

There are many subplots in the movie where Luke meets new characters and has to tackle them in order to move forward.

The obstacles he and ben face pushes them to use the force. They meet Han, Solo and Chewbacca. Han has a difference of opinion with Jabba the Hutt. When stormtroopers attack them, Luke and team escape to the hyperspace. Act two finds its midpoint when they reach Alderaan only to find it demolished. They are farthest from reaching their objective when the obstacles pile up. There are so many things going on here, that only an avid star wars viewer would be able to get a hang of what’s going on here. While the power beams need to be disabled, Leia needs to be freed from the prison which the storm troopers attack.

Act 3

The 3rd act brings us to the conclusion where the crisis culminates into a major battle. Luke feels that this is the end when he picks up the courage to face the problem. Han, Luke and Leia manage to escape the clutches of the death star but are crushed to know that Ben has died. They resolve to take the help of the rebels to bring down the Darth Vader. All the characters get into a major battle preparing to destroy the death star.

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Three-Act Structure Storytelling in Cinema. (2019, Nov 30). Retrieved from

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