One of the first things that a writer, especially a screenwriter, learns is the Three-Act Structure. This is a broad framework into which all stories (theoretically) can fit. It sketches out the basic beats that a story needs to hit in order to be coherent and compelling, and offers a way of organizing your tale as you set about filling that blank white page.
Like a scaffold on a construction site, the Three-Act Structure doesn’t dictate the specifics of what you are trying to create, but it does outline the basic shape and makes it easier to build your story as you go. Think of it like a roadmap: you don’t know exactly what will happen along the way yet, but you know the basic path you’ll be following to get there.
I’ve had several conversations with friends and family over the years about the elements and uses of the Three-Act Structure, but the biggest problem we’ve had was applying it to real-world situations. Anyone can talk about their “First Act” or their “Denouement,” and using those terms in a conceptual way is fairly easy, but identifying them within a practical story can be more difficult. I’ve used various stories, from Independence Day to Romeo and Juliet, as examples, but it’s still hard to cut away the details of that particular story and get to the common threads between them.
When I first saw The Avengers in 2012, I greatly enjoyed it as both a fan and a filmmaker. But the more I’ve watched it the more I’ve come to appreciate it structurally, as a superb example of storytelling and pacing. Joss Whedon has often commented in interviews about how complex a movie it was to write, having to juggle so many characters and sets and locations and relationships within a single movie, and it’s clear that his solution was to simplify the structure immensely, allowing people to stay invested in the storyline without getting lost or confused. While other filmmakers, such as Chris Nolan in Batman Begins, have used very complex story structures filled with flashbacks and cutaways and parallel action to tell their story, Joss Whedon’s The Avengers is much more direct and streamlined, and as such it makes a perfect example through which to explore the Three-Act Structure. He even offers a major change in location at the start of each act, making it very easy to identify where we are in the progression of the story.
Like Apple’s iPod or Google’s search page, Joss Whedon’s story structure draws elegance and power from simplicity.
And so, for anyone looking to better understand the principles of writing a screenplay (or almost any other kind of story), I offer you a step-by-step description of the Three-Act Structure, complete with analyses and suggestions, exemplified by Joss Whedon’s 2012 blockbuster, The Avengers. Be sure to watch the movie, or even follow along with it as you read, so you can get a feel for the pacing of each section, and feel free to offer any comments, thoughts, suggestions or questions at the bottom!
(Before the Helicarrier Takes Off)
The First Act is the start, the opening, the part of the story where everything is established and the board is set. Generally, you want to introduce all your main characters (good and bad), as well as any story-critical props, locations, and relationships. Think of it like a painter setting up their wooden palette: all the colors you’ll need by the end, gather them together now.
In The Avengers, the first act is easily identifiable: it’s everything that happens from the beginning of the film until the helicarrier lifts off. The very opening scene establishes the importance of the Tesseract, then we see Loki arrive on Earth and attack SHIELD (during which we meet Nick Fury, Maria Hill, Phil Coulson, Erik Selvig, Hawkeye, etc). This establishes the central problem of the film (i.e. “Loki has arrived on Earth with a plan to conquer the world”), followed by a sequence setting up each of the major heroes we’ll be following. Joss Whedon organizes his film so clearly that it’s almost like a checklist: first we meet Natasha Romanov, then Bruce Banner, then Steve Rogers, then Tony Stark. One by one, the major players are introduced. The only major character we don’t meet in the First Act is Thor, who appears just a few minutes into the Second. Every other major element of the film (Stark Tower, the quinjets, the helicarrier, the Tessaract, Loki’s scepter, Loki’s army, and so on) is highlighted at least once during the First Act, so the audience will recognize it later without feeling lost or confused.
The First Act is usually the first 25%-30% of the film, and by the end the audience should be familiar with every major element that will come into play later in the story, and should have a clear idea of what problem the hero is trying to fix.
- Setup: Most movies have a scene or two that occurs before anything bad happens: “it was a day like any other,” etc. Many action-oriented stories, though, skim or even skip this phase entirely, preferring to jump straight into the adventure. This technique, starting the story in the middle of the action, is called in media res, or “in the middle of things.” In The Avengers, this phase is barely touched upon: the Other speaks of the unsuspecting Earth in the opening monologue, and then we are immediately whisked off to a SHIELD facility where the Tessaract has kicked on, all by itself.
- Inciting Incident: The entire film’s plot follows from a single moment: the inciting incident. This establishes the problem that your movie is about, whether it’s Romeo and Juliet (“two people who cannot be together fall in love”) or The Exorcist (“a young girl has been possessed by the devil”). The more precise, simple, and clear this problem is, the better your audience will follow your story and the more invested they will be in it. In The Avengers, the inciting incident is the arrival of Loki: “a powerful and cunning villain has come to Earth with a plan to conquer the world.” Everything else in the film is the direct result of this event.
- Roll Call: This phase is actually my own invention, but I find it very useful to include. Roll Call is a way, as a writer, to consider whether you’ve set up everything you’ll need later on. Imagine an action movie in which, right at the end of the story, someone looks up and says “Oh wait, we’ve got the perfect weapon to kill these aliens!” Or imagine if Romeo and Juliet had ended with them abruptly finding other lovers, and going on to live happily ever after as friends. It would be awful, a total cop-out for the writer, and the audience would feel cheated. But if you set these things up in advance, it becomes an exciting part of the plot: the alien-killer weapon from the opening scene becomes a plot point during the climax, the romantic relationships are a subplot that pay off at the end. In The Avengers, the Roll Call is the series of scenes which establish the main characters, locations, items, and relationships that will come into play later on.
- Turning Point #1: The first Turning Point heralds the end of the First Act. This is the moment when the hero commits to addressing the problem, or agrees to go on the adventure. In The Avengers, the first Turning Point can be centered at the launch of the helicarrier: the Avengers have assembled, everyone begins working to stop Loki, and the adventure is officially underway.
(On the Helicarrier)
The Second Act contains the body of your story, in which the hero and villain begin to struggle against each other in earnest. To build tension, the villain often wins consistently: this makes the enemy seem powerful, and the stakes seem higher. The Second Act often features multiple attempts by the heroes to defeat the villain, each one being rebuffed.
In The Avengers, the Second Act takes place largely on the helicarrier. The heroes begin multiple efforts to stop Loki’s plans (Banner searches for the Tessaract, Captain America confronts Loki in Germany, Thor tries to bring Loki back to Asgard, Black Widow manipulates Loki into revealing his plan) but they are unable to defeat him. They also begin to confront other obstacles to their success, such as the hostility between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, Nick Fury’s deception about the use of the Tessaract, Bruce Banner’s control of the Hulk, and Hawkeye attacking the helicarrier). By the end, the heroes have begun to fully appreciate how much of a threat Loki is, and they are forced to come together and redouble their efforts to stop him.
The Second Act is usually the middle 50% of your story, and by the end the audience should have a clear picture of what the villain is trying to accomplish and how they’re going to do it, and what the hero hopes to do to stop them.
- Mounting Tension: The Second Act is defined by ever-increasing tension, as the hero’s efforts to defeat the villain fail again and again. The hero tries different plans, encounters other obstacles, and the threat grows bigger and bigger. In The Avengers, the Mounting Tension phase includes the capture of Loki, the internal strife among the Avengers, and the attack on the helicarrier.
- Midpoint: Usually, there is a major event that comes in the middle of the Second Act that serves to raise the stakes of the entire story. Some people refer to it as another Turning Point, but to me that is misleading: often this event merely continues the trend of events going in the villain’s favor, rather than actually changing anything. In The Avengers, the Midpoint is the attack on the helicarrier and the release of the Hulk: the stakes are raised, Loki’s power is reinforced in the audience’s mind, the chance of victory seems to be shrinking, and the tension continues to build.
- Turning Point #2: After spending the entire Second Act trying and failing to stop the villain, the hero comes to the second Turning Point. This is the moment in which the villain’s victory seems assured, and the hero must decide to make one final attempt at defeating them. In The Avengers, the second Turning Point comes when Tony Stark realizes Loki’s plan and the Avengers leave the helicarrier to head for New York.
(After the Avengers Leave the Helicarrier)
The Third Act contains the climax and the ending, where the problem of the story is resolved and the loose ends are tied up. It’s usually the most exciting part of the film, and will often contain many of the most memorable moments. Emotionally, it usually features things getting ever more dire and hopeless, until the hero wins at the last moment.
In The Avengers, the Third Act begins when the Avengers leave the helicarrier, having figured out Loki’s plan. There is a short dialogue scene between Tony Stark and Loki, but then the rest of the act is dominated by the Battle of New York. The tension continues to build over the course of the battle until it reaches a crisis point when the nuke is launched toward Manhattan, and then the climax comes and the heroes win the day. A final sequence wraps up the loose ends, and the film is concluded.
The Third Act is usually the last 25% of the story, and by the end the audience should feel fully resolved toward all characters and problems, and the story should be complete.
- Final Commitment: At the beginning of the Third Act, the hero commits to the final showdown with the villain. There is no longer any turning back, and usually there can be no fall-back plan either: it’s now or never, with everything on the line. In The Avengers, this is the Battle of New York, the final showdown with Loki and his army.
- Crisis: Despite the hero’s best efforts, the villain continues to win. Things get worse and worse and worse, adding tension to the narrative and making the situation ever more dire. Then, just before the climax, events take a sudden turn for the even-worse, ratcheting everything up just a little more. In The Avengers, this is the decision by the Council to launch a nuke at Manhattan: all of a sudden the battle to save the city, which hadn’t been going well anyway, gets much more hopeless.
- Climax: The climax isn’t actually the most exciting part of the story, necessarily; rather, it’s the moment when the hero finally succeeds. The problem set up back in the First Act is resolved, and the crisis is overcome. In The Avengers, this is Tony Stark’s delivery of the nuke through the portal just before it closes: the invasion is over, the threat of Loki has been overcome.
- Denouement: This is the “happily ever after” sequence that rounds out the film. It ties up any loose ends, gives the audience closure, and hints at what happened after the events of the film. In a major franchise, it also often sets up the sequel or teases a future villain. In The Avengers, the denouement establishes that Loki has been returned to Asgard, the Avengers have become international heroes, Steve Rogers has found peace in the modern world, SHIELD remains vigilant, and Tony Stark begins work on the future headquarters of the team within Stark Tower. The credits scene also establishes the larger threat looming in the future: Thanos.
So there it is, a rough outline of the Three-Act Structure as followed by The Avengers.
Of course, any movie will be much more complicated than this simple progression of steps, and each subplot within the overall story will have its own structure as well. But these subplots will still often follow a smaller version of the same structure. For example, the subplot of “how does Bruce Banner control the Hulk” could be summed up in three acts: the First Act is when we are introduced to the question of his “secret” (in the shack in Calcutta); the Second Act raises the tension as other characters (like Tony Stark) begin insisting on knowing the secret, and then Banner loses control on the helicarrier; and the Third Act comes during the Battle of New York, with the Crisis being the oncoming Leviathan which will surely kill him and the Climax being the reveal of his secret: he’s always angry.
Even a single scene can be divided into three acts. Take the showdown between Thor and Iron Man in the forest: the First Act starts with Tony Stark tackling Thor and confronting him, and establishes the problem of the scene (i.e. “two powerful heroes are fighting over the same target”); during the Second Act they each try more and more powerful attacks, but neither succeeds in overpowering the other; during the Third Act their fighting reaches a fever pitch with Thor’s hammer hitting Captain America’s shield and leveling a section of the forest (the Crisis) before they finally resolve the conflict by agreeing to work together (the Climax).
The Three-Act Structure is an incredibly powerful tool for a writer trying to focus their story and make it more accessible, understandable, and enjoyable to the audience. It’s powerful, precise, scalable, and applicable to a wide range range of mediums and genres. Hopefully this article has helped illustrate some of the finer points of this structural framework, and maybe has even altered how you see The Avengers and other films like it.
Do you think The Avengers is a good instance of structural storytelling, or do you have a better example? Have you used the Three-Act Structure in your work, or are you still trying to get a handle on it? Share your thoughts, comments, suggestions and questions below!