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! Read More →