Editor’s Note: This post is in conjunction with a special summer program on Hulu called Hulu Summer Film School. This summer, Hulu is using some of your favorite films to explore how filmmakers use elements such as sound, cinematography, and lighting to tell powerful stories and create moments that are unforgettable. Learn more at hulu.com/film-school.
Before anyone ever utters “Lights! Camera! Action!” another famous triplet makes its appearance in the filmmaking process: Act One, Act Two, and Act Three.
The Three-Act Structure is the most basic and traditional form of structuring a story for film. While plenty of films can, and do, deviate, the Three-Act Structure remains the tried and true staple of screenwriting. Let’s dig a little deeper into each act, using the comedy classic “Ghostbusters” as a guide.
The purpose of the first act is to introduce the audience to our hero’s world: We experience his status quo. We see what’s missing in his life. We need to know how things are so we can see just how drastic the eventual changes can be.
In Ghostbusters, scientist Peter Venkman and his colleagues live a mundane life as paranormal researchers at a university. Venkman is especially lonely for love, to the point of messing with his own experiments to get close to a woman.
But Act One isn’t all about playing the name game with the hero. It also contains the inciting incident – the first time the hero’s status quo gets shaken up. Sometimes it’s an invitation for change; Other times, the change just lands in their lap. This call-to-action is irresistible: Though heroes may resist, they always give in.
When the university decides to strip their funding, Venkman and his colleagues are dismissed from campus.
Now, with nowhere to go, they decide to start their own little business – the “Ghostbusters.”
The second act in the three-act structure is the main meat of the film and is usually separated into halves by the midpoint. The first half finds our hero embarking on his new journey. He reacts to the inciting incident and follows that path until the story swings in a new direction at the midpoint.
After a crazy yet successful ghost-bust,
the team’s business booms and they quickly become a national sensation.
However, Egon notices that the ghostly activity has been growing quickly. Our midpoint occurs when Zuul, the demon-dog appears. This event twists the story from happy-go-lucky scientists catching cute little ghosts to something much more sinister than they all anticipated: The apocalypse is coming.
After the midpoint, things get dangerous for the hero. The villain makes considerable progress, the hero is in mortal danger, and outside forces from a third party sometimes affect the hero’s fight. The end of Act Two puts the hero at the bottom of the proverbial pit, with the stakes higher than ever and hopes lower than ever.
In Ghostbusters, the government cracks down on the team, shutting them down and releasing all their captured ghosts into the wild.
So while the world is one step closer to the apocalypse, the Ghostbusters find themselves in jail, stripped of their equipment.
In Act Three, the hero must use everything he’s learned over the course of the story to fight back. He’s overpowered, but not outsmarted. The experience of Act Two has armed him with information, skills, and confidence to defeat the villain and restore order to the world.
In Ghostbusters, Venkman and the team convince the city to free them so they can fight Zuul and stop the apocalypse. Zuul is their toughest foe yet, and they fight harder than they ever to save humanity from destruction.
These three scientists go from disrespected fools at a university to the men who save the world. Even lonely ol’ Venkman finds a little bit of love. This is the final function of Act Three: to show how the character’s world from Act One has changed as a result of the story.
Starting with “getting to know you” in Act One, then navigating the labyrinth of Act Two, and ending with the pulse-pounding climax of Act Three, the Three-Act Structure helps divide up a story into the satisfying emotional experience that we’ve all come to know and love: a “movie.”