Beginnings Middles and Ends

Notice that in Cinderella there are two turning points or moments of crisis. In effect, they divide the story into three acts:

Act One is the setup, in which the stepsisters' cruelty to Cinderella is established and we see the preparations for the ball. This act includes the inciting incident and the first complication, and ends with a turning point—the arrival of the fairy godmother.

Act Two is the development, in which the fairy godmother performs her magic and, under its spell, Cinderella goes to the ball and charms the Prince. This act ends when the clock strikes twelve, the magic dissolves, and Cinderella loses the precious glass slipper.

Act Three is the resolution, in which the Prince searches out his mysterious princess, the stepsisters get their comeuppance, and Cinderella prevails.

In other words, we have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The screenplay is a storytelling form with rules as rigid as those of a sonnet in poetry. It follows a strict three-act structure.

Each act is a prescribed length, with Act One taking up the first quarter of the picture's running time, Act Two occupying the middle half, and Act Three playing out in the final quarter. At the end of each of the first two acts, a major plot point occurs to launch the events of the act that follows.

An entertaining way to teach yourself about story structure is to watch movies with the three acts in mind. See if you can identify the major plot points and discern where the different acts begin and end. This can be hard to do on a first viewing because you're caught up by the characters and their problems. But if you watch the film a second or third time, when you already know how the story turns out, the pattern of acts will become more clear.

A good film for this exercise is Witness, starring Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis, because its three acts are delineated clearly and distinctly. An Amish boy, traveling with his widowed mother, witnesses a murder in a Philadelphia train station. The cop who questions the pair discovers that other police officers are involved in the crime. As he investigates, he is shot and wounded. Fearing that the woman and child are in danger, he hides their identities from his fellow cops and drives them back to their farm. Then, weakened by his injury, he crashes his car as he leaves; this is the plot point that ends Act One. In Act Two the cop, hiding from colleagues who want to kill him, recuperates at the woman's home. This act focuses on the relationship between the cop and the young widow, the clash of their cultures and their growing attraction to each other. Then comes a second plot point: An incident occurs that causes someone to report the man's whereabouts to the police. In Act Three, the villains arrive at the farm. A cat-and-mouse game ensues, culminating in the confrontation between the good and evil officers of the law.

In fiction, the three acts are usually less formal and obvious. In fact, quite likely they aren't present at all; a novelist or short story writer need not adhere to the kind of formal structure required of a screenwriter. Authors with a finely tuned story sense may use this structure instinctively without even being conscious of it.

You might find it helpful to think in terms of the three acts as you begin to conceptualize and organize the action of your story: What belongs at the beginning, what happens in the middle, and how should it end? Let's take a closer look at these issues.

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