eli5: What are “acts” in a movie/film and how are people able to figure out where they start/end? Are there always three acts? More? Less? Please explain.


eli5: What are “acts” in a movie/film and how are people able to figure out where they start/end? Are there always three acts? More? Less? Please explain.

In: Other

Just like in modern songs, there are trends in the structure of movies. For example, a common structure for a song is often something along the lines of verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus (a lot of songs may also start off with a chorus and then lead into the first verse as well). Most movies work in a similar way where the structure of the movie generally starts with an intro, rising action, and then falling action. These 3 terms are effectively synonymous with Act I, Act II, and Act III in a 3 Act movie, but there are of course other movie structures. In the first act of a film, the characters, setting, etc. are introduced. In the second act, some level of tension is created with those characters responding to it in kind. In the third act, that tension builds up and is then resolved.

If you want to give an example of a popular movie (hopefully I’ve seen it), I can generally identify when each act starts and ends if you’d like.

An act is a general phase of story. You can say that each act is in a way a standalone part of a the larger work because each have some introductory condition and then a resolution based on that.

The three act structure is one of the more common types, but not all stories requires three acts. In a three act structure, the first act is usually an introduction to the characters and the environment. You learn about the characters, and by the end of the act, you should learn what it is that they are trying to do. The 2nd Act is when we go past the exposition and start to work on resolving the conflicted identified in Act 1. This act might see the character suffer some failures or other inadequacies. By the end of this act, the characters should have made some type of progress towards their goal, or perhaps reversed some poor fortune. The 3rd Act is the resolution. The characters take all that they did and learned in the Act 2 and make a final attempt at the conflict resolution. This is the climax of the story and then the winding down of the

You can identify the acts by some type of plot point taking places. This could be a turning point in the story, or any other highlight as such.

Let’s examine the act structures of *Star Wars*. In Act 1, we learn about the conflict between the rebels and the Empire. We learn who the characters are, and what they want. Luke and Ben meet, and they find Lea’s message. The end of Act 1 is when Luke discovers his dead aunt and uncle, and he decides leave his home with Ben in order to find Lea.

Act 2 is all about finding Lea. Luke, Ben, and Han travel towards Alderan, but end up in the Death Star instead. They manage to rescue Leah there, and fight their way out. Ben starts to train Luke in the force, but Ben dies. The Act concludes when they escape the Death Star and defeat the intercepting Tie-Fighters.

Act 3 is the resolution, where the characters take everything learned previously and make a final push for victory. The Rebels launch an attack on the Death Star with help of the plans that Lea acquired. The Empire also makes good on their efforts to find the rebel bases (from Act 2) attempt to blow up the hideout. Using what he learned from Ben, Luke manages to blow up the Death Star. Han decides to help his new friends and joins the battle at the last minute. The movie ends with the heroes being rewarded for their actions.

Act’s are just the current tool we use to make our product easier for public consumption. First, if people vaguely know what they are expecting then they are more likely to consume. In this case, take the hours out of their lives to watch. Second, it’s an easy way to break a story up in all the accepted forms of story telling media, First act, The Setup, the problem occurs, Second, The Confrontation, the problem worsens, or creates a new, larger threat, final act is always for the resolution of the problem.
A heap more go into it after thousands of years of examining audiences like pee breaks, intermission to sell goods or change reels or the like, or just the shortening of modern attention spans. (For example, it used to be a 5 act structure until well AFTER Shakespeare) and what we have now is the consumeristic descendent of that 5 act, greek theatre based, mode of story telling.

There can be more, there can be less. Three Acts is just a really easy template to follow.

*Act 1:* Here’s a normal person, living a normal life. But *SHOCK* something crazy just happened and he’s going on…

*Act 2:* An Adventure. Along this adventure he’ll meet new friends, new enemies, learn new skills, and grow as a person until he can…

*Act 3:* solve/fix the shockingly crazy thing that happened at the end of act 1.

It’s a very nice and neat outline, so if you’re writing a script for a movie, it can help you plan accordingly. And audiences are used to films in this format, even if only subconsciously… so it works out well. Partly, it just fits super nice and tight in a 90-120 minute run time of a standard Hollywood movie. You can totally [add more acts](https://www.storyboardthat.com/articles/e/five-act-structure), but you’ll need more time to work through them all… and you’ll note that even in that 5-act example, it’s broken down into 3 main groups (sorted by color)

Of course, movies can spice it up a bit. For just one example, Star Wars (the original 1977 movie) starts with some wiz-bang laser stuff before starting with Act 1 proper (Luke on the farm). Act 1 tends to be a bit boring, so a lot of movies do stuff that like to try and hook the audience from the start.

You can also make some acts longer, you can have an Act 1 that tries to hit the shocking revelation and go into act 2, but then *fakeout* we’re still in act 1 until some even MORE shocking thing happens. There are a lot of ways to play with the formula.

There may be more than 3 acts in a play but the most common is that there are 3, these are marked by events that mark a before and after the play. for example in Titanic the first act It ends when Rose and Jack meet, then the second act begins and this same one ends at the moment they accuse Jack of the theft of Rose’s diamond since from that moment The ship begins to sink, and again there is a change of plot and tone in the movie.

A little off topic, but are their any notable films that DONT follow the three act formula?

Most people here are by and large correct but I’m gonna go out and disagree that three acts are the best way to break up a story. I think the Shakespearian Five Act structure makes a lot more sense in most instances and can more reliably break plot motifs into discrete sections. Most writers will find themselves accidentally tending towards this with the exposition/plot initiation/rising action/climax/resolution structure, which is a very vulgar way of framing shakespearian act structure.

Screenwriter here:

Acts are important by 1, organizing the story, and 2, help the story creator.


The acts help the director and screenwriter break up a long story into three parts. Sometimes there are four, but the traditional format is three. Do you need acts? No. The story is usually able to still work, but it’s a bit of a pain when you don’t. Think of it like chapters in a book: would you rather read one, huge chapter where you can get easily lost and confused? Or would you rather it be chopped up into concise, easy to understand chunks?


Writing a movie is really hard. There’s a lot of things to consider like character development, tone, and overall fluidity of the story. Writing a story without an outline is like writing an essay without one: it may sound easier and quicker, but soon you’re going to be asking yourself “what the fuck was I trying to say?” or “where should I put that part?”

Ultimately, acts are there to help with the structure. They may sound annoying and maybe a touch cliche, but they’re important if you want to make a good story.

Hope this helped!

It should be noted that the Three Act Structure can be a tool to build a plot, but it is better understood as a tool to *analyze* a plot. That is, the writer probably doesn’t sit down saying, “I am going to write a first act that includes these things, followed by a second act with these things…” The writer writes the film in whatever form or structure and we the audience can divide what we’re watching *roughly* into three parts so that we can process each part.

As a metaphor for this, consider social security numbers that are xxx-xx-xxxx format. Originally, each group had a purpose – area, group, serial. Now, however, the numbers are assigned randomly so that format doesn’t mean anything. It *does* make the number easier to remember, though, because instead of remembering nine digits in sequence, you can memorize three digits, two digits, and four digits. Way easier.

In a not entirely dissimilar way, the three act structure is a way for us to understand a plot. Regardless of when in the plot certain things happen, we can reliably look for those moments so that the overall structure appears more familiar. Then, we can use that familiar ground as a starting point to delve deeper into the plot.

So, an act begins and ends when it makes sense, usually at an important point in the story.

Jill Chamberlain teaches something called The Nutshell Technique. Film Courage interviewed her and put the whole hour plus video on yt, although you could just watch parts of it as they added these as well. Her book is incredible and breaks down movies on one form, I.e. The Setup Want / with the end of the first act culminating in the Point of No Return +The Catch, etc. It’s helped me a lot in writing my novel although her process is really geared towards films. She even talks in her book about films like Pulp Fiction containing all of the points covered on her Nutshell Technique form but in a different order.

an ‘act’ is phase of a story, generally bracketed by a particular inciting or concluding incident.

a three act structure is a method of story structure, and is extremely common in english-language media, not just films. the first act is the setup, the second act is rising action, and the third act is climax/resolution.

the three act structure is not the only narrative structure there is. a narrative structure is a method a creator uses to construct a plot; they are helpful skeletons upon which to build an outline for a story. there are a wide variety of narrative structures, and what method is used depends on medium, genre, length, creator preference, and many other factors besides.

the narrative structure is a useful tool in the creator’s toolbox, but it can change wildly depending on the work. one way to get a feel for different kinds of narrative structures is to take a work (a book, a film, a video game) and examine the major plot points and story beats. when does character development happen? what incidents spur the main plot (if there is one)? are there side plots or b plots? when does the climax occur? is there a climax? is there a resolution?

“Dramatic structure.” Every story must have a conflict, rising action, climax, falling action, then conclusion.

Here’s some more fun reading from Dan Harmon explaining his ‘story circle’ method:


Act 1: A guy/girl’s cat gets stuck up a tree. Cannot get cat down because of their character flaw (ie cowardice: fear of heights)

Act 2: Guy/girl tries increasingly difficult methods to get the cat out of the tree and fails, due to fear of heights.

Act 3: Guy/girl overcomes their fear of heights, and is now able to rescue the cat successfully.

“Acts” are section of a story where everybody is pretty much going after a common or personal goal, and it comes to an end when a new piece of information is uncovered that drastically alters what the goals are for at least the hero, at most everybody. The new act starts a new set of goals.

It is a throwback from live theater. Splitting a 4 hour Opera into acts is not only good for the cast and crew to do scene changes/costume changes but also give the audience a needed break to pee or stretch.

Alright! I teach an Intro to Film course, so this is right up my alley.

The three-act structure, as others have pointed out, is the general structure that Hollywood films tend to follow, and the three acts roughly equate to the beginning, middle, and end of the story. The first and third acts each take about 25% of the film’s running time, and the second act takes the other 50% (obviously, your mileage will vary, but this is the general rule of thumb).

Now I’m going to blow your mind: the “three-act structure” actually has…four acts!

The “acts” of the three-act structure are each divided by a turning point in the story, and there are three major turning points in the three-act structure: one between acts 1 & 2, and another between acts 2 & 3, but there’s also a third turning point, right in the middle of act 2. As such, we can actually divide act 2 into two parts — we’ll call them act 2a and act 2b — giving us 4 acts of roughly equal length (as an example, [here’s Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright](http://www.screenwritingspark.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/the-worlds-end-screenplay-development.jpg) with their [script outline for At World’s End](https://www.screenwritingspark.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/close-up-the-worlds-end.jpg) — you can see their divisions of acts 1, 2a, 2b, and 3).

So let’s look at these four acts, starting with Act 1 (and don’t worry, I’ll give you examples at the end).

Act 1 introduces the setting, major characters, and most important for our purposes, it establishes the main conflict, providing a goal for the protagonist. Act 1 then ends with a “point of attack”: the first turning point, a “point of no return”, an event that marks that the journey has begun.

At this point, we know the protagonist’s goal, and one of two things might happen in act 2:

We may start off, and things are going badly for our heroes. Things keep getting worse and worse, and we seem to be getting further and further away from our goal. Then, right in the middle of the second act, we hit another turning point: the midpoint. The midpoint is typically a reversal of fortune, so if the heroes have been moving away from their goal in act 2a, then in 2b things will turn around and they’ll now seem to be moving closer to their goal (think of detective films where the detectives seem baffled by the case early on, and seem to be getting nowhere in the case, then suddenly, right in the middle of the film, they get a big break, and the case starts to come together).

Alternately, we could get the opposite: Act 2 begins with the protagonists seemingly getting closer and closer to their goal, then at the midpoint, things begin to go badly (think of gangster films where the gangster spends the first half of the film rising in power, then in the latter half, things begin to spiral out of control).

So our first turning point is the decision to go on the journey, or the moment when the hero is now actively pursuing the film’s primary goal, while the second turning point is a reversal of fortune in the pursuit of that goal. So what marks the end of act 2? Believe it or not, the second act ends with the heroes reaching their goal. Our initial conflict from act 1 gets resolved…and yet we still have about a half-hour of movie left!

Act 3 then establishes a new conflict. Usually, it’s not completely out of left field, but rather it’s related to the main conflict, and results from resolving the initial goal. So, for instance, if it’s a murder mystery, and our initial goal was to discover the murderer, then act 2 will end with the hero realizing who the culprit is…but now, in act 3, they have to bring the killer to justice. If it’s a romantic comedy, and our initial goal was for the boy to fall in love with the girl, then the goal of act 3 is to get the boy and girl together (because usually, right when the boy realizes he loves the girl, a new obstacle will conveniently pull them apart to set up the third act conflict).

In [PART TWO](https://www.reddit.com/r/explainlikeimfive/comments/mktc1g/eli5_what_are_acts_in_a_moviefilm_and_how_are/gticiso?utm_source=share&utm_medium=web2x&context=3), I’ll provide some examples, using Star Wars, The Matrix, and Thor: Ragnarok.

Act 1: setup
Act 2: confrontation
Act 3: resolution

It’s a common structure because it’s efficient story telling.

When it comes to tv shows, commercials go between the Acts. Half hour shows often use the three Act structure while hour long shows are frequently arranged in a five Act structure to accommodate the additional commercial breaks.