The classical storytelling in cinema involves three distinct acts. All linear screenplays, more or less, knowingly or unknowingly, have this structure, which I would share briefly.
Act I or The Setup is the first quarter of the screenplay. The main characters are introduced, the dramatic premise is established and the main dramatic need of the protagonist is communicated - what he/she wants to win or achieve during the course of the film. All good scripts have an extremely tight and engaging Act I.
Act II or The Confrontation is the second and the third quarters of the screenplay. During this part, the protagonist confronts obstacles in the pursuit of his/her dramatic need. The attempt to overcome these obstacles creates conflicts that are essential for any good story. It is generally the most difficult part to write.
Act III or The Resolution is the last quarter of the screenplay. The story need not end, but must resolve itself, reach “the solution”. The protagonist succeeds (or fails) in achieving his/her dramatic need.
Both the acts – I and II, end with a Plot Point – a scene or an event that spins the story around into another direction, leading into the next act. Apart from the end and the beginning, these two Plot Points are the most important events in the film. Act II, the longest part of the film, can be divided into two parts, separated by the Mid Point.
It must be noted that Hindi cinema, due to its unique concept of Intermission, does not adhere to this structure. We tend to write our films in two halves, rather than acts, and for us the Interval Point is more important an event than the Plot Points mentioned above. And this, I believe, is a main reason why most of our screenplays are inconsistent and flawed. The Three Act structure discussed above is not an invention of cinema – just an adaptation of the classical storytelling pattern evolved by man. Adhering to it is not always desirable and all innovations like Memento, Pulp Fiction, 21 Grams, Amores Perros etc. have successfully managed to break the convention. But mostly, it is a pattern safe enough to result into a gripping narrative and powerful cinema.
I would illustrate this paradigm in the next post with an example.