The Three-Act Structure

Learning about movies can be powerful both for students and for teachers. After all, most of us have favorite movies, especially ones we feel emotionally connected to—including heroes we love and stories that have tugged at our heartstrings.

What is it about movies that give them this power?

Surely many of the unique aspects of filmmaking–photography, acting, editing, sound design—play a role in how we react to them, but each of these elements also comes together to tell a story. And stories play a big role in all of our lives. Studies have also shown storytelling can build empathy, help regulate emotion, and help us communicate more effectively in both professional and personal situations.

Stories—including those in movies—typically follow a particular structure called the Three-Act Structure.

In the Being A Screenwriter curriculum, we take a deep dive into the elements that make up this structure, but you can generally think of this structure as giving the movie its beginning, middle, and end.

The beginning introduces a protagonist, or a hero/heroine of the story, and presents a conflict, or the problem the hero/heroine is trying to solve and/or the tension in the story.

The middle builds to a climax or emotional high point of the story/movie. This structure is not just unique to filmmaking.

The end includes a resolution, a point in the film when the conflict is finally worked out. If these terms seem familiar to you, they’re also the building blocks of picture books, musicals, narrative poetry, and more—which means helping students identify these pieces of movies can also help them in a variety of other arts and disciplines.

Want to help your students use the building blocks of movies? Try this activity.

For a brief and easy-to-follow primer on the Three-Act Structure using Pixar movies as a guide, you can show your students this video.

This video from the ELA Connection also goes into a bit more detail about the elements above.

Once kids have a basic understanding of this structure, work with students to brainstorm and think about these elements in their favorite movies. As a group, come up with a list of movies many of the students have seen (In Being A Screenwriter, Home Alone is used as the example), then ask the students to identify elements of the Three-Act Structure in each. For instance:

Protagonist Conflict Climax Resolution

Home AloneKevinBeing left home
After fending off
the wet bandits
all evening,
Kevin is nearly
Kevin’s mother
and family
return home on
Christmas day.

Once you’ve identified the structure of a few common movies, challenge the students to consider how the films might be similar or different if they swapped protagonists, conflicts, climaxes, or resolutions.

For instance, what if the protagonist of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy, was faced with the conflict of Home Alone, being left alone. What might she do? How might the movie resolve?

Or what if the protagonist of Encanto, Mirabel, starred in a film with the resolution of Frozen, where two sisters discovered the bond between them might save a kingdom? How might the conflict and climax be different? How would Mirabel react? Who would she turn to for help?

As kids find similarities between their favorite movies, they’ll see how the structure works to make stories similar—and to propel them forward.

Want to dive even deeper into the Three-Act Structure?

This hand-out from the Museum of Pop Culture presents a writing lesson that can be used both for screenwriting or other kinds of narrative creative writing.

If you want a lesson specifically tailored to screenwriting, you can everything you need (including vocabulary words, activity sheets, and the complete activities) in the Being a Screenwriter course.

If you’re looking for a FREE lesson plan, visit our Teachers Pay Teachers store here!

If you found these links helpful, keep a lookout for more discussions and resources to come in the near future!

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