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Drama: Understanding the Three Act Formula

drama masksI’ve created a few companion posts to go along with my reviews:  a rating system and a spoiler alert warning.  Now, I’m ready to take it a step further and explain what I mean when I reference Act 1, Act 2 or Act 3 in a review.

When I say ‘drama,’ I’m not just referring to a specific genre; all stories have drama.  When I reference an ‘Act,’ I understand your mind may immediately jump to theater, but the three act system of story structure is relevant to all mediums.  In the simplest terms, Act 1 is the beginning, Act 2 is the middle and Act 3 is the end.  Each act has to accomplish specific goals:

batman beginsACT 1: you meet all of the characters and learn about the central conflict that drives the story.
EXAMPLE:  In Batman Begins, we meet Bruce Wayne, Rachel Dawes, Alfred Pennyworth and other characters and learn about the central conflict that drives the movie:  Bruce’s parents were murdered in front of him when he was a child.  To reconcile this conflict, Bruce becomes Batman and begins working on bringing justice to Gotham City’s criminal underworld.

ACT 2: the main character(s) is thrust into the worst possible situation they could be in.
EXAMPLE:  Batman Begins – Bruce’s house is burned down, all the criminals break out of jail and Ra’s al Ghul is going to release his fear toxin on Gotham City.

ACT 3: the main character gets out of the horrible situation.
EXAMPLE:  Batman Begins – Batman beats Ra’s al Ghul and is confident that they’ll pick up the remaining criminals still at large.  Bruce begins rebuilding his house.

It’s that simple:  conflict, conflict inside of conflict, resolution.  Let’s try it again, but this time with a comedy:

The 40 Year Old Virgin

the 40 year old virginACT 1:  Andy is a lonely and in some ways juvenile man and at 40, has never had sex.  To address this conflict, Andy  starts dating and meets Trish, who he quickly falls for.  Although Andy hides his virginity from Trish, they decide to wait 30 dates before having sex.

ACT 2:  Trish and Andy fight when Trish attempts to initiate sex and Andy is still afraid and hasn’t told her he’s a virgin.  When she arrives at his apartment, she finds a box filled with pornography that she assumes is Andy’s property and Trish is angrier still and storms out.

ACT 3:  Andy reveals to Trish that he’s a virgin and not some pornographic crazed psycho killer.  Andy and Trish get married and have sex, ending Andy’s virginity.

A good story should have characters that grow and change throughout the story.  As the conflict resolves, they’re not the people they were when the story began; this is because what happened in Act 2 was so stressing that they had to react to it in Act 3, hence they come out different on the other side.

Hope this was helpful!

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