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I am working on a screenplay in which the protagonist has to surmount a crisis in each of the three acts. That is, a physical crisis in Act I, a social crisis in Act II, and a psychological crisis in Act III. Or, in storytelling language, Woman against nature in Act I, woman against men in Act II, and woman against herself in Act III.

Can the three crises be regarded as having "equal" value? Does the fact that the psychological crisis occurs in Act III make it the greatest crisis? Or is a psychological crisis, in fact the greatest of the three crises, and therefore appropriately placed in Act III?

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My understanding of the Three Act Structure is the following:

  • Act I: The Status Quo is shown. For some reason the protagonist realizes that the status quo is not stable anymore and needs revision. Note that it is crucial to define the "initial conditions" of a story. Only then will the reader be able to fully grasp the importance and the significance of the change that you describe in Acts II and III.
  • Act II: A change occurs. It might be wrought by the protagonist or by some other incident. The scene in which the change actually occurs is commonly called The Crisis. Note that the word crisis originates from Greek and can be translated into "separation", "judgement", "dispute" (see Wiktionary). That is: The crisis brings about a substantial change that will impact the unstable Status Quo identified in Act I in one way or the other.
  • Act III: The change induced by the crisis is incorporated into the daily life of the protagonist. Act III thus answers the important question: Will the protagonist be able to consolidate the change? Or was the change of Act II just a fling that fades away in the first light of dawn? The scene that usually answers this question is The Climax. (climax, Latin derived from Greek, literally "ladder", more generally the culmination of an evolution, see Wiktionary.) Note that, in my opinion, it is crucial that the protagonist is active in Act III. He may be passive in Act I, he can be passive in Act II, but Act III is the time for him to show what he's made of.

Of course, this structure is very general and needs to be adapted to your specific needs. The crisis and the climax, for example, do not need to be widely separated from each other. What I find very helpful, though, is the notion that the Three Act Structure is the most general description of a change. And that is what any one story should deal with: A change.

My advise for you would thus be: Identify the change that you want to tell your story about. What is the one crucial transformation that fascinates you and that needs to be shown to an audience? Is it a physical change, a social one, or a psychological one? Is it necessary to separate these three changes from each other? Can you weave a story about this change that allows you to bring about the three climaxes - heroine defeats a physical threat, resolves her issue with society and consolidates a fundamental psychological evolution in her personality - in one scene or at least in scenes that are close to each other?


In general, when it comes to the Three Act Structure, I found Chris Vogler's "The Writer's Journey" very helpful. You need to get used to his rather mystic language and do a lot of interpretation for yourself, but if you do, it pays off. A recent great example of the Hero's Journey well used in entertaining fiction (no literary ambitions here) is Jonathan Stroud's "Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase". The structure of this book and the way it creates suspense is simply marvelous. On the other hand, if you are familiar with the other works of Stroud, you will find that he uses the same structure over and over again. He does that very well, but since his stories usually lack a pronounced psychological component, they repeat themselves. Hence, to answer your question in a purely subjective way: For me, the psychological evolution of a character is what makes me read a book and creates suspense most efficiently. I would always try to focus on this change.

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Because the story you are telling will be finished in two-hours, you need to be economical in your dramatic decisions. Every scene must count, and therefore every scene must build from the previous one. If each of the three crises is of equal weight, nothing is really advanced, and you create a pattern similar to the Labors of Hercules: nobody really remembers all 12 because they were all pretty much the same.

If each of the three crises has equal weight to you the author, you may want to consider writing three separate films. The first establishes the character and she overcomes a physical threat. That's great for pulling people in. Pitting her against society in the second film ups the stakes dramatically and can easily set up the self-doubt or whatever psychological crisis she will face in the third film. The third film by its very nature will then reframe the first two since the inner danger is far greater than the two previous, external dangers.

If three separate films is not an option, you could first write each act as its own detailed synopsis. As you write them out, figure out ways that they relate (other than in terms of narrative). Make each crisis its own self-contained thing and then write the all-important transitions from one to another.

"Act III" is certainly where people expect the biggest crisis to occur (in most studio films). Are psychological crises more important or intrinsically better than the other types? That depends on your audience and on your own dramatic value system.

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    I guess Act III has the most dramatic crisis. Because that's the one that determines the heroine's happiness. The other two only fix her problems. – Tom Au Sep 13 '15 at 17:34
  • Yes. Keep in mind, too, that considering the heroine's "happiness" could really limit your dramatic options. Try generalizing "happiness" into "resolution": you want your heroine's dramatic struggle to be resolved in a way that is pleasing to you and to the audience and (to some extent) "final" for the heroine. A lot of stories have resolution, but no guarantee of happiness (and we the audience are glad for it): think Oedipus Rex, Madame Bovary, the film version of Fight Club, half the Calvin and Hobbes comic strips. – Fell Sep 14 '15 at 16:47
  • In this case, "happiness" equals resolution. In Act I, the heroine "loses." In Act II, she "gets." Act III is about whether she is happy with what she's "got." But I'll keep your point in mind for "next time." – Tom Au Sep 14 '15 at 16:56
  • I tend to get hung up on words. And quotation marks ;) – Fell Sep 14 '15 at 18:02
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I notice that no one has tried to explain what "biggest" means as far as the crisis in the 3rd act being the "biggest crisis." I'm sure there are other metrics, but one of them is how high the stakes are. Do the stakes, that is, the scope of what is in jeopardy, increase through your acts?

Another way to understand stakes is as the cost of the crisis not being resolved favorably. Ask yourself what are the potential costs for each of your crises. Do the costs escalate as you go from crisis to crisis? If not, I suggest you rethink your crises because they won't be fulfilling to the viewer.

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