Long before we ever pick up a pen or flip open our very first laptops, the golden rule of storytelling has been beaten into us:
Beginning. Middle. End.
The three-act structure is INGRAINED into the fabric of nearly ever culture, and exists in nearly every form of writing. Hansel and Gretel go into the woods, get caught, then kill the witch and escape. Achilles is dishonored by his king, lets the Greeks fail in wartime, then steps in to save the day once his best friend is butchered in battle. Even JOKES are framed in a beginning-middle-end structure, with the punchline serving as the third act:
“A man walks into a bar…. And says ‘ouch!’”
Okay, okay—it’s a terrible joke, but it’s easy to see that “a man” sets up the story, “walks into a bar” tells us the ACTION of the joke, and “says ‘ouch!”’ wraps it up. Three acts. Just like a movie!
All of that said, I’m here to tell you that the BEST MOVIES don’t have three acts at all. That’s right—I said it. The BEST movies have FOUR.
Four acts? How you figure?
Well, I’ll tell you:
We’ve all been to movies that start great, but wipe out terribly in the second act. Movies that slump and wander, and seem directionless and unmotivated by the actions of the central characters. The International is a recent big-budgeted example. These movies suck in part because they have been structured in the traditional three-act format, and for many movies, a sixty-page act is just too long a span of time to keep interesting and grounded. Sometimes it’s helpful to imagine screenplays like a giant circus tent. If each act break were a tent-pole, your three act script might look something like this:
That’s one crappy looking big top!
Act One usually clips along and rises steadily to a point of high-drama—the point of no return. Act Two will END with a bang as well—your character will realize that “all is lost,” then begin the ascent to the Act Three climax. But there lies the vast majority of Act Two—in the mud. Sixty pages of space to fill, and so much potential for sagging plotlines and waning momentum. Sure, cool things need to happen. Your characters will go, and do, and discover, and MAKE THINGS HAPPEN. But how should you organize all this good stuff into one colossal act in way that also stays interesting? In a way that doesn’t drag or go dull over time? After all—Act Two will make up 50% of your ENTIRE SCRIPT!
Well, here’s what I suggest: Break it up. That’s right. Take Act Two and split it in half. You can even give these new acts NEW NAMES. For the sake of clarity, let’s call them ACT 2A and ACT 2B. And now that you’ve got two acts, you also get a new tent-pole for your circus-tent-script-thingy. This new pole is your script’s MIDPOINT, and given its proper significance in your film, your screenplay-tent should now look like this:
Wow. Now THAT’S a circus I’d pay a buck to go see…
The MIDPOINT is a crucial turning point in a well-crafted script that is too often downplayed or ignored altogether. It’s not just the screenplay’s halfway mark—it is a genuine ACT BREAK, and should be treated as such.
The MIDPOINT is the moment on or around page 60 in which the screenplay's hero SEIZES CONTROL OF HIS OR HER DESTINY. For the first half of a script, the protagonist should be REACTING to events and circumstances in their lives. Ever since the inciting incident sent them on this adventure, and the point of no return landed them deep into Act Two, the hero should be dealing with the cards he is dealt, but stay primarily REACTIVE. At the midpoint, all this changes. The protagonist reaches a breaking point or sees a new way forward, and right then, ON OR AROUND PAGE 60, your hero suddenly TAKES CHARGE. They become ACTIVE, and this will define their journey for the second half of the film.
Act 2A and Act 2B, then, are clearly horses of a different color. In Act 2A, your hero should have crossed the point of no return, but still spend most of this act RUNNING AWAY from the negative forces in his or her life. This doesn’t mean he can’t form plans, think up good ideas or kick an occasional ass. It just means that his underlying motivation for these choices should come from a place of FEAR. Whether internalized, such as in a drama or a comedy, or externalized like you’d find in an action movie or a thriller, your protagonist should spend Act 2A on the ropes, afraid of his environment and/or nervous to rock the boat.
Act 2B follows the midpoint, and should in a large part be defined by the hero’s actions AT midpoint. Trust me—this turning point can be found in nearly every great movie. In American Beauty, it’s the scene in which Lester Burnham sits down for dinner and tells his family that he has quit his job. In The Goonies, it’s the moment the group of kids realize they’re at the bottom of a wishing well, and know they can climb out to safety—but decide instead to continue on their adventure. In Being John Malkovich, it’s the scene that Craig ties up his wife and takes her place in John Malkovich’s body so that he can have sex with Maxine. Different genres, same basic idea—at midpoint, the protagonist must take control!
Act 2B ends, of course, with the protagonist’s NADIR—the LOWEST POINT in his or her story. It’s the moment in which the rug has been pulled out from under him, and ALL IS LOST. After seizing control of his life at MIDPOINT, and actively PUSHING FORWARD through Act 2B, success seems close at hand—and then is yanked away from him, mercilessly. The movie might end right there if some NEW INFORMATION didn't suggest a path into Act Three.
So give it a shot! I've heard so many screenwriters complain about the pitfalls of drafting a compelling Act Two, and spent years trying to make sense of it myself. The Four-Act structure was my solution. By breaking Act Two into two digestible chunks, each with their own framework and character motivation, my scripts grew stronger and my enjoyment of writing Act Two increased dramatically.