The Basics of a Three-Act Structure in Screenplays, by Zena Dell Lowe


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  • (Photo is courtesy of Clash Entertainment

  • Last week I attended the Florida Christian Writer’s Conference and met screenwriter, producer, and director Zena Dell Lowe. Lucky me. I got to sit in on one of her classes, which I’ll share with you below.When I write a novel I like to picture it in my mind as it unfolds on the page. So even though I don’t write screen plays, I find the tools of writing screen plays important to novel writing. Maybe you do too.

Zena graduated from Cal State University Northridge with a BA in English Literature, and a Biola University in La Mirada with a Masters in Apologetics. She works as a writer, director and filmmaker in the entertainment industry, and co-owns Skirt Films, an independent film production company based in Bozeman, MT. Zena also runs the Mission Ranch Beef side of the business with her husband, Zach, a civil engineer for DOWL HKM in Bozeman. The boxed beef enterprise sells Mission Ranch Beef directly to consumers and has had a three year growth rate of 500% per year. To find out more about Mission Ranch Beef, see the website at

If you’d like to learn more about Zena check out the interview at CLASH ENTERTAINMENT HERE.

Below is Zena’s lecture on SCREENPLAY STRUCTURE:


  • The Whys of a Screenplay Structure

  • It Works:  Three Act Structure and Aristotle –As it was in the days of Aristotle and later Shakespeare, screen dramas are still played out against the framework of the three-act structure. Every act has a beginning, middle and end according to the dramatic needs that have to be accomplished in that act.

  • Acts are composed of scenes that showcase turning points in the narrative. A turning point is a screen moment that advances the story, or foreshadows a coming crisis or resolution, or gives important information about the main character.

    There are many theories about where in your acts the principle turning points need to occur. A good rule for new writers is to be sure that every page of your screenplay brings with it some kind of turning point. Every scene also needs to have a beginning, middle and end according to the dramatic point of that screen moment. After completing the first draft of your piece, go back and try lifting every scene out. If the piece still works without that scene, than either get rid of it, or rewrite it to be a more dramatic event.

    Screenplays are the blueprint for the production process.

     Basics of the Three Act Structure

    1. Act One: Introducing Characters and Setting Up Your Pay Offs

    ACT ONE – Should run about 30 pages. In Act One you need to accomplish the following:

  • Introduction of main character. You have to develop a bond between the character and the viewer by showing off your character as sympathetic, potentially heroic or compelling in some way. You have to hint at the character’s fatal flaw that could lead to his destruction.
  • Introduction of supporting characters – friends, villains and mentors; You have to situate your main character in his world and allow the viewer to learn the “rules” of that world.
  • Establish main conflict – By page 10, the viewer should know what this story is about. What is the main conflict that the characters are going to be swept up in? This conflict has to be engaging for the viewer such that he will feel something at stake along with the principle characters. Generally, Act One ends with a major turning point in the life of the main character. He or she turns a corner or comes to a devastating realization.
  • Set-up the viewer – Act One should be a series of hints and clues. Lots of barely noticeable details that will all come together in the resolution of the piece in Act Three. You need to cleverly weave important facts about all your characters, their backgrounds, aptitudes, experiences, habits, what they carry around in their pockets, what color underwear they put on that morning – anything that will be exploited to resolve the work at the end. Be wary of sowing too many red herrings. They can annoy and frustrate your viewer. You don’t want to do that.

    2. Act Two: Deepening the Conflict

    ACT TWO – The longest act in a drama. In a screenplay it should run about 60 pages. In Act Two you need to accomplish the following:

  • Flesh out the character by showing the viewer how the character’s fatal flaw trips him up over and over. Prepare the viewer for the coming climactic struggle by confirming in them that this character could go either way.
  • Flesh out the villain or adversary by showing his power and advantages in moment after moment. The villain clearly has the upper hand in Act Two.
  • Provide a few delightful moments of cinematic enjoyment. Let the viewer exhale – hopefully in a laugh.
  • Set up the main climax of the piece. By the end of Act Two the viewer should feel that there is only the slimmest chance that the hero will save his soul or the whole world. He is close to giving up.
  • What is your ACT TWO TURNING POINT?

    3. Act Three: Paying Off Your Set-Ups and Getting Out Well

    ACT THREE – Should run about 30 pages. In Act Three you have to accomplish the following:

  • Accelerate suspense to fever pitch. Your character is fully engaged in the conflict. He calls into play all his resources.
  • Resolution. The main character beats the odds, turns the tables on his foes and achieves self-fulfillment. You can’t accomplish this by bringing in any new facts about the character or situation. The resolution is completely tied to….
  • Pay off all your set-ups. All the hints and clues you seeded in Act One bloom into integral elements of Act Three.
  • Getting out fast. Once you’ve resolved the story, don’t hang around. Fade out.

    4. Helps for Structure

    a) “Beating out your story:” Turning points on every page, in every scene

    b) The Structure Chart

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    Do you plot your novel or screenplay in THREE ACTS?

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  1. Yes, I do plot out my books in the 3-act structure. It really works. Wonder how Aristotle and Shakespeare figured that out? lol

    • Hi Pat!
      Isn’t that true? How did those old guys figure it out? Or did they make it up? Maybe we need to make our own theories up too. Then someday our great-grandchildren can ask the question, “how did they figure it out” about us.
      Hope you’re having a great writing week!


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