*The end of this article contains spoilers for Spider-Man: No Way Home. I will be mapping out the three-act structure of the movie. There will be a definitive warning before any spoilers are revealed.*
I first learned about three-act structure back in high school. During a creative writing class, our teacher drew an arc on the whiteboard, broke it down into segments, and labeled them: exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action. It was taught to me as a basic outline for plot, but I recently learned that the three-act structure maps character instead.
I’ve been taking an online master class, and the instructor dedicated a whole lesson breaking down how the three-act structure model works in terms of characters. Thinking of the structure in terms of character instead of plot can give you a new way to look at your story.
Many stories and movies utilize this structure, and you can identify the points of three-act structure within each one. Let’s break it down, act-by-act and point-by-point.
The three-act structure tends to follow a ratio of 30-60-30, so the first act will take up roughly 30 pages. Thinking in terms of a two-hour movie, the first half-hour encapsulates the first act.
In terms of the character’s arc, the first act shows the audience the character’s emotional starting point. It sets up what they want, what they’ll struggle against, and what path they will take to achieve their goals.
Take into consideration the movie Moana. At the beginning of the movie, she longs to go out and explore the sea. She believes there’s more for her village out there, and they should not be stuck to one dying island. She’s rambunctious, a little headstrong, and a tad immature, but passionate. These traits lay the groundwork for the rest of the arc, leaving room for growth.
The inciting incident serves as the jumping off point. Something sets the story in motion, and the character must make a decision to either pursue their goal or stand idly by. At this point in the story, it’s okay for your character to be uncertain about their goals, desires, and decisions. Act one usually ends with a decision to pursue their goal.
The bulk of the three-act structure happens here. Action builds and builds, with two specific points to take note of.
Following the inciting incident and the decision to charge onward, the protagonist will reach the point of no return. At this point, the character will be in too deep to turn back. They’re fully committed to their decision, regardless if they want to continue or not. Their path will be clear, yet more and more obstacles will arise. There’s no turning back.
Remember that decision the protagonist made back in act one? Act two shows the consequences of those actions, resulting in obstacles to overcome. As more and more obstacles build up, the stakes get higher and higher. Obstacles are a plot device. They’re things you throw at your characters to jack up the stakes and heighten intensity. These are different from the emotional beats of the story.
In time these obstacles will build up until you reach the point of the story where all hope is gone. This part basically leaves your character in the middle of an existential crisis. Their decision brought about so many consequences that they will begin to doubt themselves and whether they made the right decision or not.
At the end of act two leading into act three, the character will pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and prepare for the climax.
Back on their feet, the protagonist faces off against their obstacles, while more are being thrown at them. All the protagonist’s fears are accumulating in one place, and they need to face them all together. The action continues to rise until reaching the climax.
When I thought of the three-act structure as a map for plot, I believed that the climax was the part with the highest, most intense action. Now, I’ve learned that the climax is actually the peak of emotional conflict. It’s the moment where the protagonist faces a final decision, one directly resulting from their original decision.
Following the climax comes the resolution. The protagonist probably learned something, and the lesson begins to take effect. It’s the aftermath of the conflict, and the characters must settle into the new world where their original decision changed things.
The three-act structure is all about decisions and emotions. Plot increases the stakes, but the drive behind your story with this structure will be the character and their desires.
At this point, I would like to give you an example. When I saw Spider-Man: No Way Home, I could not help but pick out these points. So before I continue mapping out the three-act structure, this is your final SPOILER WARNING. If you intend to see this movie, stop reading now.
***NOW ENTERING THE SPOILER ZONE***