I previously wrote a blog post about narrative structure, but that only provided the basics. The three act structure is a more in depth structure used by Shakespeare himself, but it varies by medium. TV and film use the Three Act Structure in a specific way, so without further ado…
Disclaimer: the key parts are in quotation marks, in case you were wondering what each stage is called.
Before we begin, the very first thing you have to do is identify the protagonist. Where there is an ensemble of characters, there is still only the one protagonist. A protagonist is the lead character, the one we focus on first, and the one the show have decided has slightly more story than the others. The protagonist has to be active, be capable of change, and we must feel sympathetic towards them. True, there are definitely characters we don’t feel sympathetic towards them, but they are still at least active and capable of change, even if that change is undone in a few episodes time.
Within the first few minutes, the episode/film establishes key elements about the character/s. We see what kind of person they are, and what their setting is. Typically establishing shots are used here. Establishing shots show us the setting of a place, like when films show us the Hollywood sign, or high skyscrapers. Similarly, they might use extreme close ups to show us the mise-en-scene (anything in front of the camera that tells us about the character). Regardless, this is all established within the first few minutes of any TV show/film.
Like any story, there needs to be an ‘inciting incident’. I.e. the reason the character’s life has to radically change, whether for the better or not. The protagonist could succeed or fail, but either way, it has to set off a chain of events that’ll force the character to take action. They can’t stay the way they were.
Following this, there needs to be an ‘on the hook’ moment, or moments. In this stage, we see what’s at stake for the character. We see the impact of the inciting incident, and what this will mean. Values will undoubtedly be challenged, either internally or externally.
Act I ends with a ‘point of no return’. The point of no return is like the words suggest: the protagonist has decided, willingly or not, to go ahead with whatever they were required to do by the inciting incident. We, as an audience, await the consequences with the protagonist as the story continues to unfold.
For a brief time, ‘things go well’. Everything is going well, and the protagonist thinks perhaps this inciting incident wasn’t so bad after all. It’s changed their life, and for the better. Yay.
However, there is the ‘midpoint reversal’. A crisis happens, reversing whatever good fortune they’d previously had. They thought they were managing this, but turns out, no they are not.
Following this, the opposite of the above happens: ‘things get worse’. At this stage, the protagonist is (mentally) asking how things could possibly worse. Trust me, they always do. The odds are increasingly against them, and whatever they thought they were managing is drastically slipping away.
Then comes along the ‘lowest point’. I.e. when the protagonist is utterly broken. Their goal may now seem unobtainable, and they tend to reveal their emotions about everything. This is the most emotional part of the entire story.
I will add here that the lowest point can be at the end of Act II, but it can also be at the start of Act III.
Act III is usually what is known as ‘taking stock’. I.e. the darkest hour before the dawn. Either alone, or with some help, the protagonist manages to regain their energy after receiving new information or figuring out a solution they hadn’t thought of before to defeat the antagonist, whoever or whatever that might be.
Every story has a ‘climax’. It’s generally the part everyone has (subconsciously) geared themselves up for. This is where the battle reaches its peak. The antagonist is revealed (or, in the instance of a TV show, it could be a minor antagonist, and in the season finale we’ll see the major antagonist). The battle is just as much physical as it is emotional, and the stakes are all or nothing. We want the protagonist to win.
Finally, the ‘resolution’. We determine the protagonist’s fate. What have they lost? What have they won? The resolution isn’t necessarily a happy ending per say either. In some TV shows, they use the last minute to tease a new threat, or else throw in a plot twist, to make the viewer tune in next time. Either way, the resolution acts as the ending for that particular episode.
The above structure can be applied to both an individual TV episode and a story arc for the TV show, or conversely applied to a film/Shakespearian play. But every linear story follows this structure.
Why not check out how many of these elements you spot the next time you watch a TV show/film?