The 2-Act Structure [Because You Write The Rules]

In an earlier post I warned you about the 2-Act Structure. If none of the structural paradigms offered by the gurus work for you, why don’t you create your own? Here is mine.

Every structure model is academic. There really are no rules. Instead, these systems are merely tools to allow us to communicate about story.

In the course of my screenwriting training career, I have always strived for simplicity. What we need in screenwriting, is an MVP, a Minimum Viable Product: the simplest possible system that still delivers the results for you. So you can focus on the creative aspects rather than the ‘how to‘.

Ideally, each screenwriter develops their own method. Only, there wouldn’t be much communication in that screenwriting utopia, as each were to use a different language.

As a thought experiment, I would like you to consider my approach to the Grand Story Arc: the 2-Act Structure. Before we venture into that, let’s brush up on the 2 main competing approaches: the 3-Act Structure (mostly for film and TV half-hours) and the 4-Act Structure (mostly for one-hour TV).

The 3-Act Structure

Although different people use different criteria to determine act breaks, I like a combination of dramatic tension and Hero’s Journey. In my approach, you will find that:

  1. Act One ends once the main character’s goal is clear; either to the audience, to the characters itself, or both. Then, in Act Two we see the active pursuit of that goal.
  2. Act Two ends after the character has almost given up on that goal, but finds a final reason or clue to push through.
  3. Act Three sees the character’s final – and mostly successful – action in pursuit of that goal.

square-spiral-mathematics-wallpaper-patterns-hdA massive problem of the 3-Act Structure is that chunky mid-act. Most writers struggle to create interesting story material that sustains 45-60 minutes. This is why the Mid Point is so important. I prefer calling it the Mid Point Reversal because in great stories, a very important value is completely reversed.

(It’s about time I write another piece about this, after early attempts in 2006 and 2009.)

Just because this Mid Point Reversal is so critically important, I believe the 4-Act Structure is a really helpful way of approaching screen story structure.

And look, in one-hour TV drama, we already have 4 acts, as the act breaks are roughly every 15 minutes on the ‘TV clock’. So before we move on to the mysterious 2-Act Structure, let’s examine the 4 acts.

The 4-Act Structure

cylinder-formulas-typography-hd-wallpaper-1920x1080-7052This structure is no different than the 3-Act Structure, with the only difference that we have an act break for the Mid Point reversal.

So what does this Mid Point Reversal do that it is so important?

Let’s first look at what other authors and teachers think (that I don’t necessarily agree with).

  1. It’s a point of no return.
    Yep, that may well be, but both act breaks are also points of no return.
  2. It raises the stakes.
    Like those other act breaks, you mean? More proof the Mid Point is more like an act break.
  3. It’s a false victory or false defeat.
    In fact, it is most often a false victory followed by a false defeat. A kiss and a slap.

The Mid Point Reversal

Here is what I think the Mid Point Reversal (MPR) really means … and it supports the 2-Act Structure beautifully:

  1. 2-act structure in groundhog dayA reversal of fortune
    In Groundhog Day, Phil (Bill Murray) believes his scheme has worked when Rita (Andy MacDowell) kisses him. But she immediately sees through the con, and slaps him.
    In The Untouchables, Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) achieves a major win by stopping a liquor transport at the Canadian border, and he seizes the accountant’s ledger, but at the end of the sequence one of his ‘untouchables’ is murdered.
  2. A reversal of approach
    In the first half of Die Hard, McClane tries getting help from the outside. At the MPR he receives it, only to realise he now has to solve the problems himself because the outside help is making matters worse. A reversal, indeed.
    In One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest McMurphy tries to stay in the asylum, but after the mid point he tries to get out. Quite the opposite!
    In The Incredibles, Mr Incredible works [inadvertently] for Syndrome until the MPR. Here, he learns the truth about all the Supers, and now he will fight Syndrome. The ally becomes an enemy (or Shadow, in Hero’s Journey terms).
    In Avatar, Jake first works with the military against the Navi’, but after the MPR this reverses, and he now fights with the Navi against the military.

I am a huge fan of great mid points, and I will dedicate a full article to this soon. Meanwhile, see if you can find the meaning of the MPR in your favourite films. It is not always as clear as in the examples above, but you may be surprised…

The 4-Act Structure proves that the MPR has fully fledged act-status. It is just as important as the other act breaks.

In fact, I think it is even more important.

The 2-Act Structure

In many great movies, at the MPR two major reversals occur. One is often experienced as the result of an EVENT – or series of events – that happens to the character; this is the reversal of fortune. The other is a reversal in the way the character pursues the goal, or ACTION; This we call the reversal of approach.
2-act structure in Life Is BeautifulIn the greatest movies, this reversal is so profound that it sometimes feels as if we are entering a whole new movie altogether. Do you remember Life Is Beautiful? The first half of this incredibly successful foreign language Oscar winner was a love story, the second was … a World War II-drama.

Because the MPR really cuts the movie in two in a way that is much more obvious than the break from act 2 into 3, I would propose to do exactly this: cut the movie in two at the halfway point.

Voilà. The 2-Act Structure is born.

Two Parts Of The Journey

Michael Arndt, writer of Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3 gives us another strong argument to support the 2-Act Structure.

After the Inciting Incident, the hero responds with actions that demonstrate the character flaw. Michael Arndt calls this the hero’s flawed response.

The MPR mostly starts with what looks like a major win for the character (false victory). Whatever approach they took, it worked! Then, they’re put with both feet on the ground, and they suffer a major loss (false defeat). These two polar opposites are part of the same MPR.

The negative polarity, the loss in the MPR, is a major event, and it actually looks very much like a second Inciting Incident, effectively testing the hero’s response after what they learned in the preceding story stage.

This time around, the hero will change their attitude, and respond in a way that shows they have learned something, or are learning.

See? There really are two parts to the story. Here is how I would summarise it.

2-act structureAct One
The hero experiences the (first) Inciting Incident.
The response to the Inciting Incident is flawed, as they continue their dysfunction.
They enjoy a major win, and for a moment it seems the goal is (almost) achieved.

Act Two
The hero experiences a second Inciting Incident, as part of the MPR.
The response to this MPR Inciting Incident is the right response, as now the Hero makes an effort to improve, to heal.
They enjoy a final win, and we trust that in the future they will continue to act in the right way.

What do you think?

I believe the 2-Act Structure is a simple, appealing way of looking at the character’s journey, both in terms of plot and theme.

This approach recognises what some people call the ‘Inner Journey’ and the ‘Outer Journey’ in one simple, integrated model.

There is no need to throw out whatever structural tools you have been using up to this point, but perhaps this sheds a new, fresh light on how stories for the screen are structured from a bird’s eye perspective.

Let me know if the comments in this approach makes sense to you, and if you would like to use it in the development of your own stories.

– by Karel Segers





10 thoughts on “The 2-Act Structure [Because You Write The Rules]”

  1. Great article Karel. I really like this simplified structure. I also think it makes the concept of working with structure less intimidating for newer writers. I think I’ll be using it as a starting point from now on. Here’s my metaphor for how I write – I’m at an archery range, the finished script is the target, the bow is the starting structure, the arrow is the process. When I release the arrow, it is free of the structure, so now anything can happen – gust of wind etc. I sometimes hit the target I was aiming for, sometimes I miss. But…the arrow will always hit something, because there are targets everywhere. Now, I either fire again, choose a different bow, or realise the target I hit is better than the one I was aiming for.

    • Thanks Tony. The idea is not to worry while you’re writing. I love your metaphor!
      When you fire again, I’m assuming you aim based on the outcome of the first shot. ;)

  2. Great article Karel. Thank you! As a new writer this simplified explanation is really going to help me focus on the my story and hopefully still deliver a compelling story. I already have ideas swirling around in my head.

  3. Thanks for a bit of relief regarding “following the rules”, especially for me as an intuitive, Muse-led writer. After attending a producer-led seminar 12 months ago, I’ve written 4 two act plays which I’ve submitted to readers and/or contests. Current tastes seem to require or prefer the 2-act structure even though I think so easily in the 3-act. I was taught that the protagonists experiences the inciting event, perseveres through various conflicts, considers what fits, but then cannot change his mind or values after the end of Act Two. The resolution in Act Three brings a satisfying ending with minimal leftovers whereas the 2-act structure seems to leave some questions and characters dangling without complete denouement. Some “what ifs” could be a positive for the audience but disconcerting for this playwright. Hmm? Help!

    • The way I see the 2-Act structure is more like a 3-act structure with a promoted MPR (Mid Point Reversal). That second act still needs its own climax and resolution.

      In other words: a 2-Act structure doesn’t deliver different stories, it is just a different way of looking at the same, in order to help write that dreaded mid section of the story.

      I hope this helps…

  4. For me, what I see naturally emerging when I study the scripts I like, is a 4 act structure.

    Act 1: Normal World, Curveball taking them in a new direction, declare false goals.
    Act 2: New world, new cohorts, continuing to go after “false goals”, stakes raise (end of act 2 comes the midpoint that changes everything)
    Act 3: Same false goals (but now with higher stakes and a new plan to get them) OR New, more truer goals emerge. False high point, followed by lowest point. (end of act 3 is low point)
    Act 4: After low point, finally realizes that false goals haven’t been what they really want. Discover “true” goals. Throw off the old world. On to a new future.

    The only scripts I study are comedic ones. When I say “false” goals and “true” goals, I have noticed that many characters spend most of the movie pursuing goals that they are lying to themselves about, or that they realize later they don’t really want.

    Take 40 year old virgin for example:

    Act 1: Normal World (introvert virgin working at best buy) Curveball (co-workers find out he’s a virgin), False goal established: Get him laid. .
    Act 2: New world (the world of trying to get laid), new cohorts (his sex-advice co-workers who are now friends), and continuing to go after “false goal”(each co-worker has their own way of trying to teach him, failing each time); stakes raise/end of act 2 (he meets a girl he actually likes)
    Act 3: Same ostensible false goals (have sex) but now with higher stakes (he really likes her, doesn’t want to lose her), emerging of a truer goal (get this woman he likes to like him) and a new plan to get there (25 dates before sex). False high point (“yay, we get to have sex now!”) Rapidly followed by lowest point (they fight, he runs away, crashes, she finds out he’s a virgin)
    Act 4: After low point, finally realizes that goals haven’t been what he really wants (he doesn’t just want to lose virginity). Discover “true” goals (he wants real love with her). Throw off the old world (his virgin self). TRUE high point (gets married, has sex). On to a new future (“let the son shine in).

    Take Book Of Mormon for example:

    Act 1: Normal World (mormons getting ready to go on mission) Curveball (popular price is paired up with the biggest nerd…and their location is UGANDA), False goal established: (do something “incredible” / have a “best friend”)
    Act 2: New world (Uganda) new cohorts (other mormons, village people), continuing to go after “false goal”(try to convert villagers with “All American”); stakes raise (nearby general is threatening circumcision to all girls) /end of act 2 midpoint (price leaves, cunningham now has to “man up” and take over)
    Act 3: Same ostensible false goals (get the villagers to convert) but now with higher stakes (the general is threatening them) and deeper meaning (if they believe the book, they will band together) and a new plan to get them (lie about the book of mormon, so that they believe and band together against general). False high point (“we are africa”) followed quickly by lowest point (the elders discover the lies and disown them) end of act 3 is low point = it was all a lie, they are disowned from churh
    Act 4: After low point, finally realizes that false goal (convert villagers) hasn’t been what they really want. Discover “true” goals (spread message of hope and strength. REALLY do something incredible by overcoming the general) . Throw off the old world (book of mormon). On to a new future (book of arnold).

    Legally blonde follows this structure (original false goal is to get her ex boyfriend back. Final true goal is to save her client and become a great lawyer). Maybe it doesn’t always work, but so far, all of the classic comedies I love seem to follow this 4-act structure.

    I guess I should come up with my own diagram.


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