Pre-Production

The Three Act Structure Worksheet

Assemble

By Assemble

September 16, 2021

Storytelling is Structure

Structure in storytelling goes back to Greek philosopher, Aristotle who observed in his book, Poetics, that tragedy must have a beginning, middle and end. In modern times, we’d call this a three act structure. Sounds simple, right? Simple, yes. Easy, no!  

Good storytelling is a combination of imagination and foundation. Let’s take it off the page and think of storytelling as a meal. Imagination is like cooking where you can be creative. A pinch more salt for flavor or the substitution of a different protein gives an added twist to a familiar recipe. But the foundation, the structure of your story? That’s like baking, which is chemistry. If you don’t get the ratio right, then your bread doesn’t rise.  

As any of us who have survived kitchen disasters know, it’s best to follow a recipe and Assemble was lucky enough to find a top chef in screenwriter James V. Hart, who scribed August Rush, Contact, Hook and Bram Stoker's Dracula to name a few.

James V. Hart, who scribed August Rush, Contact, Hook and Bram Stoker's Dracula

Before Hart takes us step-by-step through his approach to structure in his screenplay of Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, it’s helpful to understand a standard breakdown of what goes into each act.

Acts

What Happens

Why It’s Important

Act One

The set-up, which includes the introduction of the world, the characters, the inciting incident (the event that happens which sets the conflict in motion).

This is where all the characters' hopes, wants, goals, dreams, flaws and wounds are introduced and where we understand the conflict and story we are about to watch.

Act Two

Act two is often divided up into 2A and 2B, this is where your main character takes action, subplots are introduced, the stakes are raised, hope is lost and a new plan devised.

This is where all the twists and turns happen: new questions arise, new discoveries are made, and actions taken. Empathy takes flight and the audience is fully invested.

Act Three

This is where the climax of the story is played out, all the plots are resolved and we have a resolution and ending.

The audience expects a satisfying ending. It doesn’t have to be happy, but it does have to feel earned and truthful.

The Hart Chart

“Structure allows you to capture lightning in a bottle, put it on a shelf, and release that energy whenever you reach that point in your story where it is needed” - Jim Hart

In 1992, Hart got a phone call at midnight in New York City.  It was Francis Ford Coppola.  He’d been in post production on Dracula for several months and it wasn't going well. They had a disastrous preview and everybody at the studio was on edge.  Coppola politely demanded for Hart to get on a plane and come to San Francisco. 

 “He hates the film, hates the script, hates me for writing it, hates the cast, hates the studio, and he wants to show me the film to prove it”

What both Hart and Coppola discovered as they discussed the film was that an important moment, or as Hart calls it, “a sign post”  was missed in the script and that made the ending seem untruthful.

“What haunted me was the nagging questions about the faults and inadequacies of the script during principal photography that were only discovered in the editing room during post production”

That’s when Hart turned back to structure and perfected his own system that breaks down the three act structure into 12 signposts.  He calls this The Hart Chart.

  • ACT ONE (Identifying the visible goal)

    • Set the World
    • New Opportunity
    • Second Opportunity
    • Identifying Visible Tangible Goal

  • ACT TWO (Climbing the mountain to reach the goal)

    • Progress and Setbacks
    • The Cinderella Moment
    • Top of the Mountain
    • Point of No Return
    • The Plan Falls Apart / Hero Hits the Wall

  • ACT THREE (the resurrection)

    • Resurrection Opportunity
    • Conflict Resolution
    • Satisfying Ending  /  Finale

The Three Act Structure Worksheet and Dracula

To go through each act (with sign posts), Hart used his screenplay for Dracula as a template.

Act

Sign Post

Dracula Application

Act One

Set the world: Meet your main character and introduce their world. This introduces what your main character and supporting characters are doing before the conflict begins. We learn what they want, see a hint of their flaws and generally set up why we should empathize and root for them, or against them.

Dracula: Vows a war with God to avenge the death of his bride.

 

Mina:  Wants to Marry Jonathan Harker

 

Harker: Wants to be successful so he can marry Mina.

Act One

New Opportunity: Your main character gets a new opportunity that will change the course of their life.  The actions they take with this new opportunity determine the rest of your story.

Fate brings Harker to Dracula’s door when the young man gets a once in a lifetime opportunity to close an important real estate deal with a mysterious client in Transylvania.

Act One

Second Opportunity: The second opportunity and the consequences of that opportunity forces the character to act, usually in a new direction in pursuit of their goal.  Your story may also warrant third and fourth opportunities.

Harker closes the deal with Dracula, which means a move to London. Dracula discovers that Harker’s fiance, Mina, is a dead ringer for his lost love.  Dracula imprisons Harker at his estate and moves to London with a new goal  –  seduce Mina.

Act One

Visible Tangible Goal: This is the culmination of the end of Act One.  Your main character has had opportunities that have set the conflict in motion and is ready to enter Act Two with a clear understanding of what they want, even if they are not sure or are misguided on how to achieve it.

Dracula’s main goal is to make his way to London and take Mina to replace his lost bride.


Harker’s goal is to escape the castle, return to London, save Mina and kill Dracula.

Act Two

Progress and Setbacks: Your main character makes progress toward their goal, but faces obstacles toward achieving it.  These obstacles could be other characters, the physical environment or even internal struggles. It is a series of mini-defeats and minor-victories. The conflicts and consequences come from the decisions your main character makes that drive the story forward.

Setbacks:

Harker discovers Dracula in a coffin. Neither alive nor dead.

Mina’s wedding is further postponed by Harker’s letter. She is worried.

 

Progress:

Dracula arrives, see’s Mina for the first time, orchestrates a chance meeting and charms her.

Act Two

The Cinderella Moment: This new element gives the main character a deserved moment of success in their struggle.  A “bliss hit”.  There can be more than one.  For Cinderella, it’s the moment the fairy godmother gives her the ball gown, royal coach and she sees herself for the first time as elegant in the mirror.

Dracula takes Mina to the cinema and is unable to control his desire to take her blood, but stops himself for some reason. They share a sensual moment and the connection is intense and deep and Mina is finding herself drawn to Dracula.

Act Two

Top of the Mountain: If there are several Cinderella moments for your main character, this is as good as it gets at the midpoint of your story. Your main character has made progress toward their goal and everything appears to be going as planned.  There is a false sense of security as they reach this peak. The rest of the story is an attempt to not stumble down the mountain.

This leads to Dracula romancing Mina. He is reaching her and drawing her father from Harker. This is as good as it gets for Dracula and Mina before the consequences of his actions come to roost.

Harker escapes the castle and gets word to Mina that he is alive.

Act Two

Point of No Return:  As your main character progresses to the visible tangible goal, there comes a point where a decision, an action or event occurs from which there is no turning back.  It’s too late to start over. What has happened can not be undone or changed and they have no choice but to move forward.

Dracula receives a note from Mina that enrages him. He kills and ravages her best friend Lucy.  Mina marries Harker in Eastern Europe.  All progress is lost for Dracula and his desperation propels him forward with no turning back or thought to consequences. 

Act Two

The Plan Falls Apart / The Hero Hits the Wall: Your main character has faced a series of defeats and overcome them, but just when it seems it all may work out, the rug is pulled from under them. The plan falls apart and there seemingly is no way to achieve their goal.  This is typically the end of Act two.

Dracula has Mina and exchanges blood in a vampire wedding. A major victory for Dracula. And then Harker arrives and drives Dracula away, destroying his possessions and forcing him to retreat in defeat.

Act Three

Resurrection Opportunity: After your main character has crashed and burned, you now have a choice.  Do you leave them at the bottom of the heap or do you give them a chance to reclaim victory, complete their journey and have a chance to get what they want.

The infected Mina discovers she has a strong mind link to Dracula and knows where to find him.  This is what Dracula would want, his Mina.  But it also is what Harker wants, the knowledge where to find him and kill him.

Act Three

Conflict Resolution:  Does your main character get what they want or not?  Is it good or bad for them? This is where they finally confront their nemesis and their growth or lack of growth as a character determines if they succeed.

Mina’s transformation is escalating. Dracula is pursued by Harker and the Vampire killers.  Dracula uses Mina’s strength to reach his castle, but Harker catches up and slits his throat.

Act Three

Satisfying Ending/Finale: How do you want your audience to feel at the end and have you delivered a satisfying ending that has been properly earned and feels truthful?

This is a love story for Dracula after all and in the end, Mina protects him and makes the ultimate sacrifice for love; she ends his life and frees him from his curse and his war with God. Her vampire curse is lifted. They both have redemption and love never dies.

The Three Act Structure Worksheet

Preview of The Three Act Structure Worksheet, available for download in this article.

Just like the strong foundation of a house gives the architect freedom to design as many wings, floors, rooms in as many different styles as desired, the screenwriter has structure. With it, a writer has all the tools in place to go wild creating exciting new worlds and complex characters to face the challenges, opportunities, setbacks and triumphs that make a story dynamic.

Jim Hart has taken his approach to structure and character and created an interactive app that we highly encourage you to check out, but to get you started immediately, we’ve created a Three Act Structure Worksheet to help you break down your story and be on your way to a completed screenplay. Just download below.

We hope this article has been helpful in formulating your story's essential structural components, and wish you the best of luck in your screenwriting journey.

Are you ready?

Try our project management platform for video production

Try Free