The 3-act structure of movies applied to fiction

I wrote the first version of this article in Italian in 2011 and it was inspired by a movie seen on TV, “Love Shooting”, a comedy with Meg Ryan and William H. Macy regarding film production in Hollywood. So I had found my self thinking about the 90’s, when my love for cinema was at its maximum and I used to write screenplays. It was the same period when I studied at university, in spite of the terrible schedule and the little time at my disposal. Writing by images brought me out of reality as much as seeing movies at the theatre.

In a way, it was a long a “painful” work. Between 1993 and 2000 I wrote three screenplays, two thrillers and a romantic comedy. The first two were totally unsuitable to Italian cinema and this thought brought me to write the third one. Not that I actually had any real hope to see them in an Italian film. Actually I don’t like so much the Italian cinema. Anyway, when I read again those pages I realise how my style and my imagination was quite immature at the beginning, but then it improved a lot.
One day I wish to make another attempt with that type of writing, even if it still gives me the feeling I’m wasting my time, because I have no chance that my screenplays become movies. It isn’t as “easy” as publishing a book. It isn’t immediately accessible to the final user. Of course, you can let people read your screenplay, but it doesn’t provide them with the same effect of a novel.

At that time I learned most of what I know about this matter on Syd Field’s books. In particular I owned a manual bought on a catalogue (Internet wasn’t already available in Italy), “The Screenwriter’s Workbook”, which I read more times and which explained step by step how to write a screenplay.
One of the usual manual, you’d say. To tell the truth I found it very useful. I’m not very interested in reading a manual of this kind about fiction writing, I mean a step-by-step one, because even if fiction writing has got rules, especially those related to genre, they are not so strict. They are more like suggestions, but each of them can be broken. Actually one of the rules is: break some rules.
Screenwriting, instead, is totally different. You cannot improvise. You must know well the main rules and you must respect them, because screenplays have got a more rigid structure.

I don’t want to go much deep about this matter, because it’s very complex, but what I want to highlight is that screenplays (and so movies) are made up of three acts. In a nutshell, the first act (about one fourth of the movie) presents the story, the second act (about two more fourths of the movie) develops its conflicts and the third act (last fourth of the movie) brings it to an ending.
Practically all movies are done like that. And, if you think about it, it’s quite logical.

What about novels?
Well, they are not obliged to comply with so strict rules, but they often fall into this structure. Others can diverge and are free to do so. Anyway the 3-act rule tends to come out, even when you won’t expect it. Sometimes the subdivision isn’t so rigid, for what concerns the length, but all the same you can often distinguish three acts.
This occurred to me while writing my first novel and again when I wrote the following ones. All of them turned out to have three acts. Actually even each part of them (sometimes I like to divide novels in parts) shows this pattern.
Maybe it’s partly because of me, since I tend to imagine a story like it’s a movie, but as I can see it is a general rule, even if you don’t do that intentionally.

What about you? Do you write your stories in three acts (maybe unintentionally)? Have you ever noticed this structure in the novels you read?

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