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Screenwriting: The Art of the First Draft

Lesson 7 of 18

Step 3: Understanding the Three Act Structure

Hal Ackerman

Screenwriting: The Art of the First Draft

Hal Ackerman

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Lesson Info

7. Step 3: Understanding the Three Act Structure

Lesson Info

Step 3: Understanding the Three Act Structure

So how do we take that and stretch that across the three act structure? All right, movies have a three act structure to them. Three is sort of a magical number but you know, to use aristotle's poetics the movie has a beginning, a middle and an end so in a way, we could just think about it in those most simple terms a beginning, a middle and an end when when I first came teo california I had been a playwright in new york and the first attempt I made at a screenplay andi promise you that the least knowledgeable person here at this table the least knowledgeable person watching this video I promise, you know, maur about movie writing than I did when I came to california, I was in new york, I was a playwright, you know, I brought the one thing I brought with me was nineteen sixty two corvair that was leaking oil and my new york arrogance. You know, I think, well, I could write a play in new york health does it take to write a movie? You know, I was just a casual observer of movies I thought...

I can write one as good as that are as bad as that, you know, there's my arrogance and it turns out that was senate lawsky once said, when you think you know everything prepare to enter the next stage of your education on there I was ready to enter the next stage of my education. I wrote this script that I thought was a pretty good movie script some of you, you know, really good dialogue that was my strength, I was a playwright, dialogue was my strength action event in and not so much, and people read it, agent red and said, yeah, yeah, yeah, really good character, really good dialogue, but I can't tell what your first act ended that I looked at him and I knew he was putting me on, you know, you're as the new guy, right? I knew movies didn't have acts because I know a play has acts because the curtain comes down and you go out to smoke a cigarette and talk about it just happened that doesn't happen in a movie, there can't be acts in a movie prepare to enter the next phase of my education, I had to learn that movies did indeed have a three extractor, and the beauty of a good film is that, as members of the audience, you don't recognize that you don't know where that first act ends, and that is part of the beauty and the elegance of conceit of that part of part of the craft of us as writers is that we need to absolutely no how they have the thing get structured, but we can do what we need to conceal that from the audience that the artist sitting there saying there's the end of the first act, we have failed, we have failed because it means they're outside of the story and they're they're too much watching the structure of it. We don't want them to do that. Uh, look, right now we are sitting in this room right there life there's, electricity there's a floor that supporting us does anyone know how any of that works? No, we just depend that it does. We're not here, you know? We're not analyze, you know, we don't we're not electrical engineers, we don't know where the insulation goes or how they any of these lights work have these cameras work? We just depend upon it. And when our audience comes into our movie that's what we want, we want them not to have to think about it, they just believing that they're going to see a great story that's what they therefore and we as writers, we have to give them that we have to deliver that to them. So the three act structure, what I did is I just started going toe as many movies is that possibly could it was before netflix before internet for any of that stuff what it did have was a cheap movies, you know, this's I came to los angeles in nineteen seventy one you could still see a movie for less than two bucks in the afternoon. I went in there with a little, you know, a flashlight and a stopwatch and I just started writing down the things that happened what I would now call narrative events this happened. This happened and I wouldn't, you know, sort of right, kind of a little time courting very, very primitive. And I was sitting back the movie in a theater that was not the father people but that that was what I did and and as I started doing that after I started watching a bunch of movies, I started to realize that around the half hour mark something very important occurred. And in every kind of a movie in a romantic comedy that was, you know, either first kiss or, you know, the people slept with each other in an adventure movie. Some major thing would occur and I start to come to and and I had a sense of structure because I had been a playwright that I understood the notion of of acts and kind of cliff hangers, but I started to realize that around a half hour mark in just about every movie that I saw, something would happen that I would call a point of no return it was an event and we have to when we think about movie writing it is very important that we think about it in terms of events of external events that occur I want you to think about that event are the building blocks of movies and when we talk about seen cards what you're going to do in a very short time I love seeing cars because they looked like bricks and bricks are building blocks of things bricks have substance and size and palp ability and so must event of your film of your movie story and I started to notice that around this at around a half hour mark something would occur and event would occur that would sort of like the like the same effect if it was a horror movie and the and all the people were on this island the end of the first act of stone would come and blow out the bridge so they could never get back okay uh you said romantic comedy some connection an event after which the character could never go back to being who she or he waas at the beginning of the story in a movie like like the godfather and we're gonna we're gonna look at that in the second and more detail but if you think about the godfather the beginning of this story michael corleone is somebody that can say that's my family kay it's not me when he's talking about luca brasi and the story this wonderful story about putting his you know that when he wanted to get frankie when that godfather wanted to get frankie fontaine's, frank, ten out of aa contract with this record producer sent this tough guy there. Who said that? Your signature or your brains. You could be on that page, right? Uh, it was the first time that we we heard the phrase made an offer he couldn't refuse. Well, when michael tells that story, the purpose of telling that story is so that he can say the k that's, my family it's not me and that's who michael is at the beginning of that story at the end of the first act. And then again, we were gonna talk about it much more detail, but just to give you an example of it, he kills salata in the police chief. After he does that, he can never again say, hey, that's, my family it's, not me. So I had to understand what the structure of a movie wass and I came to understand that this idea of the point of no return was became my definition of the end of act one and it and it worked for me, uh, now, as with any art nothing is ever going to be absolutely a hundred percent it's, not science it's, not rocket science. It's not. You know, pie is always going to be three point one, four, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. It never won't be that, but first act can, and you know what page twenty five in your screenplay can end up in twenty two could be into page thirty, but it's going to be roughly around there, be roughly that, that but it's almost always going to be that moment. When a character when an event occurs and this is this's by a writer's desire to make this happen, it will always be something that will that will blow that bridge away. So the character can never go back to being who. Here she was at the beginning.

Class Description

The most overwhelming, yet critical step for the screenwriter is the first draft. Staring at a blank sheet of paper can induce "writers block" faster than any other challenge facing a screenwriter. Screenwriting: The Art of the First Draft will equip you with a roadmap for tackling your initial draft and guide you to the next steps on the scriptwriting journey. 

In this class, Hal Ackerman will teach you how to jumpstart the writing process and complete a written first draft of your screenplay. You’ll learn how to:
  • Organize your ideas into scenes and acts
  • Approach character development and dialogue
  • Take next steps after the first draft is complete
Hal has been teaching screenwriting to students at UCLA since 1985. He has sold material to all the broadcast networks and authored well-known books on the art of screenplay writing and selling In this class, he’ll offer actionable insights on developing your concepts and turning your ideas into a compelling and complete script.

Screenwriting: The Art of the First Draft is your opportunity to learn how to conquer one of screenwriting’s greatest challenges and get your ideas developed and down on paper. 

Check out our complete collection of filmmaking classes here


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Hal Ackerman is the Man!!! Loved this course and will be watching it again. Mr. Ackerman is one of those people who truly wants to help you get better at your craft. He's encouraging yet realistic about what it takes to write a great screenplay. I highly recommend this interesting and helpful class.


After taking a number of other screenwriting courses, I can tell you that Hal Ackerman's course, The Art of the First Draft, is the BEST EVER!! His methodology of teaching is fantastic. He takes you on this journey from start to finish in a way that you WILL KNOW how to write a script by the time you finish this course. I liked how he used examples throughout his training to help you better understand screenwriting. If you really want to learn how to be a good screenwriter, then I would highly recommend taking Hal's course. You won't be disappointed.


I've read a lot of books on the subject and I've been to a few seminars. Hal Ackerman's class is genuinely one of the best and the most helpful classes I have experienced. What makes the class so great is that every concept has you putting pen to paper or fingers on keyboard right away. Ackerman really has tools that are called to be used. Thanks for the wonderful resource.