Writing Scripts: The “Three Act” Formula

Author’s Note: This is not an actual professional formula.  It’s a theory created by someone who has studied literature and writes scripts for the stage and screen for enjoyment.  If you also enjoy writing scripts, this may help you as well.

Over the past year, I’ve developed a sense of myself as a fiction writer through the classes I’ve taken.  One way I’ve developed is as a writer of dialogue – and, in particular, as a writer of scripts.  I started off writing one-act plays and films, but eventually became interested in the concept of miniseries after watching SyFy’s Alice.

As part of this, I worked on a short miniseries last year for my school’s student broadcasting group, and I’ll be working on a sequel (of sorts) for the rest of the summer.  I’ve also started working on three other scripts, what would be considered “feature film” length for films and full-length for plays.

One thing I’ve been able to keep in mind is something I learned during my time taking a fiction-writing course.  My professor gave us a basic formula for a three-act play – but it works just as well for a feature film or for a three-episode miniseries.

For this article, I’ll be using the show West Bancroft Side Story for examples.  If you don’t want spoilers, watch each episode before you read the section.

Act One: The Set-Up

As seen in Episode One.

The first act of a three-part script is always the set-up for the problem.  Here, you want to introduce the most important characters as well as their main problem.

In WBSS, the problem is made very clear: there are two rival groups, and the couple in the story is made up of one from each.  The ending of the episode also makes it very clear what problem comes next: the young woman (Sonia) will have to deal with her upset brother while the young man (Joey) will have to deal with the consequences of what he’s done.

The script also introduces all of the characters as well as the important places in the story.  All of these things are important for the first act and should at least be mentioned there.

Act Two: The Problem

As seen in Episode Two.

The second act of a three-part script is most often the showcase of the problem itself as well as an escalation of events to a climax.  In the second act, you want to clarify why the problem is such a big problem – or, if it’s already abundantly clear, make it bigger.

In Episode 2 of WBSS, the problem of rivalry between the two groups is shown as an escalation of arguments that lead up to violence.

The climax scene often marks the end of the second act, which – according to a few friends of mine who study theater – is usually about twice as long as the first act.  If you are writing a miniseries, though, it should simply be more fast-paced than the first episode.

Act Three: All Hell Breaks Loose

As seen in Episode Three.

The third and final act of a three-part script takes place after the climax and, if you’re using a witch’s-hat diagram, represents the downward slope.  Here, you must as a writer deal with the events of acts one and two and find a suitable conclusion.

Episode 3 of WBSS does this by dealing with the first major act of serious violence in the show, which is the climax of Episode 2.  At the beginning of the episode, all hell DOES break loose: the protagonist Joey deals with the violence against his best friend by retaliating violently, then regrets his actions afterward.

The final act should be about the same size as the second act or longer, depending on how your characters deal with the events of the climax.  If you’re writing a miniseries, the action should be the same pace or faster than that of the second episode.

Remember: during this act, you must wrap everything up and find a suitable conclusion, which means different things for different scripts.

Final Advice

In conclusion, I have a little bit of advice for those working on a miniseries that WILL BE filmed, since this is what I have most experience with.

  • Work with the director.  This is important – if you’re writing scenes that can’t happen, you’re going to have a lot of problems.  The director will also be able to give you feedback on character development, plot development, and more.
  • Take your time and don’t rush.  You definitely don’t want to write your miniseries the same way I did: in under three months while working on a senior thesis.  I think that says enough right there.  While I’m very proud of the show and those who participated, I know that as a writer I could have done better with more time and less stress.
  • Try to be involved with the casting process, if not the overall process.  I’m credited as the director of WBSS, and I couldn’t have enjoyed it more.  I got to meet every single person involved with the show, and I was on the casting board.  One of the main characters was almost cast differently, but I knew the moment he walked in that I wanted him to play the character he played.  In the end, his character was one of the viewers’ favorites.  Stay involved.  You won’t regret it.

Hopefully, some of these tips will be helpful to you.  If you’ve written something that’s been filmed and is now online, post the link below – we’d love to check it out.

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