Three-Act Paradigm

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IRIS Wiki - Narrative Theories - Three-Act Paradigm


Syd Field

Histo-geographical placement

USA, Europe, 1979

As a head of the story department at Cinemobile Systems, Syd Field read more then 2000 screenplays in two years and selected only 40 to present for possible film production.

Type of story


Parent Theories


Child Theories


Brief Description

In his book “Screenplay” (Fields, 1979) Syd Field outlines a paradigm that most screenplays follow. To the fundamental question “What is a screenplay” he answers simply: “A screenplay is a story told with pictures.” (Screenplay, 1979, p. 8). He then asks: What do all stories have in common? He argues that a story is to be understood as a whole, but is made up of:

  • The action
  • Characters
  • Scenes
  • Sequences
  • Act I, Act II, Act III
  • Incidents
  • Episodes
  • Events
  • Music
  • Locations

All these parts make the story hold together as a whole. What holds all these parts together to a story, is the structure. “it is the relationship between these parts that holds the entire screenplay, that whole, together.” (p.9) That is what Field calls the paradigm of dramatic structure. He defines a paradigm as a model or conceptual scheme and proposes the following for screenplays:

Beginning Middle End
Act I Act II Act III
Setup X Confrontation X Resolution
============== ========= ============== ========= =========>>
Plot Point 1 Plot Point 2

Every screenplay has a beginning, a middle and an end, called Act I, Act II and Act III.

1. Act I is a unit of dramatic action held together with the dramatic context known as Setup.

2. Act II is held together with the dramatic context known as Confrontation. Here the main character tries to achieve their dramatic need and encounters obstacles.

3. Act III is held together with the dramatic context known as Resolution, it resolves the story.

The ends of Act I and Act II are marked by Plot Points. Both, Plot Point 1 and Plot Point 2 are an incident, an event or an episode that drives the story in a new direction. The Plot Point 1 is a function of the main character that drives them to the dramatic need. The Plot Point 2 happens at the end of Act II and leads the story to Act III where the resolution takes place.

Relation with Interactive Storytelling

The Three-Act Paradigm can be used in IS system, but the strong linearity of the model makes it less relevant for generative approaches.

This model (and similar screenwriting approaches) insists on the main character "quest", and the obstacles this character meets when pursuing the quest. This is a premise of a goal-based approach, that is common in Artificial Intelligence and that have been widely applied in IS systems.

Systems/Tools using this theory

While several systems don't impose the three act structure, they offer a framework allowing such decomposition. For example Dramachina could implement the Three-Act Paradigm with the scene object.

The Rencontre system borrowed the concept of a hierarchical decomposition into acts and scenes to create the hypersection structure. However, with Rencontre the author can also write various hierarchical structures.

IDtension is based in part on the concept of obstacles, according to this model.


The three-act structure:

Official website of Syd Field:


Field, S. (1979). Screenplay, Dell Publishing.