The Nine-Act Structure of Feature Films

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What is the Nine-Act Structure?

The Nine-Act Structure is a paradigm for understanding how feature films work. When you read a script, you may be interested in the characters, the theme, the message, the dialogue, etc., but you have to ask whether the story works or not. If the story works, most of the time it follows the Nine-Act Structure.

A Short History of the Nine-Act Structure

In 1986–90, I spent much of my time learning how movies work. I did it after writing a script that, according to friends, “didn’t work,” and I wanted to find out why. So I rented more than 100 films (VHS tapes), and I watched each one with a stopwatch, taking notes of what happened during each minute of each film. Here’s an example from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade:

The Nine Act Structure vs the Three-Act Structure

People don’t understand the Nine-Act Structure, because they are so used to Syd Field and Robert McKee’s story paradigms. The more you have used the traditional three-act structure, the more difficult you will find it to understand my tool. The Nine-Act structure is a much more accurate tool than the three-act structure. If the three-act structure is a magnifying glass, the Nine-Act Structure is a microscope.

In my world, a reversal is very specific — it’s the moment when the protagonist changes her goal.

The Two-Goal Structure

At the heart of the Nine-Act Structure is the Two-Goal Structure. Ninety-nine percent of all feature films are either single-goal or two-goal. In both these story types, something (usually bad) happens, and something must be done.

In my world, a reversal is very specific — it’s the moment when the protagonist changes her goal.

Most of the time, the second goal is bigger in scope and much more is at stake than in the false goal. Most of the time, the second goal is to prevent the bad guy’s plan from happening. Examples of two-goal plots:

If you understand this structure, as Aristotle did, you realize that the change of goal is the fulcrum of the film.

Obstacles and Complications

In my world, there is at most one reversal per film. Nemo has no reversal. Casablanca has a huge reversal. As the story unfolds, there are obstacles and complications.

The Seeds of Conflict: Legitimate vs Illegitimate Reversals

If the reversal is the fulcrum of the plot, it has to be built properly. So to expand on the two-goal plot, we add a few more planks to the platform.

The bad guy’s need to execute his plan drives the plot forward.

The history lesson is usually 2–6 pages long and occurs on page 65–95. This part of the writing can be done in anywhere from a few hours to a few years.

The Godfather: Meeting of the Five Families
Mr Incredible Learns the Truth
Wall*E: Directive A113
The General under-the-table scene

The “bones” of the story are made of the bad guy’s plan.

This is narrative structure: after the history lesson, everything makes sense. Here’s a semi-weak one, but it still works:

The Mask jail scene
Gremlins history lesson
Animal House speech
Big — Josh goes back to his old neighborhood
Casablanca: I Still Love You

The Nine-Act Structure Overview

A legitimate reversal changes the protagonist’s goal and makes the film much more interesting right at the 2/3 point. This is the recipe for conflict that isn’t predictable. Here is the visual overview:

Act 0: Someone Toils Long into the Night
Act 1: Open with An Establishing Shot
Act 2: Something Bad/Mysterious Happens
Act 3: Meet the Hero
Act 4: Commitment
Act 5: Go for the Wrong Goal
Act 6: Reversal
Act 7: Go for the New Goal
Act 8: Resolution

The Nine-Act structure is nothing more than a support structure for a strong reversal.

Film Time vs Story Time

The majority of feature films run100–110 minutes. The story may play out over weeks, months, years, decades. But there’s a remarkable consistency in storytelling: the story most often plays out inside of two weeks:

Act 0: Someone Toils Long into the Night

Somewhere around 80 percent of all bad guys work on their plan for at least ten years. Eight is short, thirty is long, and some toil away or lie in wait for hundreds of years until they are ready to spring into action. All this happens before the film starts.

Act 1: Open with an establishing shot

Watch movies and you’ll see it over and over. It’s often a crane, helicopter, or some kind of outside-in shot. It’s very rare that the action just starts without this. A favorite of mine:

American Beauty opening shot
Working girl establishing shot

Act 2: Something Bad Happens

This is the beginning of the unfolding of the bad guy’s plan. It’s almost always on the bad guy’s terms — he chooses the time and place. It rarely involves the protagonist, it’s just the first event of more to come. Jurassic Park provides a classic example, giving a taste of what is yet to come:

Jurassic Park Act 2
Dark Knight opener
Despicable Me opener
Jumanji opener
Inglourious Basterds chilling opener
Blue Velvet ear find
Lawrence of Arabia opener

Act 3: Meet the Hero

Who is going to fix the problem? Someone who has an unfulfilled need and who just happens to be related to the problem. Seeing Luke Skywalker at home, Indiana Jones teaching, and Rocky collecting debts establishes both a basis for a normal life and the qualifications for extraordinary performance. We learn her need, even if she happens to be lazy, drunk, or unmotivated.

Act IV: Commitment

Most stories have a pretty sharp commitment point. Remember that in most Nine-Act stories, the protagonist commits to the false goal. In The Lion King, Scar and the hyenas convince Simba to run away from his family and community. In Casablanca, Rick commits to learning why Elsa left him in Paris. In The Fugitive, Richard shaves his beard and commits to finding the man who killed his wife. In Mrs Doubtfire, “she” accepts the job offer. In The Incredibles, Bob takes the job working for Mirage. In Alice in Wonderland, she dives down the hole after the rabbit. In Avatar, Jake promises to help Colonel Quaritch by giving him intelligence on the Na’vi.

The Matrix Red Pill/Blue Pill

Act 5: Go For the Wrong Goal

It should be obvious to the audience that the hero is now going for the right goal, doing the right thing. If a murder has been committed, the obvious thing to do is find the murderer and bring him to justice. But the bad guy is forcing every move. In most cases, the bad guy drives this act, and the hero is on his heels. In Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, they keep saying “Wow, those guys are good. Who are those guys?” In Total Recall, Quaid keeps seeing videos he himself left to guide him from one whammo to the next. The hero is playing a game of catch-up, and quality information is scarce. Most often, the front man does the dirty work during Act 5, while the mastermind remains behind the scenes until Act 6.

Fatboy Slim dance scene
Angels and Demons murder whammo
The Game — picking up breadcrumbs
Splash — fish out of water
Big FAO Schwarz piano scene
Elektra trailer
Jack Ryan — hotel-room assault
Clarice gets a clue after autopsy
Harry Potter — memory of Dumbledore meeting young Tom Riddle

Generally, each new clue reveals information from further back in time before the story started.

Act 6: The Reversal

The final puzzle piece falls into place …

The seminal incident from Batman revealed in a flashback
Evan Almighty — God shows Evan the original valley without the dam and the houses.
Truman Show reversal
Ghostbusters — Evo Shandor story
Lego Movie history lesson
The turning point in The Fugitive

Act 7: Go for the New Goal

The new goal is clear. The path to the new goal is anything but. The way out of the immediate situation may be clear, or it may be improvised. Very often, there is a secret — a few people whisper to each other what they need to do, and they put their secret plan in motion.

Chicken Run Final Escape
Back to the Future car escape 88 mph
Terminator final fight scene
Croods final scene
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows final fight scene
Aladdin final fight
Toy Story 3 Final Battle
Lion King Final Scene
The Graduate Final Scene
True Lies Final Scene
Pretty Woman Knight on White Horse scene

Act 8: Resolution

This act should be mercifully short. No more than four pages. There may be some awards to give, some people to hug and thank, some sacrifices to mourn, talismans to return, rituals to perform, and home to go back to, but it’s okay to leave the audience wanting more. Just boil it down to one final scene that gets most of it done and then …

Summary

In essence, the Nine Act Structure manages the flow of information in a film — what the protagonist learns and what the audience learns — to answer all the why questions. The nine acts fall into place naturally to support a two-goal plot. In a film with a linear plot and a single goal, you’ll still see seven acts, because these basic building blocks contribute to a well crafted story. There aren’t many alternatives, really. The more you study films, the more you will see seven or nine acts, with very few exceptions.

  • One goal (we know everything we need to know at the beginning)
  • Two goal (there’s a spectrum of reversals, from weak to strong)
  • Shit happens until it’s time to fade out (generally driven by character or premise — I call this a “Nein-Act Structure,” and it’s extremely rare: Shrek, Forrest Gump)

Discussion

The Nine-Act Structure answers the question Why? Why is this happening? Why him? Why are all the characters doing what they are doing? When you have good answers for the why questions, the audience finds the story believable and they want to get involved.

Why No One Talks About This

The Nine-Act Structure based around the history lesson that provides a legitimate reversal has been understood since Aristotle, but it hasn’t been properly formalized. People just feel it intuitively on top of the traditional three-act structure. Studio executives will hand back notes saying it doesn’t feel right, it’s the timing, something is off in the second act, the story is too predictable, etc. They “know it when they see it,” because “it works.”

Princess Tiana Party

The Nine-Act Structure based around the history lesson that provides a legitimate reversal has been understood since Aristotle, but it hasn’t been properly formalized.

How to Use the Nine-Act Structure

Take a rigorous approach to writing. Don’t feel your way through the process. I’ve seen too many writers not understand how to edit their material, and they go back and forth, throwing out important structural parts so they can save their darling dialogue or funny bits. Here are my suggestions; feel free to use, abuse, or ignore them …

Films aren’t shot in script order, nor should scripts be written in story order.

NOTE: I haven’t gone into all the writing tools, structure tools, and analysis software on the market. I’ll leave you to see if any of those fits well with what I have described here. It’s very possible that some of those tools and methods are more practical and better than what I have described.

What to Do Next?

First, use this information. Second, tell people it’s here. It was buried for two decades, and now it finally has a home.

A strong story is built around a good bad guy.

How to Analyze a Film

Follow this recipe:

  1. Don’t rely on memory. Watch the film and write down the action of each minute. At the very least, review the film on video as you work through these steps …
  2. Who is the antagonist and what his his/her plan?
  3. Who is the protagonist? Whose story is it? Could there be more than one? What is his/her need?
  4. What is the commitment? How legitimate is it?
  5. What is the false goal?
  6. How far back in time do the breadcrumbs go?
  7. What turns the story? Describe act 6 in detail. List several possible hypotheses and think each one through. In general, the evidence will lead you to one. How strong is the reversal?
  8. How does act 7 keep the audience guessing?
  9. Write up your full analysis and discuss any deviations from the standard Nine-Act profile.

Quiz Questions

I apologize, these films are dated. If I have time, I’ll add more contemporary questions.

Easy questions

Who is the protagonist in Ratatouille? Who’s the antagonist? What turns the story?
What revelation turns the story in Chinatown?
Are the hallucinations in A Beautiful Mind relevant to the plot?
Analyze Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff.
Analyze Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Analyze Cool Hand Luke.
Analyze Cars. Who’s the antagonist?
In Saving Private Ryan, what role does Ryan play?
In Tootsie, who is the antagonist? What turns the story?
Analyze Thelma and Louise.
Analyze War Games.
Analyze When Harry Met Sally.
Analyze Analyze This.
Analyze Parenthood.
Analyze The Martian.
Analyze Finding Nemo: Why is Marvin not the protagonist?

Medium-hard questions

In the world of the Nine-Act Structure, what’s the definition of a tragedy?
Who is the protagonist in Psycho?
American Beauty
starts with a little shocker. Imagine how you could work that into the film rather than putting it at the beginning. Can you find a better solution, or do you think they way they did it is optimal?
Analyze Casablanca.
Analyze Rain Man.
In Jurassic Park, who is the antagonist?
In Total Recall, what role does Hauser play? Who is the mastermind?
Analyze Ocean’s Eleven.
Analyze The Sting.
Analyze Natural Born Killers.
Analyze Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Analyze Lara Croft, Tomb Raider.
Compare the structures of Beverly Hills Cop I and II.
Analyze Catch Me if you Can.
Analyze Fatal Attraction.
Compare my analysis of Rocky with a three-act analysis.
Compare my analysis of The Truman Show with a three-act analysis.
Piece together Casablanca. It’s fun and interesting.
Analyze Angel Heart.
Analyze The Wrestler.
Analyze Shrek I and II — how do they compare structurally?
At least two films I’ve mentioned on this page end at Act 6. What other films end at Act 6? Discuss why they are this way.

Hard questions

Who is the protagonist in The Godfather? Who is the antagonist?
Analyze The Wizard of Oz (very advanced).
From the above question — how do you deal with story-within-a-story? Can you generalize this? Does my recursive theory hold for stories-within-stories?
Look at adaptations from novels to films and try to learn how the Nine-Act structure may apply to both. Try analyzing the film Adaptation.
In Gone with the Wind, who is the protagonist? What is the turning point?
In Apocalypse Now, what is Willard’s need? What are his two goals? Who is the antagonist?
Analyze Toy Story (Who’s the protagonist? Who is the antagonist? What are their goals? What turns the story? See note **).
From the above, can you generalize a buddy-film protagonist formula using the Nine-Act framework?
Analyze all Pixar films and discuss their structures against each other (Include The Princess and the Frog).
Analyze The Sixth Sense. Who is the protagonist? What is unusual about Act 5? Can you imagine a way to improve this?
Analyze Titanic. (very advanced)
Analyze Fantasia.
Are there structural similarities among films where the protagonist is also the antagonist? Can we generalize anything about these films and their structures?
Are there good examples with two antagonists, or a story-within-a-story where each level has its own antagonist? This is something I haven’t researched.

Quotes

Epilogue

I don’t plan to update this page much, but I do hope people will use my work and acknowledge my contribution. It will be interesting to see how other people incorporate this work into their theories, structures, and consulting.

  • If you find a mistake or a dead link, please let me know.
  • I won’t allow comments. If someone wants to set up a Slack or Reddit or community to discuss this, I’ll gladly point to it from here, just let me know.
  • If you want me to help you with your script — I can’t, I’m sorry, I’m far too busy.
  • I don’t have time to answer questions about this material.
  • If somehow you want to help move this project forward or make it useful in some commercial way, contact me. I am interested in consulting for studios, producers, and directors as time permits.
  • If you have an academic interest and think you could get funding for research along these lines, definitely contact me. Ideally, someone will help me put a few thousand films into a database, then we can use data science and look for interesting insights.
  • If you have a page on story structure, I’m not going to link to it. I don’t have time to maintain a list of links and resources, sorry. If you mention me, please give me proper credit and link to nineactstructure.com.
  • If you want to develop a resources page that complements this, I’ll gladly link to it.

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David Siegel

Provocateur, professional heretic, slayer of myths, speaker of truthiness to powerfulness, and defender of the Oxford comma.