The three-act structure has long been the standard for Hollywood feature film screenplays. This structure contains a beginning (Act 1), middle (Act 2), and end (Act 3). In Act 1, the protagonist is introduced along with the story world and conflict. Act 2 has a confrontation where the protagonist struggles with obstacles. Act 3 wraps up the story with the climax and resolution.
This format creates a satisfying story arc. But can this same three-act structure work for short films? With much less runtime, do short films need to follow a different screenplay format altogether?
In this blog post, we’ll examine if the traditional three-act movie structure applies to short films produced on tight budgets and schedules. We’ll also discuss alternative short film structures and approaches to outlining your story.
The Case for Using the Three-Act Structure in Short Films
Many successful and even Oscar award-winning short films clearly follow the standard three-act structure. For example:
- West of the Moon (2018) – Act 1 shows the boy reading fairy tales in bed. Act 2 has the fantasy world come to life. Act 3 resolves it as a dream.
- The Neighbors’ Window (2019) – Act 1 introduces the couple and their longing for freedom. Act 2 has them drawn to the neighbor’s lifestyle. Act 3 resolves their marital issues.
- The Silent Child (2017) – Act 1 establishes the girl’s struggles. Act 2 shows the social worker helping her. Act 3 ends with the girl finally speaking.
While condensed, these short films managed to establish a scenario, escalate conflict, and resolve the story in a satisfying way.
Using the three-act structure even in shorts has several benefits:
- It provides a clear narrative arc and conveys a complete story efficiently.
- The audience understands the established structure, allowing you to subvert expectations.
- It allows introducing protagonist(s), setting up the world, building tension, and concluding with a climax even in a short runtime.
- Formatting for contests often requires listing the acts, making three acts a standardized format.
So while condensed, having Act 1 as the setup, Act 2 as the confrontation, and Act 3 as the resolution can work very well for short films from a storytelling perspective.
Challenges of Cramming the Three-Act Structure into Your Short Film
However, trying to fit the full three-act movie structure into your short film can also come with limitations:
- Less runtime means less opportunity to establish characters, settings, and backstory.
- The middle act where confrontation escalates may feel too abrupt or rushed.
- Resolution may not feel completely satisfying or earned without more setup time.
- It may force your story unnaturally into three acts when it doesn’t fully align.
Your short may end up feeling formulaic, with story beats happening too quickly without time to breathe. Truncating a full feature film structure into short form doesn’t always translate seamlessly.
Alternative Structures for Short Films
If the rigid three-act structure isn’t working for your short film idea, there are alternatives you can consider:
Two Act Structure
The two-act structure contains a setup and a resolution without a lengthy middle act. This pared-down storytelling may work better for shorts.
- The setup shows the protagonist, world, and conflict. The resolution shows how the conflict ends.
- Rather than a midpoint, use a turning point to transition between acts.
- Allows you to focus on the essence of your story without cramming three arcs.
Beginning, Middle, End
Some shorts follow a simple beginning, middle, and end format without a fixed number of acts.
- The beginning establishes the main characters and scenario.
- The middle develops the relationships and escalates tensions.
- The end resolves the central conflict.
- This loose structure leaves room for experimentation within each stage.
Prologues and Epilogues
You can use a short prologue before Act 1 or an epilogue after Act 3 to add more context.
- A prologue preceding the setup can show a critical backstory quickly.
- An epilogue after the resolution can hint at future events.
- Lets you expand the world and conflict without cramming it into three acts.
Some avant-garde shorts go completely without any defined acts or overt structure.
- The story flows continuously without distinct setup, confrontation, and resolution stages.
- Often driven more by emotions, visuals, and character than tightly plotted narrative beats.
- Allows for highly experimental creativity.
Formatting Your Short Film’s Story
Rather than trying to fit your story into a fixed three-act structure, focus on outlining the story beats and emotional arc. Here are tips for formatting your unique narrative:
Outline Story Beats
Break down your story into individual scenes and moments without worrying about acts. Then look at how they sequence together into an arc.
Use Plot Points and Turning Points
Identify the key plot points that change the direction of the story, the catalysts that propel the protagonist forward.
Follow Character Emotions
Focus on accurately conveying the changing emotions of your protagonist from beginning to end. The plot should serve this inner emotional journey.
Let the Story Dictate Structure Don’t overwrite a specific act structure that doesn’t fit. Let the sequencing of the story events determine the optimal structure.
While three acts can work very well for shorts, don’t try to force your story unnaturally into this structure if it doesn’t serve your vision. The best shorts utilize creative freedom in their formatting, placing story above structure. Keep these guidelines in mind when shaping your own short film narrative.
In summary, there are arguments on both sides of whether short films should strictly adhere to the three-act structure. Many great shorts successfully use a simplified version of the classic three-act movie format containing setup, confrontation, and resolution.
However, the constraints of the short film form may make the traditional three-act structure feel too rushed and abrupt. Creativity with two acts, loose beginnings, and endings, prologues/epilogues, or no acts at all may better serve stories with experimental narratives and condensed runtimes.
Ultimately, the best approach is letting your unique story dictate structure, rather than trying to fit rigid paradigms. Outline story beats and emotional arcs, use turning points, and don’t overwrite acts that don’t align. By focusing on engaging characters and impactful storytelling, you can create a memorable short film no matter the structure.
Experiment and defy expectations. There are no mandatory rules, only what best conveys your creative vision within the short form.
Frequently Asked Questions
What movies have a 3 act structure?
Many popular Hollywood movies follow the classic three-act structure, including:
- The Wizard of Oz
- Star Wars
- The Silence of the Lambs
- Toy Story
- The Dark Knight
- The Lion King
- Pulp Fiction
- Finding Nemo
- Die Hard
How many scenes does a short film have?
Most short films contain between 5 to 15 scenes. Very short films may have only 2-3 scenes, while longer short films could have up to 25 scenes. The number of scenes depends on the story, length, and pace of the short film.
What qualifies as a short film?
A short film is generally defined as a complete film that is 40 minutes or less in length, including credits. festival short film categories often specify limits like 10 minutes, 15 minutes, or 30 minutes maximum length.
What is the three-act structure of a short story?
For a short story, the three acts may consist of:
Act 1 – Introduce protagonist, world, and conflict Act 2 – Escalate conflict, and obstacles for protagonist Act 3 – Climax and resolution of central conflict
What is the 3-act rule?
The 3 act rule states that each act of a three-act structure should be 30 pages long in a standard screenplay. Act 1 is pages 1-30, Act 2 is 31-60, and Act 3 is 61-90. Short films may stick to this rule loosely.
Do all stories have a three-act structure?
Not all stories follow a three-act structure. Many stories deviate from the standard three-act Hollywood format. Short films in particular often alter or abandon the three-act structure as better suits the condensed storytelling.
How long is a normal short film?
The typical length of a short film ranges from 5-30 minutes, with 10-20 minutes being the most common length. This allows telling a full concise story within a limited runtime.
How long is a short film generally?
In general, short films are classified as films with a runtime of 40 minutes or less. Common lengths are 1-3 minutes, 5-15 minutes, 10-30 minutes, or under 40 minutes. Quality short films can be created at various lengths within the broad “short film” category.