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The Protagonist & Three-Act Structure
Written by: Luc Saber - April 19, 2024

Here’s stating the obvious. A THREE-ACT structure is a story divided into three sections: 

Act One, Act Two, and Act Three. 

All of these sections are crucial to the structure of how you tell your story. Certain elements should be addressed in each act.


Act one is the beginning of the story, and it’s typically thirty pages long. Act two is the middle of the story, and it’s sixty pages long. Act Three is the end of the story, and it's typically thirty pages long.


Writers must bring certain story elements to light in each of the three acts. In the following few pages, I’ll focus on only a few aspects of which a writer must be aware. 


In Act One, the audience expects to meet the PROTAGONIST.


The protagonist is the person the viewer watches from the beginning of the story to the end, and for whom they root to achieve the ultimate goal, overcome obstacles, capture the heart of their love interest, save humanity, and live happily ever after.


You’ll achieve your goal of creating a great protagonist when the viewer or reader of your screenplay can identify with the character you created. 


THE WORLD in which your protagonist lives is another crucial element to introduce. 


That means you must show important elements of how the world works so that the viewer can understand your protagonist's choices as the story progresses. 


Is it a world of corruption? If so, the writer must show an instance or two of how the influential players that populate this world function. They’re immoral, corrupt, on the take, and so on. Think of scenes that would illustrate that environment. Is the world you’re creating riddled by street crime, gangs, or petty criminals? Then, show that on the page and the screen. Or are you writing about a world that is set in a prudent and pleasant environment where the lawn is neatly manicured, and the happy faces of the neighborhood enjoy a safe and prosperous life? If so, you know what you have to do. Bring your audience into your world by showing a few glimpses of the environment in which we’ll spend the next two hours.


In addition to the world, introduce the INCITING INCIDENT. 


What is the inciting incident? It’s important to note that it’s not the EXCITING incident, although sometimes the INCITING incident can be exciting. What I’m referring to is the event that occurs somewhere in act one, whether the beginning, middle, or end of act one, that turns your protagonist’s life upside down and can not be reversed. 


For example, let’s say that your story takes place in a quiet suburb in the midwest United States. It’s an upper-middle-class area where people live in bliss and safety until a murder takes place on Bliss Avenue. This murder shakes up the neighborhood to its very core. It’s an event that cannot be undone and throws the life of your protagonist, who lives in this neighborhood, upside down. If it’s not a murder, it can be a string of home invasions or robberies, or perhaps the protagonist is diagnosed with a deadly disease— an accident takes place, or an extramarital affair destroys a marriage. 


The point is, as mentioned earlier, once this event happens, the characters cannot go back in time to undo it, and your protagonist’s life gets thrown off balance. We’ll spend the next couple of hours watching this character navigate through the maze of obstacles the writer sprinkles throughout the story. The writer will also introduce the ANTAGONIST, the bad guy/gal who stands in the way of the protagonist getting their life back on track, getting out of the mess, saving the neighborhood, saving the world, or winning the heart of a romantic interest. 


The ANTAGONIST is the antihero, the unlikely protagonist, or the character who prevents the protagonist from reaching their goal. 


How does a viewer identify with the protagonist they watch on screen?


When viewers can see themselves in the protagonist of your story and see certain personality traits, mannerisms, relationship dynamics, and interactions with others, a powerful connection is formed. This connection not only allows the viewer to relate but also to deeply invest in the character's journey. The viewer will either consciously or subconsciously yearn for the central character to triumph and achieve the goal of the story.


Similarly, viewers or readers of your story will identify with your character when they want to be like the persona you created on screen or on the page. If your protagonist is bigger than life, strong, muscular, good-looking, and has a twinkle in his eye, he comes across as lovable and popular. Then, most men will want to be like this guy, and most women will want to know him.


The same goes for female characters. Suppose the woman is intelligent, opinionated, strong, and determined, dresses well, and is successful at work and in relationships. In that case, most women will want to be her, and most men will want to be introduced to her. 


As screenwriters, it's crucial to acknowledge the power of honesty and observation. It’s in our human DNA to relate to characters we see on screen, and ignoring this phenomenon would be dishonest writing. To be true to our craft, we must observe the world and recreate it as we see it. We can use what people refer to as creative license to embellish, twist, and fantasize about how different a situation, person, or world could be. Whatever we embellish significantly, or we tell the story very close to reality, we must start from a truthful point of view and then mold it to fit the vision we, the writers, have for the story.


Writers of any genre and medium should first be good observers of life, and when developing a character, we must be great psychologists. A talented writer will have the sensitivity to understand the points of view of people from all walks of life. You’ll bring your point of view to the story but always consider and address other perspectives to tell a well-rounded story. 


Writing fiction is somewhat similar to journalism. Traditional journalists will take the time to investigate the event and the people involved in the event and tell the story with comments and points of view from all sides. Unlike fiction writers, a journalist must remain impartial in the report and maintain the highest degree of honesty and professionalism, while a fiction writer has the latitude to embellish, take advantage of creative license, and tell the story MOSTLY from one point of view. 


As a screenwriter, you must first learn the traditional practices and rules of screenwriting before you can develop a unique style. Many popular indie filmmakers wrote stories that did not follow the conventional formula to a tee, but they did that only after they familiarized themselves with and learned the formula that made Hollywood films successful for the last century.


When writing the PROTAGONIST, consider their character traits. Make a list of positive and negative attributes. Make a list of weaknesses and strengths this creature you’re about to create has. Decide on an overall theme for your character. I mentioned the physical attributes above, but that description was intended to make a point. Your character doesn’t have to be tall, muscular, and handsome, or your heroine; the lead female character doesn’t have to be a supermodel type. As a matter of fact, the closer you keep your character description similar to that of the average person, the more relatable they will be to the viewer. 


The same goes for character traits. Your protagonist doesn’t always have to be a model citizen. Sometimes, a protagonist is a thief or a crime boss, but audiences still cheer for them not to get caught. Why is that? Perhaps because these central characters had likable personalities. Maybe they showed how much they loved their children, parents, or others in their lives. Maybe the viewer identified with their sensitive side or the reason they were less than model citizens. 


In summary, when you’re developing your central character or protagonist, investigate who they are. Make a list of their background from the time they were born to now. Imagine the protagonist’s childhood and how that informs what they do in your story. Imagine their family’s background, social status, education level, personal beliefs, religious beliefs, or the lack thereof. 


Most of these background elements will not appear in the story, but they will inform you, the writer when you must make choices for the character.


You may have heard the comment from critics that they liked or disliked the choices an actor makes when portraying a character or the choices the writer or the director made. Suppose you make choices for your protagonist or any character in your story that are inconsistent with the personality and background you presented to your viewers. In that case, it’s a bad writing choice. Always make choices consistent with what you’ve established about your character on page one and in the first act.


I’ll leave it here for now, but keep an eye out for the next article in the series that will focus on how to write a synopsis. In the meantime, make your list and background notes on your central character. You may also make a similar list for the supporting characters and the Antagonist, the character that stands in the way of your Protagonist.

Regarding the antagonist, add a few character and personality traits that may make audiences hate this character and want him to fail in his attempt to stop the protagonist.

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