Three Act Structure: Breaking Down Acts One, Two, & Three in The Godfather

By Laura Barker

There are already several structures for you to write scripts nowadays, there’s not only one right way to write it, keep that in mind. The screenplay structure has nothing to do just with mythology (The Hero’s Journey, Joseph Campbell). There is not a definitive formula for how to write a script, but there are definitely well-trodden paths that countless professional screenwriters take to craft certain stories’ structures. It’s all about basic choices a screenwriter can make to determine how they want to tell their story, and though these molds might seem overused or formulaic, they do provide a great framework for new writers. During my years of screenplay studies I learned that there are always exceptions for everything, including telling a story, so don’t get attached to the models. European films for example, sometimes they follow a different linear line in their scripts, making one of my favorite movie styles.

Here I’m going to talk about one of these different ways of putting together a script and how to utilize and master the Three act structure, perhaps one of the most common structures in many films you’ve seen around, is the key to a reliable foundation for your storytelling process.

What is the Three Act structure? The principles of the 3-Act have been employed by storytellers for ages. In the early 20th century, filmmakers adopted the structure to develop compelling stories for their burgeoning art form. While this traditional form remains the standard, filmmakers have found ways to bend the structure to their creative will. Three act structure divides stories into three parts : Act I, Act II and Act III, or rather, a beginning, middle, and end.

If you have any knowledge of script, you have certainly heard about the Screenwriter Syd Field, who made this ancient storytelling tool unique for his colleagues in 1978 with the publishing of his book “Screenplay – The Foundations of screenwriting”, the book that became a studies book in film schools and a guide for new writers.

Aristotle defined the three units of dramatic action as time, space and action. Normally Hollywood films last approximately two hours (120 minutes), whereas Europeans, or foreign films, are approximately 90 minutes. One page of script is equivalent to one minute of projection. It doesn’t matter if the script is all described in action, all in dialogue or a combination of both, in general, a script page corresponds to a minute of film.

I will use the first film of the Godfather trilogy (The Godfather part I) as an analysis on how the three act structure can be clearly seen in the script’s composition, which was inspired by the remarkable book by writer Mario Puzo. Puzo wrote much of the film’s script adaptation alongside director Copolla. Widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, The Godfather focuses on the powerful Italian-American mafia family of Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando). When Don’s youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino), reluctantly joins the crime, he becomes involved in the inevitable cycle of violence and betrayal.

I will only focus on the composition of the script based on structure, with no depth in character composition, we can talk about that at another time.

The following analysis contains spoilers about the film, if you haven’t watched it yet I suggest you to do so before moving on.

How does the Three Act structure work?

The structure sets up a strong foundation in act one, allows you to explore the world and stakes in act two, and gives you time to wrap up the emotional arcs in act three. Before we start, let’s talk about plot.

 

What is a Plot ?

A plot is any incident, episode or event that “hooks” the action and reverses it in another direction – in this case, Acts II and III. A turning point occurs at the end of Act I, around pages 25 to 27 on the script, and it is a function of the main character. Let’s see below the plots that moved The Godfather.

Several of the plots accentuate the complexity of the narrative in the film: The first happens at the end of the initial sequence, which has an equal narrative function in the three movies of the sequal; We have a second moment in the attack on Vito; A third in Solozzo’s death; A fourth in Vito’s death; And the last, which corresponds to the climax, following the final reckoning. Beginning, confrontation (middle), resolution (end) – are parts that make up the whole composition of the script.

But this raises another question: If these are some of the parts that make up the script, how can we move on to Act I, from the presentation, to Act II, a confrontation? And how to move from Act II to Act III, a resolution?  The answer is very simple: Create a turning point (plot point) at the end of Acts I and II. It is not a formula that applies to all films, however much it can be perceived in most of them. I don’t particularly like basic formulas, even though it works in many movies, but the interesting concept here is the one of turning points, which are the moments that make the plot move from transformations or disturbances in the narrative.

 

Breaking down the Three Act Structure

Act I (Beginning)

The beginning of everything, is a dramatic action unit of approximately thirty pages and it is held together within the dramatic context known as the performance. Here is where you introduce your story: the characters, the dramatic premise, the situation (circumstances surrounding the action) and where to establish the relationships between the main character and the other characters who inhabit the scenarios of his world. Set up your world and get your story moving.

 

A Tip : The first and the last frame of a film can be incredibly impactful, how many films have we watched that impacted us with their beginnings or their endings? Like the opening of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick) and the end of The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan), you certainly do not need to remember the entire moviee but for sure those beginnings and endings were recorded in your memory. Sometimes these frames can be purely representational of the journey that was just undertaken, as in Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach) and others. Other times they visually portray a significant change in the film’s main character, like what happens in The Godfather I to part II (Francis Ford Coppola). So, no matter how the first and final frames are used, they’re almost always very important and incredibly meaningful and somehow represent how the story is being told and it’s themes.

 

Act I in The Godfather

The film starts with a sequence concentrating around the big event of Connie’s wedding. In the first act we have the traditional religious celebration that introduces us to the entire Corleone family. It’s a high society affair, with all the top Italian families in attendance. This act occupies about 15% of the plot, it is the act I, with characters’ presentation, motivations, the location, context and the beginning of the subplots, that will move the film.

We meet Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) and his girlfriend Kay Adams (Dianne Keaton). When Kay mentions that Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana), one of the guests who is sitting near them, looks like a scary guy, Michael explains that Luca does the dirty work for his father Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando). He uses strong arm tactics, forcing people to sign contracts with guns to their heads. Kay is visibly stunned. Michael responds, “That’s my family Katie, it’s not me”.

Then we have a sequence that finishes presenting the family’s methods, introducing us to a character that imposes tension in the pre-established order. Johnny Fontan (Al Martino), who is a successful singer and one of Vito Corleone’s godson, makes a special request to his godfather: He wants to be the star in the new film of a respected Hollywood producer, Jack Woltz (John Marley). Tom Hagan (Robert Duvall) was sent to L.A to have a little talk with the all-powerful producer to get the role for Johnny. Woltz says right away that Johnny will never be in his film.

After knowing that the request came from Don Vito Corleone, he invites Tom to his house for dinner. They go to the stables, see the beautiful million dollar horse, have a marvelous dinner, but the movie he isn’t changing his mind. Johnny Fontaine ruined one of his young actresses with his olive oil voice and guinea charm. Tom excuses himself and makes plans to leave. The conflict was established. The following sequence, which is one of the most famous scenes in cinema, is the event that signals change to the world that was just set up. It is a transition, this plot is not concerned with establishing tension in excess before this breakdown of order and the disturbance that is settled in the protagonists.

Back to New York City the Corleone family has a meeting with Virgil Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), a businessman who is closely aligned with the Tattaglia and Barzini, mafia families. He is bringing narcotics to the Italian mafia and they propose to Don Vito a partnership, Don Vito would have to invest a sum of money and would receive a percentage of their profit in exchange for protection, of him and his family. After thinking about the proposal Don Vito refuses it and says that narcotics is not a business that interests him. Here the second conflict of Act I was established. This leads us to one of the two most important sequences, which goes from the attack on Don Vito Corleone to the murder of Sollozzo committed by Michael. It is more important that this disorder takes over the plot so that we can see the real protagonist of the film emerge : Michael Corleone, who in the beginning was in the background. So this part is just a bridge to the next, which is what really matters.

This entire part takes more than a quarter of the film. Now we have the main conflict established – who will occupy The Godfather’s chair and restore the family’s power? – here we begin to know our true leading man. It is the act where we see the setup of the crisis and the conflict, necessary elements in any narrative.

 

Act II (Middle)

The second act is twice as long as the first or third act. First half of the second act is a deepening of the story and character and of the movie’s theme, moving us toward being connected to the dramatic context known as confrontation. During the second act, the main character faces obstacles after obstacles, which prevents him from reaching his dramatic need. All drama is conflict, without conflict there is no character, without character, there is no action, without action there is no story, and then there is no script.

After Sollozzo’s death, Michael’s exile in Sicily (Italy) and the events that take place during the family war culminate in Sonny’s death (James Caan). Here we have 15% of the film dedicated to showing the fall of Vito’s successor, the crisis in the Mafia family and part of Michael’s painful training in father’s land. This is where the protagonist walks towards his goal, facing the dangers of his path. The situations must show the world, or the opponents, trying to hinder the protagonist’s progress.

Michael receives a message in Sicily; a bomb is placed in Michael’s new wife’s car and when she starts it, the car explodes. Then Michael gets knowledge of the death of his brother Sonny (James Caan). All of these are conflicts that the character carries in the second act. So that’s why this act is the second important narrative part that complements the one that shows the beginning of Michael’s transformation. After Sonny is murdered in a hail of bullets, Don Vito makes a deal with the rival Italian families to ensure Michael’s safety. With his return to America, he takes over the family business and under the tutelage of his father, begins to prepare the ground for them to turn the tables.

We see here the methodical Michael. This act goes on until Vito’s death. Driven by this change, Michael travels to L.A. to make a proposal to Moe Greene (Alex Rocco), who owns a casino that Michael’s older brother Fredo (John Cazale) helps Moe manage. Just before the trip Michael repeats the famous phrase that his father says at the beginning of the film “I will make a proposal that he cannot refuse.” With that we know how much change happened in the character, even the way he dresses and combs his hair delivers the dark world that he is now part of.

 

Act III

In act III we have a unit of drama that runs from the end of act II and is held together within the dramatic context known as resolution. Resolution not as in end, resolution as in solution. Act III solves the story, but it’s not your end. What is the solution of the script ? Does your main character survive or die ? Is it a success or a failure?

The end is that scene, image or sequence in which the script ends, not the solution of the story.

The act III of the film goes forward with a bloody baptism, Michael organizes a multiple murder and eliminates all rival families. Even of his brother-in-law who beat his sister and who helped the other ones in the assassination of his brother Sonny. Here we see what inside the structure is called climax, and it happens just before the final resolution. At Don Vito’s funeral one of the heads of another mafia family tells Michael that a new meeting has been set up for final arrangements, now that his father is out of the picture. Clearly at this point in the film we know that all other families want Michael dead so that the Corleones do not have a successor and so they no longer exist.

Michael then accepts to attend the meeting that was supposed to take place after his nephew’s  baptism (Connie’s son). While the religious ceremony takes place, we follow the elimination of each mafia family leader. It is the big climax. The protagonist ends his journey occupying the chair of The Godfather’s, Michael transformation is consolidated with the murder of the five families’ heads.

Both in case of victory and in case of failure, here the conflict is ended, and the tension returns to zero.