Three-Act Thesis

An analogy from film for writing an argument and developing a stronger thesis…

As a way to rethink the definition of a strong thesis in academic writing, I propose we consider the structure of another genre of writing, another writing machine: film writing. In film or screenwriting, the “thesis” is known as the turning point or premise or conflict or (sometimes) the hook of the film; it is the central problem or conflict that sets the action in motion and needs to be resolved by the end, also known as the climax of the film.

Link here for more on the basics of three-act film structure.

Wizard of OZ movie poster

Wizard of OZ movie poster (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The basic three-act structure of most films looks something like this [with The Wizard of Oz as a guide]:

  • Act 1: The Set Up
    • Normality (the given, normal, conventional life of the protagonist)
      • Dorothy’s bleak life in Kansas, desire to run away
    • Disturbance/Problem: something that disrupts the given/normal.
    • The tornado; knocked out; not in Kansas anymore
    • Turning point/hook (central problem plus surprise; a real but unusual conflict or problem that follows from the initial disturbance and needs to be solved or answered by the end of the film)
    • Welcome to Oz—must find the Wizard for help to get home.
    • (The resolution of this problem will be the climax of the movie)
  • Act 2: Complications
    • Further complications/problems/obstacles the protagonist faces in trying to resolve the central problem
      • All the trials along the way getting to see Wizard; getting broomstick.
    • Second Act turning point: a further or final problem that leads in to the climax
    • Wizard refuses help.
  • Act 3:   Climax and Resolution
    • Climax: the solving or answering of the central problem
      • Wizard revealed and agrees to take Dorothy in balloon; Good Witch helps her get home (no place like home.
    • Resolution: the ending of the film; the new reality/normality we are left with
    • Dorothy wakes up; implication: never left home? Will never want to leave home again.

My proposal is that a similar three-act structure can be an effective way to think about developing the narrative as well as the logic of an academic thesis. Why? Because the basis of a thesis is: the setting up of a problem (introduction); offering a surprising or unusual or unconventional way to think about that problem (thesis statement); considering complications along the way to solving the problem (supporting examples; counter-argument); the solving of the problem (conclusion as climax); larger implications—where this new way of viewing things leaves us (conclusion as resolution). I suggest that the following structure (or in rhetorical terms, heuristic) could be helpful both at the composting stage, when you are trying to develop ideas for the argument, working toward a thesis, as well as at the revision stage, after an initial draft, when you are working on refining your thesis.

One of the key lessons from film writing I want to borrow can help us with organization: everything in the film must relate to the turning point—the second act complications as well as the climax. At each stage of developing the script, the writer should be able to answer how a particular scene relates back to the turning point. It also emphasizes that strong writing not only relates to a central idea, but moves an audience through the argument, is dynamic (hence: three acts, action). Academic narratives deal with ideas, but still need action and movement to make the ideas/argument work; like a film, critical narratives need an audience engaged.

Another lesson can help us rethink the way a thesis needs to be imaginative, but not necessarily “original”—if by original we take that to mean an idea that no one else has thought or said before. In fact, a good premise or turning point in a film is not entirely new: it takes the old, the familiar, and provides a surprise, an unusual way of thinking about the old. The effect of the turning point in The Wizard of Oz is not Oz by itself, but Oz in relation to Kansas, the technicolor imagination of Oz rethinking the grey familiarity of home. This is also what we do with academic arguments: rethink conventional ways of thinking about various ideas, arguments, texts, problems.

  • Act 1: Introduction/set up
    • Given: normal or conventional view; the context of your focus; where things stand right now with the issue you are taking up
      • Frankenstein, both novel and film, has long been viewed by many in terms of the horror genre. Critics…
    • Problem: a disturbance to the conventional; some initial problems with things that perhaps have emerged more recently (other critics starting to take up); or contradiction/flaw in the conventional view that have been forgotten, neglected
    • However, as suggested by more recent films (or more recent criticism), Frankenstein for some is more in the science fiction genre and not about horror…
    • Thesis: your premise or turning point, a real but unusual or surprising way of thinking about the problem and setting out to solve it.
    • What if Frankenstein were to be viewed not in terms or horror or science but in terms of romance, something few would associate with the title? While I would agree there are important elements of both horror and science in the novel and its film adaptations, I would argue, instead, that the story is at heart a love story. Shelley’s real concern, it seems to me, is with the monstrosity of the human heart, the dangers not of science but of falling in love. In particular…
  • Act 2: Complications
    • First main example or complication directly relating to (and elaborating) the thesis/turning point
      • The danger of falling in love is perhaps first evident when…
    • Second example
    • This particular danger of love [discussed in last paragraph] becomes even more problematic when we see…
    • Second Act turning point: a further complication or even challenge for your thesis; counter-argument
    • However, there are good reasons to think of this work not as a love story; clearly there are key elements critics have rightly discussed in terms of horror and science. For example…While I don’t disagree with the sentiment (or critical point), it also seems to me that the very example she/he addresses has more to do with love than horror…
  • Act 3: Conclusion
    • Climax: how the problem of your thesis is finally solved/answered
      • The horror of science in this story is in fact made horrific by love, not the reverse. It is love that gets in the way of science and love that leads to the tragedy…
    • Resolution: where this leaves us—a reminder that a conclusion should not merely re-state what was given in the introduction; it should provide a more conclusive answer to the various complications (second act) as well as point the reader out to thinking about implications for other or related text. Thinking: what’s next?
    • Speculation on how this rethinking of Frankenstein as love story might be taken up in future film versions; or why the novel has not been traditionally viewed this way—why love has been neglected—and how it might lead to larger implications for rethinking the gothic/horror genre…


You can use this to compost ideas for a draft; might also use this as a revision strategy, to re-outline your argument–test for the thesis thread–after you have a draft.

Act 1: Introduction/Set UP



Thesis/Turning Point:

Act 2: Complications

Complication #1:

Complication #2, #3, etc.

Second Act Turning Point: [further complication; counter-argument]

Act 3: Conclusion

Climax: answer to question/solving of problem

Resolution: new normal—where this leaves us; larger implications


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