Screenplay Story

THREE-ACT STRUCTURE


"The so-called 3-act structure is the biggest, most destructive myth ever foisted on writers."
JOHN TRUBY
Truby's Writers Studio

As Mr. Truby finds ". . most writers go out and buy a couple of books on screenwriting. And what do they learn? Almost invariably, these books tell them about the so-called 3-act structure. These writers have just killed any chance they had of writing a script that will sell." (emphasis added)

Syd Field pretty much launched the whole industry of teaching screenwriting back in 1984 with his book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, where he propounds the virtues of the 'three-act structure' in movie scripts. Another of his more recent books, Four Screenplays: Studies in the American Screenplay, is an important source for the Magic Star of Dramatic Writing published at this resource.

Syd Field deserves all due respect and gratitude for what he has done for screenwriters everywhere, virtually opening up what had been a very closed shop. And perhaps due to him, everyone from studio chiefs on down talks in terms of the 'three-act structure'. Unfortunately, the 'three-act structure' has little real application to dramatic writing for the screen.

The only problem with the 'three-act structure' is that . .
  1. It comes from the theater world where giving the audience two breaks for revenue generation (selling concessions) and patron comfort (rest room breaks) is desirable and often necessary. With movies keeping cinema patrons in their seats is the challenge. Films are shorter and multiplexes couldn't handle breaks in several movies at once.

  2. It describes blocks of text, to which many even ascribe specific page numbers. It doesn't state what drives them or what their functions are in the story.

  3. Everyone states that a movie has three acts. Nobody agrees on where an act ends or a new one begins.

Otherwise the concept is wonderfully useful. Actually, other than the fact that Hollywood uses this verbiage--without really knowing what they are talking about most of the time--no good reason exists for defining a movie in three acts.

". . if you are turning in an outline to a producer, he will probably want to know where the act breaks are. Pick some plausible page numbers or events and humor him."
ALEX EPSTEIN
Crafty Screenwriting

Don't blame it on Aristotle . .

Aristotle did indeed say that a good dramatic story needs a beginning, middle, and end. And so every story has these. As Alex Epstein states: 'It's pretty difficult to write a story without a beginning, middle and end.' What's so special about that? And did Aristotle say anything about their lengths? did he mention acts? The opening frame--what if that's the beginning?--the last frame--could that be the ending?--everything in between--would then be the middle? How helpful it is to know all that.

Many other story 'structures' exist . .

Stories, perhaps especially cinematic ones, have been (and continue to be) told in a variety of ways, using all kinds of different 'structures'. The 'monomythic' hero's journey is a major one: it occurs in 17 distinct stages; no specific page numbers mentioned. The 'episodic' approach is used all the time in movies--no telling how many acts/phases/elements/scenes/vignettes one of those might have. The variation is as great as the number of stories to be told, you can be certain.

Consider some favorite episodic movies . .
  1. LA DOLCE VITA (1960) written/directed by Federico Fellini
  2. NASHVILLE (1975) directed by Robert Altman
  3. AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973) written/directed by George Lucas
  4. DAZED & CONFUSED (1993) written/directed by Richard Linklater
  5. SHORT CUTS (1993) written/directed by Robert Altman
  6. PULP FICTION (1994) written/directed by Quentin Tarantino

Have you enjoyed any of these? Where would the movie business be without them? What would be the state of cinematic arts if the likes of Robert Altman, Federico Fellini, Richard Linklater, George Lucas, and Quinton Tarantino had not felt free to exploit their creative talents fully?

Many 'non-linear' approaches to storytelling appear on-screen. Ever seen one of those highly-complex films that builds and turns on several layers of (seemingly disjointed) flashback sequences? Sometimes a film will start at the end and fill you in on what you need to know as it goes along--finally ending with the beginning.

Shakespeare, who wrote cinematically before cinema even existed, preferred five acts. How many times has he been adapted to the screen?

Where would Hollywood movie-making be without the freedom to make these sorts of films, many of them hugely popular and highly successful commercially?

Not all that's on-screen is a dramatic story . .

Not everything you see in the cinema is a narrative story in the classic sense. The 'quasi- documentary' style might be an example of this: it might aim to reveal truths without telling a real story. Then there are those filmmakers who work more of a creative pastiche (which no one save themselves might figure out). What about the 'film essay'? That has a structure all its own, but it fails to tell a real story (at least none we'd recognize as such).

Many types of stories told cinematically are not actually amenable to any sort of 'dramatic stucture' because they aren't dramatic in the classic sense (other than that they have a couple characters in a scene speaking to each other through dialogue). Any conflict between characters--or other forces--is not part of a unified whole that sets up collectively, works its way to a climax together, and resolves as one. This can apply to whole genres of film: biopics, adaptations from history, other sorts of adaptations, road pictures. While the telling of these stories might be enhanced by applying dramatic structure, it's not always possible (or desirable) to do so.

Focus on the underlying forces that drive a good story . .

So skip all the discussion and the focus on blocks of text nobody can agree on anyway. Better to focus on the underlying forces that drive a good dramatic story, the dynamics of the story that make it work as a story to begin with--rather than its textual representation on the page. Much about the set-up to a story, the story itself, and its resolution might look like three acts. But it's not about what happens by which specific page of the script--except that it's usually best for the beginnings and endings to be mercifully short (to keep bums in seats). And it's up to the writer, once he's mastered the real forces that drive a dramatic story, to decide how to work it on the page (how it shows up on screen might be beyond his control). Who wants to limit your creative potential by saying it must all be in a certain order, by a certain page? Especially using an outmoded story form borrowed from musty theater. Who among us wants to see that same movie over-and-over again.

NOTA BENE:
  1. the underlying forces that drive good dramatic storytelling apply only to stories that lend themselves to any sort of dramatic structure.
  2. many cinematic projects aren't classically stories at all; they follow no clear narrative form (if they aren't stories, they cannot be structured dramatically).
  3. for stories of any sort, told with or without overt narrative structure, the dynamics that drive a good dramatic story can help with . .
    • individual scenes or vignettes
    • individual lines of dialogue
    • jokes, tales, or morals told within the bigger picture that help support it
  4. more importantly, with an understanding of good dramatic structure the writer has a better understanding of what's going on in the story, and a better sense of how to tell it--no matter the structure ultimately applied.

Write a great movie . .

You need to be writing the very best motion picture you can, aiming for something great, not harnessing yourself slavishly to some strict format that the great writers don't use anyway. Focus on writing the most entertaining story you can.

"You may find that a five act structure works better for your screenplay. It worked for Shakespeare. You may have a true story that just naturally breaks down into four acts. Squeezing it into the Procrustean bed of Three Act Structure is just going to mangle it."
ALEX EPSTEIN
Crafty Screenwriting

See also . .


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EXERCISES:
  1. Consider the great American classic THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) starring Judy Garland. Find the act breaks. What can you learn about movie storytelling from this film?
  2. Consider the classic Kirk Douglas vehicle SPARTACUS (1960) directed by Stanley Kubrick. Find the act breaks. What can you learn about movie storytelling from this film?
  3. Consider the 'road pictures' BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967) and EASY RIDER (1969). What can you learn about this genre and story structure from these films?
  4. Consider the classic Woody Allen comedy ANNIE HALL (1977) starring Diane Keaton. Find the act breaks. What can you learn about movie storytelling from this film?