MORE EVIDENCE THAT 3 ACT STRUCTURE IS BULLPUCKEY - Complications Ensue
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Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Watching The Incredibles again (what a great movie) it occurred to me yet again what horse manure three act structure is.

/* SPOILERS */

Act One: Mr. Incredible stops all kinds of mayhem. Gets married. Act out: he's sued.
Act Two: Mr. Incredible has miserable ordinary life. Gets in trouble. Act out: Gets fab job offer.
Act Three: Mr. Incredible defeats giant robot. Life is good. Then turns out it's all a setup. Act out: he's nearly killed.
Act Four: Mr. Incredible sneaks into bunker. Act out: Is captured.
Act Five: Mr. Incredible and family fight to defeat Syndrome and destroy his bunker.
Act Six: Mr. Incredible and family fight in the city to defeat Syndrome's robot.
Act Seven:: Mr. Incredible and family fight Syndrome and win.

/* END SPOILERS */

Neat seven-act MOW structure, except the acts are more even than in an MOW, where the first act is much longer.

Now you can assign acts one and two to your tradition Act One, assign acts four through six to Act Two and so on, but you're ignoring the real act structure of the movie, which has six cliffhangers. (I can't remember what the later ones are; we only saw the first half tonight before it was Hunter's bedtime.)

Seven act structure is probably better for an action movie anyway because you want whammies and cliffhangers, and you want more than three twists.

But even saying that points out the obvious lie in three act feature structure. All the writers with whom I've discussed Three Act Structure like to put a major turn in the story about halfway through. I used to call it the Flex Point to distinguish it from the evil Syd's official Turning Points. But it is nothing more than the Act Two Out of hour drama structure, where the hero discovers he's barking up the wrong tree, or in an action adventure hour, where the hero's in max physical jeopardy. Ever wonder why the middle act in three act structure is twice as long as the other acts? It's the same reason pregnant women are so large: there's two of'em in there! The middle "act" is really two acts.

You can run this up against Aristotle, but as I've ranted before, to say that all stories must have a beginning, middle and end is not much of a requirement. Inherently stories have a beginning, middle and end. But stories can also break neatly into more than three pieces. It depends on how seamless you want your storytelling. TV pulses; movies flow.

But a lot of movies pulse, too.

Does it actually help anyone to think in terms of three acts? Or does it just mess people up. A lot of movies these days are up and running by page 10. Does that mean we now have a one-reel first act? Or two mini-acts in the first act? C'mon.

UPDATE: Massive exchange of views in the comments here, mostly disagreeing with me...

17 Comments:

You might as well be talking about sequences, not acts. You can split those sequences just as easily into three acts. And The Incredibles is great? What are you favorite films?

By Blogger Larry Fouch, at 10:40 PM  

the incredibles is great, but I agree with larry. (and, might I add, that weird structure may be why, to me, there's a big dead spot in an otherwise flawless movie.

Seeing as the next series I'm doing on the site is on structure, nice prompt.

By Blogger Rogers, at 1:22 AM  

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:14 AM  

Actually, Alex, that film is the classic three-act structure, as is probably every animated feature.

Those are not acts you're pointing out, as Larry said.

By Anonymous Guyot, at 11:06 AM  

I agree with Alex about the greatness of The Incredibles. I voted for it for Best Film, Best Direction, and Best Screenplay (Original) at the BAFTAs, but alas, the other voters didn't agree with me.

However, Alex, I disagree with you about the three-act structure, but my thoughts on it are a bit too lengthy to fit in a comment. I'm therefore doing a series of articles at my own blog in response. The first one is up now.

By Anonymous Jacob, at 2:34 PM  

Why do people always feel the need to beat down other structures when trying to argue for their own. Unfortunately, when people do so, they invariably reveal their ignorance of the nuances of the structures they're trying to dimiss.

Let's back up a little bit. Structure is just a tool to help you understand story.

The Incredibles clearly works as a three-act story. That doesn't mean it's doesn't also work as a seven-act story. Nothing inherent in the three-act structure says you can't have multiple turning points in one act.

The point is that all those "middle acts" you're pointing to can actually all be thematically linked together under a single dramatic question. You don't have one dramatic question leading to a completely new one leading to a completely new one - in the "second act" they're all building to one goal, and the third act represents a brand new tension.

Nor is it somehow part of the three-act structure that the story doesn't start until page 30. Nobody would aruge, for example, that "North by Northwest" doesn't have twists until Cary Grant starts his cross-country trip, yet that film has a very clear three-act structure.

Alex, you're too bright a guy to rely on such a star-man description of your opponent's position.

And you shouldn't be so hasty to dismiss a tool that many other working writers find effective just because you don't like it. I'll admit that a robotic implementation of the three-act structure results in a lot of bad scripts and a lot of bad notes from readers, producers, and executives - but the fact that people who don't really understand something misapply it doesn't mean that it, used correctly, is bad.

By Anonymous Hotspur, at 3:14 PM  

The Incredibles was great, though I don't understand how a remake of Spy Kids got to be nominated for the Original Screenplay Oscar.

Alex, just wondering, have you read Paul Joseph Gulino's Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach? It's similar to what you and others have been saying here about the three act structure being somewhat valid, but more detailed divisions possibly being more useful and at least equally valid.

Gulino breaks a screenplay down into eight sequences, though in correlation to the three act structure (two sequences in Act One, four sequences in Act Two, two sequences in Act Three).

The three act structure is a little too loose, and as it stands Act Two is always a tough one. I myself find that the second half of the second act is always hell to me, to the point where I write from the beginning, get as far as I get (usually about half way), then write the end, then try to bridge the gap between the two. And then panic. It happens with predictable and alarming frequency.

Linda Seger addressed some of this in Making A Good Script Great, though for the most part she just offered some short-term tactics like reversals etc. Viki King in How To Write A Movie In 21 Days also broke the narrative down into smaller chunks (to accommodate the tight writing schedule), though I don't remember how she did it and it's about 20 years since I read it.

I recommend Gulino's book though.

By Blogger Electroglodyte, at 2:02 PM  

OK, my magnum opus on the three-act structure is now complete. Appropriately enough, it's in three parts. Part I: The What;Part II: The Why; and Part III: The How. I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts. Thanks for finally prompting me to write down some stuff I've been thinking about for years!

By Anonymous Jacob, at 2:14 PM  

Structures fall apart once anyone decides to model it in restricted or esotheric perspectives.
Proof being, without any pay-offs nobody would really find multiple set-ups for them... not matter when all occur or how they flow between start and climax.

And technically, the magic of the three acts hegemony is intelligible direction(s) adapted to a focused design, detectable.
Coincidental or purposely cyclic in length or in identifiable plotting points.

Thanks for the rundown, Alex.

By Anonymous Sylvain Paquette, at 3:27 PM  

I think the 3-act structure is useful. Useful in the sense that it can be an eye opener to have some kind of a model to compare one’s script to. And the 3-act structure is certainly an old and time-tried model.

Every student of screenwriting should be required to learn about the 3-act structure, no question. For one thing, it can be useful (ok, I’ve already said that) and secondly, it’s dead simple. Most how-to books about screenwriting make it sound complex and usually manage to bury the real issue under a ton of blather and idiosyncratic terminology, but the 3-act structure is essentially dead simple. Thirdly, every aspiring screenwriter needs to be familiar with the key-concepts of dramatic writing - like exposition, inciting incident, turning point, denoument (sp?) - and the 3-act structure provides as good a context as any to familiarize oneself with those terms.

The fact that most films (good and bad) don’t fall discernably into a neat 3-act structure is besides the point, in my opinion.

There’s a reason why Aristotle’s ‘rules’ about dramatic writing became so influential and durable: he’s never had any real competition. Noone else in the history of mankind has come up with a set of rules that surpass his.

Not that I’m saying that all his ‘rules’ are gold. Some of them are obsolete and others simply don’t apply to films. Many are sound (like his idea of ‘unity of action’ and his idea that dramatic stories must have some kind of resolution at the end) but mostly they have to be taken with a grain of salt. He’s dead set against episodic drama, for instance, but everyone knows that sometimes episodic films work out great.

Aristotle is definitely the father of all screenwriting gurus, an ill-tempered and opinionated old fogey who never tried his hand at dramatic writing himself.

It seems to me that many aspiring screenwriters take the 3-act structure much too seriously. They tend to sound like they’re labouring in the service of the structure, rather than vice versa.

There was a discussion about this on WP some time ago. The handful of pros who expressed their opinion all sounded like the 3-act structure was more or less behind them and that they’d moved on a long time ago. In fact they all sounded like they’d forgotten everything about it except the barest essentials.

-Anna

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:31 AM  

Electroglodyte -

I went to s screenwriting seminar recently and to my surprise was introduced to a 7-act structure. The seminar was held by a guy who has taught screenwriting for more than 20 years (in the Danish Film School). His 7-acts, the way he teaches it, is basically a ‘baby’ structure for beginners. It’s as simple as can be.

It seemed to me that his reasoning basically goes like this: Complete novices cannot be expected to come up with a 100 page screenplay just off the bat. But everyone can write a 14 page sequence. So he instructs his students write a 14 page sequence and when that’s done they embark on another 14 page sequence, and so on and on till they’ve got a full length screenplay. (of course everyone works from some kind of outline).

If a student can only come up with say a 5 or 7 page sequence the instructor just tells him to pad it out, come up with new stuff till the ‘sequence’ reaches the requisite 14 pages. The guy is totally shameless.

But the idea is to get the students writing and finish a whole script without tears. His 7-act structure (or 7-sequence structure) is not incompatable with the classical 3-act structure; with a few tweaks it sort of translates ito it. It is just that the guy has elected to introduce the 3-act structure later on.

As a teaching method I think it compares favourably with the standard teaching method. The standard teaching method (if I’m not mistaken) is all about introducing the 3-act structure & a bunch of unfamiliar terms right at the outset. Generally with the result that students either slavishly follow structure-rules or reject them outright, depending on mindset.

This instructor told us he got the 7-act idea from Suso Checci d’Amici. SCd’A wrote, or co-wrote, The Bicycle Thief, Rocco and his Brothers and countless other films, and was a major figure in the Italian Neo-Realist Movement. She must be about 115 now but I think she’s still busy writing screenplays. SCd’A never set out to write in 7 acts. It’s just that she noticed at some point that her film stories fall into 7 sequences of roughly the same length, for whatever reason.

-Anna

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:56 AM  

The funny thing is that I actually do think that most films fall into a clear three-act structure, albiet one that isn't obvious the the untrained eye.

The key to understanding the traditional three-act structure is to pay attention to how you feel when you watch the movie. What are you hoping for? What are you fearing?

This isn't something most laymen pay attention to. You have to condition yourself to listen to it. But with repeated viewings the moments when your hopes and fears change become very clear.

By Anonymous Hotspur, at 4:27 PM  

Yes, of course you're right. The three act thing is total crap. But when the idea of it arrived, screenwriting was looked at like some mysterious seance that was like novel writing. So it at least gave a handle, and most importantly, the executives something to define it analytically, as that is their strength. Having written screenplays professionally for years, I've always instinctively felt the medium was a four act structure. And if you cross into epic territory, going past your 110-115 page count to 135, you've entered five acts, much like the Shakespeare structure you mentioned. In the end, you have to follow your own instincts for drama, peril, loss and redemption, but it's crucial to know the language of the industry blueprint so that you can banter it in meetings, or redefine what yourr own system is, into one that the executive on the other side of the coffee table can understand. I throw down my own thoughts down on this and others at www.screenwriterbones.blogspot.com

By Blogger Philip Morton, at 12:01 AM  

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

By Blogger dhd, at 8:05 PM  

Human transformation is 3 Acts:
A person is one thing
A person enters the mixer and transforms
A person is another thing, proves it through a climatic action

7 or 8 act is really sequences or steps.
In each sequence/step the person has an objective.
these objectives move them toward their superobjective

4 act is simply splitting the Mixer that is act 2 into two pieces.
this helps by pointing at the importance of a story's midpoint;
a moment when the person reaches a victory or defeat externally without changing internally.

It's more complex than that but may help to add some clarity to your journey.

By Blogger H, at 8:02 AM  

Even the seven act may not hold water if you consider that each of the traditional Aristotalian acts can be segemented into further sequences or acts with the intrinsic beginning, middle and end of the story. In other words, it is sufficients to say that each story determines the number of acts necessary to translate/structure it into a complete screeenplay or story determines structure and structure determines numbers of story segments or acts. On the other hand one may argue for the two Act structure, namely beginning and end of the story, with the middle being a transition between the two.

By Blogger BraMtu, at 3:03 PM  

Add to that the fact that each character arc in a screenplay has its own number acts, and what do you come out with? Best stick with or start with the conventional three act structure and let the story play itself out to your satisfaction.

By Blogger BraMtu, at 4:10 AM  

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