From the outset, young screenwriters are told either through lectures, seminars, or the numerous screenwriting books, the importance of the Three Act Structure in screenwriting.
I don’t agree. I did buy into this for a number of years, more for the convenience it offered than anything else, but the more I read and critiqued screenplays, the more I became aware of how this three-act paradigm, the obligatory plot points, and the pinches got in the way of the story.
John Truby (The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller) and James Bonnett (Stealing Fire From the Gods) are both opposed to the Three Act Structure and J.J. Murphy (Me and You and Memento and Fargo: How Independent Screenplays Work) also has issues with it.
My opinion is that, at the very least, it should be seriously downgraded in its significance.
Some say that Aristotle refers to the Three Act structure in his book on dramatic theory, Poetics, but I can’t find anywhere in the book where he mentions it. Aristotle does state that every story has a beginning, middle and end but that is far from the same thing.
Honest to God, if you ask several individuals to pick where the act breaks are in a particular script, I guarantee they will not all agree.
I have done this with my students at U.C.L.A. and it has led to some lively debate. For some, there is a lot of visceral baggage attached to the belief in the Three Act directive.
So, if someone wants you to note the act breaks in your script, just be aware that they likely have no idea themselves. You can pretty much tell them whatever you want.
The idea that a single formula can account for how every story should be told is ludicrous.
Where is the Three Act structure in Paul Haggis’ Crash, Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, Noland’s Memento, or the Cohen Brother’s No Country for Old Men?
Terry Gilliam, David Lynch, Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini are known for their Dreamscape worlds where the story is at the mercy of the their character’s imagination.
In both A Beautiful Mind and Mulholland Drive, we unknowingly enter the story from a world of illusion. These other worlds are crucial in the telling of the story, but they have a life and a structure of their own.
What about Vantage Point or The Killing where one element is shared by numerous characters but each does not follow through in the telling of the whole story? Each holds a clue but not the sole answer.
Writers find that they usually get into trouble somewhere within what is referred to as the second act of their screenplay.
Of course they do! The Three Act Structure offers no map for the character to navigate this part of the journey. This is due largely to the fact that there is no emphasis on the character’s inner journey in the Three Act Structure.
The character can simply bounce from one plot point to the next rather than being responsible for creating these plot points.
This is why I find Campbell’s Hero’s Journey of value. I don’t use it as another directive; that would just be substituting one structure for another.
But I do use it as a sort of checklist for my characters when I find myself unsure of where to take them next. It helps me map out the character’s journey in a more detailed way.
The distinction here is that I use it as a tool, not as a dictum.
So what is the alternative to the Three Act Structure? It is pretty simple really.
There is an inciting incident and it needs to be dealt with. The more conflict and plot points there are in the solving of the problem, the more drama.
That’s it. It really isn’t that complicated. Now, as Aristotle stated, there is a beginning, middle and end to all stories. If you follow this chronologically, then you would begin your story at a point prior to the problem (inciting incident). This is the setup. Next, the hero attempts to solve this problem which usually takes him on some kind of journey. The hero eventually solves the problem and there is now a resolution.
But you don’t necessarily need to unfold the story in the order that it takes place; setup followed by journey and then resolution.
You can begin at the crisis point of the story and then go back in time to show us what took place to get the hero to this crisis point.
You may choose to tell the story in two different scapes; one being the imagination of the character, and the other being the real world.
The journey may be shared by a number of different characters who all come to various degrees of resolution.
There are numerous choices in how you can tell your story if you can free yourself to embrace them
My next column will address ‘Screenwriting Fundamentalism’ and how it has screwed up the minds of many a young screenwriter.
- More Visual Mindscape articles by Bill Boyle
- Balls of Steel: When to Stop Listening to Screenwriting Experts
- Specs & The City: Sequences and ‘Toy Story’ Part 2
Tools to Help: