A few weeks ago, I received an email from a graduate student asking permission to use a quote from one of my columns here on the Script magazine site for use in his thesis. His topic was/is “Understanding Fractured Narratives.”
Contained in the request was his off-hand observation that he believes that there’s a “subtle rebellion” afoot in the screenwriting community regarding three-act structure.
My response to him was that the rebellion is most certainly out there, but it’s not that subtle. In my opinion, there is a large movement away from three-act structure, and I thought I’d offer a column on why I think that is and what I think the real rebellion is all about.
First of all, I freely admit to being a “structure guy.” I feel like I’m in pretty good company in that regard since the great William Goldman admits to being in that camp as well. However, that doesn’t mean I’m a “rules guy.” And there’s a difference.
I believe that most people who espouse their objection to three-act structure are really aiming their hatred at what I believe are the dreaded two words that have somehow become the misguided focus of three-act structure: page numbers.
What I mean about this is, when the discussion of three acts comes up, almost invariably it turns to a so-called “rule” about on which page(s) certain things “should happen” in a script. For the most part, I’m talking about the inciting incident, along with the first and second act plot/turning points.
Ever since Syd Field wrote his seminal book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting (1984), it seems the focus has been on those dreaded page numbers. And over the decades, the resistance to that from writers has grown. And rightfully so.
Allow me to offer my opinion on why the emphasis on “page numbers” came about in the first place and why we should both embrace “structure” and move away from the “page numbers” focus at the same time.
This requires some pure opinion (not fact) on my part as to why we, as a species, are so drawn to three-act stories. And there can be no mistaking that we are, That is fact.
Over the centuries, every civilization, every culture and every generation has told stories in a structure that can easily be broken down into three distinct parts: beginning, middle and end. Go back about 2300 years to Aristotle and you’ll see him writing about it.
In more recent times, Joseph Campbell wrote and lectured about such a structure in his study of comparative mythology and “the Hero’s Journey.” I won’t go into it all here, but you can look it up or even read Chris Vogler’s book The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers (1998) explaining its application to screenwriting.
To state it simply, the classic myth tale involves a “hero” whose ordinary world is shaken when he is challenged to leave the safety and comfort of the village and go out into unknown where he is challenged on many levels, often with the threat of death, only to eventually prevail and return as a new man both stronger and more wise.
You can see the three acts within that paradigm easily enough. And, as I mentioned, every culture and generation has adopted some form of this storytelling. So why is that?
I would argue that we human beings are a goal driven species. It is in our DNA to adopt goals, go out and try to achieve them, only to succeed or fail at doing so. The only thing that has changed over time is the nature of the goal.
Think about it – I’m sure that over the course of your life, you have fashioned goals and gone after them, many times succeeding and perhaps oftentimes failing. It’s what we do. Whether it is a college degree or a new job or a spouse or a lower handicap at golf or to sell a script.
Because that is so, I would argue that it is therefore easy for us to identify with the hero in any story who is seeking a goal. We understand it implicitly. We easily “step into their shoes” and agree to go along for the ride. And we rejoice at their success because we hope to do the same someday with our own goals.
That being the case, how can it be described in any other way but in “three acts”? Think of it like this: (1) deciding to pursue the goal; (2) working to attain it; and (3) achieving it or not.
Now, add to this the phenomenon that has become the motion picture industry. Prior to its invention, stories were told in several different ways and using a variety of forms.
There were oral stories told around the campfire. These were short and self-contained.
Later there were live performances (“plays”) which were often a longer form but also self-contained. And after the invention of the printing press and increased literacy among the masses, there were books/novels, an even longer and more “flexible” form.
Each of those could be broken down into “three acts” as in the myth paradigm. But those who created those stories weren’t focused on rigid turning points from a time standpoint because there was no overall time limit on the length of the story.
For whatever reason, motion pictures have developed over the years in such a way as to be told in a time frame that generally runs from 90 to 120 minutes, these days closer to the latter than the former. I don’t know who decided that or why. Probably something to do with attention span. Perhaps commerce, i.e. how many possible showings in a day. Whatever the origin, it’s what has existed for nearly a century when it comes to “movies.”
And that is where the focus on page numbers found its origin. If a whole and complete story must be told in that limited amount of time, it only makes sense that someone would go back and look at some of those successful stories and determine that certain things “seem to happen” at or around a certain “time” within that overall timeframe. Rightly or wrongly, that’s what has happened over the years. Blame Syd Field, if you must.
But these days, movies aren’t our only form of visual storytelling. Note that today, television has not only long ago adopted episodic storytelling (no end in mind, but simply on-going), but also more recently “long-form” story-telling with series like True Detective.
Neither of those story telling devices are limited in time the way motion pictures have become. Therefore, there is little talk of page numbers when writing those stories, even though there is some structure, at least in the long-form series like True Detective.
Having been introduced to the freedom found in episodic stories or “long-form” (and having enjoyed it), writers today don’t like to be constricted by the thought of page numbers. And I don’t blame them.
But until movie theaters go out of business, stories written for the big screen will mostly be those told in three acts. And time and page numbers will be discussed when they are being written. We have simply become inured to it.
Now, add to that the fear in Hollywood of taking risk, and you’ll find that those making decisions about what stories to produce will lean more heavily toward what has worked in the past and what has brought audiences into the theater. Again, three acts. Again, a focus on what has worked in terms of “time” and where certain events “should” occur.
So what does that mean for you, the aspiring writer? I wish I had a simple answer for you. Instead, the best I can offer is to tell you to be an artist and make the best decision you can when telling the story you want to tell. The world is always open to stories that break from what has worked in the past.
If three-act structure (and talk of page numbers) makes you gag, don’t write such a story. But if you’re hoping to tell a linear (not fractured) narrative that can be told completely in 120 minutes or less, don’t be afraid of three acts either. Just don’t worry so much about page numbers.
In addition to the “page number” hatred, I think those objecting to three-act structure oftentimes claim that such a structure goes against the most important part of any story and that is “character.” In my next column, I will show you how a three-act story, one well-thought out anyway, doesn’t ignore “character”, but instead, depends upon it for its very lifeblood.
- More articles by Drew Yanno
- Indie Film Academy: Reverse Engineering Your Screenplay
- Story Structure: The Four-Act Structure
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