Save the Baby! On the Benefits of the Three-Act Screenplay Structure
Posted by Jennine Lanouette on Friday, November 21st, 2014
Poor old three-act structure. It gets hammered away at, like an old punching bag, every time someone wants to challenge the primacy of the formulaic Hollywood screenwriting methods. “Take that! You follow-the-dots, color-within-the-lines, stodgy old armature!” Poor, poor three-act structure. So much to offer. So misunderstood.
What if I were to tell you that in the 2500-year history of western dramatic literature, three-act structure is actually a radical new innovation? What would you think if I also said that its radical impact, towards the end of the 19th century, was to finally free dramatists from a highly proscriptive, closely dictated form that dominated western drama for almost 2,000 years? How bout if then I said that three-act structure is so open and freeing that today’s purse-string holders can’t handle it all by itself and, thus, grab onto formulaic interpretations of it that claim to “guarantee” a hit? Would you be willing to differentiate the historically evolved three-act form from the late-arrivers who coopt its venerable status to serve a commercial agenda?
Of late, there have been indications of growing weariness with the Hollywood screenwriting methods (i.e., Hero’s Journey, Save the Cat, etc.). I speculated about this in an essay on the Filmmaker Magazine website back in June (On Finding New Screenplay Structures for Independent Films) and was confirmed by the response. This is a good thing.
However, in these expressions of frustration, there also crops up an accompanying dismissal of the underlying structural model that supports them. So I am back here to say, “Please don’t throw the baby out with the bath water!” The important thing to understand is that these methods utilize three-act structure, but they do not define it. Traditional three-act structure contains much more, in the myriad ways it can be applied, as well as much less, in the minimal elements it requires, than it may appear when only seen through the lens of the how-tos.
But, lest I appear, in turn, to be dismissing the Hollywood screenwriting methods, I’d like to first acknowledge their usefulness, especially for genre-driven entertainments. In fact, in that context, I am grateful to the Save the Cat method. A tightly structured little folk tale such as How to Train Your Dragon (the first one, the writers of which followed the Cat method quite closely) lands on me like a breath of fresh air compared to so many other story structure disasters, like, say, the movie version of The Last Airbender. At least they got the basics right!
Likewise, the Hero’s Journey also has its function. Obviously, the original Star Wars movie was indelibly well served by it, so much so that the producers were able to ride its commercial coattails with the prequel trilogy, each a greater story structure disaster than the last. How I wish they’d gone back to their Hero’s Journey notebooks when planning those scripts!
The step-by-step methods can also be helpful to beginning screenwriters, like a set of training wheels when learning to ride a bike. They offer the advantage of keeping you from falling on your face until you get the hang of it and are ready to ride on your own. Nonetheless, it is important to keep in mind the accompanying risk of becoming dependent on the method and never venturing outside its dictates.
See, there is a drawback with these methods, which is, quite simply, that they force you to think. That’s a bad thing, you ask? It can be. While our culture puts a high value on intellectual activity (and I’m certainly an egghead myself), we all know from experience that genuine creativity comes from a much more mysterious place than rational thought. To identify that place, we only have a few poorly defined words – the unconscious, the imagination, intuition, gut instinct – but it is, nonetheless, very real. And when trying to access it, thinking can be a major obstacle.
Paradoxically, though, thinking is also vital to creativity. You have this raw material gushing out of your unconscious and you have to get it into a form that will be intelligible to others. So you have to organize it, shape it and refine it. The unconscious, left to its own devices, is an unruly mess. Just look at your dreams. So in comes the cerebral cortex to put your amorphous ideas into a structure that will communicate to others.
Ideally, your conscious and unconscious minds engage in a back-and-forth collaboration. When your conscious mind gets stuck, you sit back and, in effect, say, “Okay, Unconscious, what have you got for me now?” The unconscious then responds with another sparkling nugget, and you exclaim, “What a great idea! Now, let’s see, what do I need to do to make it fit with the rest of the story?”
As in any partnership, this collaboration works best when both parties maintain respect for what the other does best. The conscious mind must be willing to say, “You are the master of creativity, Unconscious. I am here to serve you.” This allows the portals to fly open and the ideas to flow. If the conscious mind is acting like a control freak, continually trying to think its way through the creative process, the unconscious can’t do its thing.
However, the conscious mind, in turn, is the master of intelligible communication. Without it, we are considerably hindered in our ability to share our thoughts and feelings. The way the unconscious shows its respect for that expertise is by readily absorbing and putting to use what the conscious mind has figured out. In other words, the unconscious is highly trainable. This means that, if you make a practice of consciously absorbing into your unconscious a few fundamental principles for intelligible story structuring, your unconscious will be far more likely to cough up its nuggets in a communicable form. Rather than having to consciously rule out the structural bad choices, you will be making those decisions unconsciously. Just like when you learned to ride a bike.
This brings us back to the drawback of the programmatic screenwriting methods. While, initially, their eight sequences, 12 stages, 15 beats, etc., can be a helpful set of guideposts, ultimately, they carry the risk of getting a creative person stuck in over-thinking and, thus, cut off from the unconscious and its wisdom. Still, even the most instinct-driven writer needs at least some guidance for how to organize their raw material. Herein lies the value of traditional three-act structure: It lays out the minimum necessary elements for creating a cohesive whole that will be intelligible to your viewer, while having enough openness to give your unconscious the free reign it needs for true creativity.
Although I refer to this form as “traditional”, in truth, its tradition only goes back about a century (here comes the history lesson hinted at earlier). Despite the tendency in screenwriting circles to credit Aristotle with the invention of three-act structure, what he actually said was that a tragedy should have a beginning, middle and end. In so doing, he was the first to introduce the idea that a dramatic work must have a structure, period. Sadly, though, he did not specify that this structure should be organized into three acts. This left an opening for the first century Roman theorist Horace to declare that a play “should consist of five acts – no more, no less,“ a somewhat arbitrary dictate that would, nonetheless, dominate western dramatic literature for almost two millennia. In the Neo-Classical period of the 16th to 18th centuries, playwrights were required to write their plays in five acts (in France, it was even legislated into law).
It was in the experimental zeal of late 18th century Melodrama and the early 19th century Well-Made Play that a three-part organizing principle began to appear despite adherence to the five-act constraints of raising and lowering the curtain. But in 1863, German theorist Gustav Freytag, in his Technique of the Drama, graphed Horace’s dictates into a pyramid, with the Climax in the middle, further entrenching the five-act form. Nonetheless, in practice, a three-part form continued to emerge, not only in the popular entertainments, but also in the work of Ibsen, Shaw and Wilde, causing the English drama critic William Archer, in his 1912 Play-making, to observe, with some ambivalence, that organizing a play into three acts might actually make more sense than five.
Meanwhile, in a 1908 treatise, the American playwright William Thompson Price pointed out the disruption to narrative flow caused by all those curtains going up and down and explicitly referred to three “natural divisions” of exposition, development and denouement. In 1936, John Howard Lawson (one of the founders of the Writer’s Guild) seconded that idea by describing “three cycles of action” underlying a well-structured drama. Then, in 1939, University of Michigan professor Kenneth Thorpe Rowe stated simply, “In recent years, by no rule, but in general practice, three acts has come more and more to be the standard,” finally putting the five-act form to rest. (Rowe was Robert McKee’s teacher, by the way, which may explain why McKee stands out among screenwriting gurus.)
I know all this because several years ago I decided I wanted to find out where three-act structure came from and, thus, embarked on a study of playwriting manuals. What I came to see in this history was not only a tortured process of casting off burdensome act requirements to make room for creative openness, but also a steady evolution from arbitrary dictates to practical guidelines. My guess is that when Aristotle introduced the notion of successful drama being dependent on structure, he was making a plea to young playwrights to write their plays in an intelligible, as opposed to chaotic, form. But he didn’t sufficiently elaborate on how to do that. It took many centuries of playwrights to begin to figure that out, first laboring within and ultimately pushing their way through (like a weed in cement) the externally imposed dictates. Thus, I view three-act structure as a hard won model for structured openness. And the key to maintaining a balance between the structure and the openness is to keep a focus on function.
The first essential function of any story is to begin it, which is to say to invite the viewer in and orient them to what’s going on. Thus, the First Act contains the necessary elements to do that – establish the situation, introduce a few characters, maybe give some background information, and definitely set up the style of the film. Somewhere in the first act comes the Point of Attack, an event that moves past all the introducing and gets on with beginning the story we’ve been brought in to see. By the End of the First Act, the various ramifications of the Point of Attack have become clear and a course of action is launched to address these challenges.
The second essential function of a story is to end it, which is to say, to give the story a sense of purpose by arriving at a different place from where it started. This is usually accomplished with, among other things, the triumph over an enemy, the solving of a mystery, the resolution of a problem or the internal evolution of a flawed human being. But for an ending to be convincing to the viewer, it cannot be easy (because we all know life is not easy). This is the job of the Third Act, to give the story authenticity by bringing it to a close with a sufficient amount of difficulty. First is the End of the Second Act, when events have intensified to a seemingly unsurpassable pitch. Then comes the Climax, when that height of intensity is topped to provide an ultimate release of tension. Finally, the Resolution signals the story’s definitive conclusion by giving a glimpse of restored normalcy.
What’s left, then, as the third essential task of a story, is to progress from the beginning to the ending through a developing middle that is credible and compelling. This is the job of the Second Act, to bring in setbacks, reversals, complications, obstacles, ticking clocks, raised stakes, parallel action, cause and effect, plant and payoff, preparation and aftermath and, in short, utilize every dramatic opportunity available. (This is also where the unconscious gets to have a field day utilizing all these fun techniques.) But the Second Act is a long stretch of territory to cover, so a little added structure can be helpful in getting across. This is the function of the Midpoint, to give some definition to the Second Act with a mini crisis or a partially met goal that then prompts a regrouping or a shift in direction.
The point is not to adhere blindly to these structural guideposts. It is to understand their function and utilize them in service to your story. And, of course, it is the nature of any function that if you see another way to fulfill it (that serves the story better), by all means, do that.
Speaking of instinct-driven writers, I was interested to see some telling comments from David Lynch in an interview making the rounds recently in connection with the inclusion of Eraserhead in the Criterion Collection. Discussing the origins of that project while a student at AFI, he cites Frank Daniel as a highly influential screenwriting teacher. As it happens, I, too, studied with Daniel, several years later. I know well what a bear he was with his students about three-act structure. Granted, it would sound kind of odd to hear Lynch using that term (he has no need to promote thinking-brain models). But in his description of working with Daniel, it’s clear that Daniel was trying to impress upon Lynch the conventions of screenwriting as a way to harness what he saw as a major talent. Lynch describes being genuinely confused by Daniel at first, but going along, as a sort of experiment. Then he says this, “ . . . something happened inside me about structure, about scenes. And I don’t even know what it was, but it sort of percolated down and became part of me.”
So here’s an interesting exercise – Go back and watch Eraserhead again (now out on Criterion!). See if you can trace the rough contours of the three act organizing principle that Daniel was no doubt trying to impress upon Lynch’s wild and abundant creative impulses. See where there is structure and where there is openness. Note, as you go, how the essential functions are being fulfilled. One thing you will notice is that Lynch dispenses with the resolution, the structural piece designed to bring us back to some restored normalcy. But that’s no surprise, knowing what we know of Lynch’s relationship to things deemed “normal”. (By the way, if you haven’t yet seen Eraserhead, you will be best served by watching it twice. First, just to absorb it and then a second time to think about it.)
I shudder at the thought of a world without three-act structure. We would have endings without beginnings, beginnings without middles and middles without endings, just like
The Playwriting Manuals:
Aristotle, Poetics, c. 330, B.C.
Horace, Ars Poetica (The Art of Poetry), c. 19 B.C.
Freytag, Gustav, Technique of the Drama, 1863.
Archer, William, Play-making: A Manual of Craftsmanship, 1912.
Price, William Thompson, The Technique of the Drama, 1908.
Lawson, John Howard, Theory and Technique of Playwriting, 1936.
Rowe, Kenneth Thorpe, Write That Play, 1939.