The three act structure tends to trip people up. People are either way too into it, or they’re way too dismissive of it. While it’s true that many professional writers don’t set out to neatly color within the lines as they’re writing their work, it’s also true that the three act structure is a useful teaching tool for people who are looking for something, anything to hang an understanding off of as they’re starting out.
This is usually where someone says, “Why waste time learning a technique that real writers don’t use?” This is absolutist and unimaginative. We learn things for many reasons, and the path to understanding often involves learning a lot of indirect stuff. This is an argument that never resolves itself and I don’t feel like having it here.
Besides, most of the terms in a three act structure are just a matter of labeling things that people do naturally. It’s like grammar, when we talk, we’re not conscious of our verbs, adverbs or adjectives. We just make them. You don’t need to know what a gerund is to use one, but if you look at language through the lens of grammar, a gerund will always be a gerund.
Three act structure says that a script can be divided into three basic parts:
This is simple, but unhelpfully vague. Modern three act structure attempts to clarify things by adding a plethora of obligatory points:
BREAK INTO 2
ACT TWO A
ACT TWO B
I think it’s easiest to look at it like this:
The setup is about 25%, the exploration is about 50%, the resolution is about 25%. You might notice that this sounds a lot like three act structure. That’s because it is. Both are based on the same observation: stories exist to entertain, and we should spend most of the time in the part that’s entertaining.
Going to a restaurant: The setup is getting your table, the resolution is paying the check, the exploration is the actual meal. The meal is the reason we go to the restaurant in the first place.
Sex: The setup is setting plans, the exploration is the foreplay/sex, the resolution is the cuddling (at least from the guy’s perspective) – I’m sure a lady writer would have a usefully different point of view on all this.
Most people are good at setting up, not great at exploring. That’s because exploring is the hard part. Anyone can go out on stage with a violin and a tuxedo, anyone can take a bow – very few can do what’s in between, play a three hour program of virtuoso violin concertos.
Exploration (v): Actively presenting what’s fraught or fun about an idea.
Alternate terms: the money part, the magic, the raison d’etre, conceptual specificity.
All scripts exist to entertain, to transport, to engage emotionally. Genre and concept give clues as to how that entertainment will make us feel, and what things will be used to create that entertainment:
BACK TO THE FUTURE: Genre: Comedy/Adventure. What’s entertaining: The humorous ironies that unfold when a teen meets his parents as peers, with a little bit of skateboard chasing and fighting thrown in.
THE MATRIX: Genre: Action: What’s entertaining? Imagine gunfights, chases and brawls with karate superpowers.
MY DINNER WITH ANDRE: Genre: Drama. What’s entertaining? The depth of the writing and the quality of the acting.
The exploration needs to be 50% of the script – MINIMUM.
Obviously, the setup and the resolution also need to be entertaining as hell, but if you can’t reliably do it in the middle, you’ll have problems doing it anywhere.Exploration should be the bulk of the script, because the Exploration is the most entertaining part and the script exists to entertain.
If exploration is awesome, why not do it all the time? Because setup gives us FRAME OF REFERENCE.
Some ideas are more complex than others. MY DINNER WITH ANDRE takes place at a restaurant. People instinctively get that. So everything that happens feels like an organic progression from a simple start. They don’t need to setup much, beyond the backstory and nature of the friendship.
GROUNDHOG DAY requires a bit more setup. We see Phil being his perfectly assholish self, we see the nature of the day that will be repeated, and we see him quickly figure out the rules of the time loop. After that, we’re off to the races.
Back To The Future and THE MATRIX have incredibly convoluted setups, but we accept them because they enable awesome stuff. Given that their plots revolve around something that is essentially magic, the rules of the magic have to be explained for the human actions to have any weight.
All this sounds good on the surface, but the next logical question is, how do we get there? How do we know what other people will find interesting? The unhelpful answer is, you just kind of know…
The more nuanced answer is, you have to calibrate it against the feedback you receive. This doesn’t mean chasing the market or being desperate to please. It’s about reading the room and knowing the right time to say the right thing. For instance, I find Dungeons and Dragons incredibly interesting. Most of the women I’ve dated have not. This observation resists absolute advice. It’s not that I should always talk about D&D or never talk about it. There are better times than others and the more aware of that I am, the more honeys I’m going to slay.
- We all of an idea of what is entertaining to us and to others.
- The more accurate this idea is, the more successful we’re going to be at communicating.
- If we’re putting in effort, but not getting the results we want (which, let’s face it, is most of us) then we should analyze our intial assumptions and literally spell them out.
- We should then match our assumptions to our writing and see if it’s literally doing what we set out to do. If it isn’t the flaw is in how we communicated it. If it is, the flaw is in us, and we should work to fix it.