The main value of structure is that it allows writers to see how incidents radically change their story depending on where they are placed.

Three act structure. Just by using that term, I have guaranteed that a sizable percentage of the people who read this will have stopped listening. Those people are busy composing angry replies about how stupid and/or malevolent I am. I look forward to reading those.

I get that people hate three act structure, but the concept I’m talking about is hard to illustrate without at least temporarily deciding to use those terms. I shall try to illustrate what I’m talking about, and maybe someone will find that useful.

Three act structure is like Christianity in that it’s got many different interpretations. Mormons, Catholics, Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, Jehovah’s Witnesses all identify as Christian, but they’re really talk about different things. Many people think of three act structure as a rigid orthodoxy, that says that the dark night of the soul must go on page 90 or else the script is bad. I’m sure there even hacks out there who believe shit like this. That is not what I’m talking about.

Essentially, three act structure is a tautology. Stories have a beginning middle and end, screenplays are stories, therefore screenplays have a beginning middle and an end. “Act one” is just a fancier way of saying beginning, and so on. To which the skeptics out there might be saying, whoop de doo. How does that help anyone?

Let’s take a script like Identity Thief. It’s a very successful comedy, and I have it on good authority that the author, /u/clmazin, does not subscribe to the three act structure and did not use it to write the material. Acts schmacts. Acts are dogma. Page numbers are dogma.

That said, Identity Thief is a comedy that centers on the unlikely relationship between average guy Sandy, and Diana, the titular identity thief who steals his identity. As this is the money part of the story, the thing which generates the fun, it makes sense to spend the bulk of the middle section of the script on exploring that, and resolving it in the end section. Acts two and three, if you like.

And that’s just what the script does, after establishing Diana and Sandy for a bit, their paths cross on page 18, in what a hack might call an “inciting incident.” And then we’re off to the races and we get to watch Sandy and Diana have their great adventure. Assuming the story actually wants to focus on that relationship, that’s about the right time. Having the meat on page 55 would be too late.

To which the author might reply, “It would be too late for the story Iwanted to tell. I could easily tell a story where they met on page 55, though. Easily.” He might even go on to say, “[This is] The problem with “coaches.” You watch a movie and think “it could only be thus.”

Of course, I don’t actually think a movie could only be thus, largely because I’m not a complete moron. Also because I’m obsessed with time travel, alternate histories, and the idea of a parallel universe where the scripts I sold got made and launched a stellar career and other people’s didn’t.

For the extant version of Identity Thief, I think that the meeting on page 18 was the right call for the story the author wanted to tell. But if the author wanted to tell a different story, of course that could work to. But even though Sandy and Diana could meet on any page, the placement of that meeting radically changes the story.

  • If they meet around page 12 (inciting incident) then that lends itself to an odd-couple buddy movie, which is what the actual draft is.
  • They could meet somewhere near the end (the third act). Then it’s probably a story about seeking someone, a la The Third Man.
  • They could know each other from the get-go (the ordinary world, in hack-speak). This could position them as partners in crime, or it could be a farce where one doesn’t know the other’s secret life. Or anything else.
  • They could even meet around page 55 (midpoint), which to me seems like the hardest one to write, because of the challenge of keeping the 50% of the script where they meet as engaging and fun as the 50% afterwards. It’s difficult, but certainly doable.

This probably seems obvious , but a lot of coaching is breaking down the seemingly obvious into digestible, logical consistent steps. Some people legitimately might not realize that a story could take any direction, not just the one that was chosen. Speaking from experience, some people legitimately don’t see that changing the placement of an event in a narrative can radically change that story. The terminology helps illustrate the how and the why of it.

That’s why I like breaking stories down to this structure. It roughly applies to most narratives, and it’s helpful to break a story down into quarters and see what changes if the villain is introduced on page 12 or on page 55, assuming a 110 page script. If the hero meets the love interest in the beginning, the middle, or the end.

And, as a necessary disclaimer: Not that 110 has anything to do with an orthodoxy. A feature could be 5 pages or 440. I’m told a great script can be written in crayon and it’ll still get made.

There are some writers out there who obsess over page counts and obligatory plot milestones to the point where the structure chokes the life out of the material. Don’t be that writer. There are some writers who instinctively just get it, and don’t need hacky terms to get a sense of material. And then there are many, many people who are naturally good at some parts of writing, but not others, and stuff like this helps them. And that’s why I write articles like this.

Look, I get why people hate three act structure

Here’s a quirk of human nature: we form opinions early, and then we cherry pick facts that support the notion we formed. Go visit /r/politics or any mac vs pc argument, and you’ll see this principle illustrated vividly.

I learned 3 act structure early (Syd Field’s screenplay). It helped me, so I like it, so I tend to believe it’s true.

Though I’m a flawed, intellectually lazy human, I’m not a complete idiot. I see a lot of smart writers, writers who are helpful, savvy, and more successful than me, decry 3 act structure (I also see Film Critic Hulk diss it, but that’s another conversation).

While I disagree with many people re: three act structure, I empathize with them. I came out of development. I’ve seen a lot of empty suits hurt scripts while dogmatically clinging to some 1990’s seminar they went to, talking about how the dark night of the soul has to come on page 90 or else the script can’t be good.

I like three act structure, and I will probably always advocate for it as a useful thought experiment that helps identify where the money part of a story is. It’s pretty simple: there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. The flame wars come over what the middle ought to be.

In the end, I think 3 act structure critics and I both hate the same thing: a dogmatic approach to thinking. 3 act structure critics hate the idea of fearful people clinging to an orthodoxy, coloring neatly in the lines, crushing out their innate creativity. I’ve seen some of these people, but surprisingly, not too many.

I fear the other problem: people who have formed an anti-three act structure opinion that’s so reflexive that they can’t listen or respect anyone who’s even willing to entertain it as an option. I see a lot of this (I’m willing to admit that this might be a cognitive bias on my part, spotlight theory or similar).

Postel’s law says that one ought to be conservative in what they’ll accept for themselves, liberal for what they accept from others. I like that and I try to subscribe to it. Screenwriting is an ongoing process. I’ve learned a lot from people who believe in things that I don’t, and I’d hope that I have something to offer, even if my beliefs don’t precisely line up with someone else’s.

The fun of the second act should come from the elements set up by the first act. Conceptual specificity (or Santa Claus vs The Zombies)

Conceptual specificity: Second acts ought to create entertainment using every aspect of the setup in the first act.

I know that’s a long and boring mouthful, so to drive this home I created an exercise called “SANTA CLAUS VS THE ZOMBIES.”

Here’s a weak logline: A man discovers that a rare bug in the rainforest cures cancer. He ends up on the run from the hitmen of a powerful drug cartel.

I hate loglines like this, because it’s all about the first act and it tells me nothing about the second act. Scripts like this tend to spend forty pages setting up some wonky scientific MacGuffin, and then deliver an anemic, setpiece-light second act of generic action/thriller moments. It may be competently written, but it won’t be conceptually specific.

Let’s say there’s an open writing assignment called “SANTA CLAUS VS THE ZOMBIES.” It’s stupid, but it pays well, and to get it, you have to pitch a scene from the second act. The easiest way to do this is to use both parts of the setup – create scenes that borrow from the established lore of both Santa Claus and zombies.

Conceptually specific examples:

  • Zombies attack the elf workshop. Santa and the elves must hold them off with tools and weapons improvised out of toys.
  • Mrs. Claus bakes cookies in the kitchen. A zombie attacks and she has to burn its head off in her oven.
  • Rudolph gets bitten by a zombie. Santa must put him down before he can bite and infect the other reindeer.
  • Santa flies his sleigh to escape zombies. A zombie clings to the runners, trying to climb up to bite Santa.

Here are some bad pitches:

  • Santa Claus talks to his friend Bill. (who the hell is Bill? If you’re setting up Santa Claus, use established parts of his mythology. ‘Santa’s Buddy’ is a movie unto itself).
  • Santa loads the sleigh with toys (this is a first act scene. It happens in the ordinary world, when you’re setting up Santa. The second act happens after the inciting incident, when Santa becomes aware of the zombies).
  • A zombie walks through the snow and bites a scientist who’s researching the poles (this scene could appear in any old zombie movie. A conceptually specific scene would have the zombies vs Santa). *Santa drops the bomb that kills the last of the zombies (leaving aside whether Santa has access to a bomb or not, this is a climactic scene that would probably occur in the second act).

IN CLOSING

Santa vs. the Zombies is a cheesy, lowbrow idea, but it’s a very clear one. It’s easy for an audience to imagine conceptually specific scenes for it, so the premise feels very fraught. Most beginning writers write their early scripts around very soft ideas that don’t lend themselves well to conceptually specific second act scenes. As such, the second acts are rife with filler, so the work done in the first act feels wasted.

Hopefully you’ll have a better idea than SANTA VS. THE ZOMBIES. Hopefully your idea will allow a reader to envision a second act just as clearly.

Vetting a Logline – The Fright Chamber

Here’s a logline that was submitted by /u/nasteeninja for consideration on my live screenwriting show (www.youtube.com/c/storycoaching, now every Saturday at 5 PM). I’ll get to the script at a later date, probably on video.

A sadistic doctor, hellbent on immortality, abducts a troubled nurse and forces her through a series of constructed nightmares designed to steal her subconscious.

I generally like this, it makes me think of movies like the Cell, or a more supernatural/scifi take on Saw. It’s got an implicit second act, so my imagination can work with that.

It’s told from the POV of the villain, not the hero. That’s cool for the genre. I don’t remember any character names from the Saw franchise, other than Jigsaw.

My main problem with this is that it raises more questions than it answers. I don’t know what a constructed nightmare is. Is he using a neural network computer? The mystic powers of the Ruby of Cyttorak? A lo-fi warehouse full of mundane creepy stuff? That should be made clear.

Hellbent on immortality suggests supernatural, but I’m still not sure how this nurse’s subconscious aides him in his stated goal.

INT. LABORATORY – NIGHT

DOCTOR: I will steal this woman’s subconcious with my unspecified, high concept device, and it will make me immortal.

LAB ASSISTANT: How does that work, sir?

DOCTOR: That’s unclear.

The immortality bit is optional. On a logline level, I don’t care why the bad guys in SAW or FINAL DESTINATION do their thing, only how what they do is interesting (on a script level this matters, but we’re talking loglines). I’d recommend striking that in favor of language that tells me what the central mechanism is, or even if this is going to be a supernatural horror or a sci fi horror story.