Why people hate three act structure (and why I like it)

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.

Published by Matt Lazarus

WGA screenwriter offering in-depth writing instruction, notes, critique, and assistance.

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