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.