Three act structure falls into a category I call “useful bullshit.” Typically arguments over three act structure become a tedious fight about whether it’s always the best or whether it even exists. It’s a mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain an idea without necessarily holding it to be true. Therefore, I like to think of the three act structure as something that’s generally useful, even if it’s bullshit.
As a practical example: horoscopes. They’re certainly not scientifically rigorous. But they do represent a popular means of understanding the universe.
I know a lot of beginning writers who are really into horoscopes and bad at differentiating characters. I recommend that they assign star signs to each fictional character. It doesn’t even matter if the traits they assign are even “true” to the commonly held traits of Scorpio, Taurus, etc. It’s just a tool that makes sure characters seem a little different (as added bonus, we might even get a fictional birthday for the fictional character we’re trying to fob off on the world).
There are many ways to conceptual the complicated process of learning writing. I find it’s better to ask not if something is true, but to imagine ways where applying the bullshit can be generally useful.
In an ideal world, knowledge would be like a Pokemon: you could capture it once, and keep it forever, ready to serve at a moments notice. Sadly, knowledge isn’t so readily gained. You need to reinforce it ad naseum until it’s ingrained in your subconscious.
- If there was any confusion…
Here are some old school writing pointers that have been floating around for years.
1. Write every day.
2. Enter scenes late, leave early.
3. Scenes are about conflict. Characters must have a want that puts them in opposition to something.
4. Midpoint splits the second act into two tonally distinct halves.
5. Show, don’t tell.
6. Characters should have a distinct voice, you should be able to ID them just by their dialogue.
7. Dimensionalize characters by have them display different traits when they’re talking to other people.
8. Don’t write in variables. Communicate in concrete images that are easy to visual.
9. If a plot can take place in a shorter amount of time, it’s generally better.
10. Cut to the chase. It’s better to show characters doing something than have them talk about doing something.
People often are indignant to be reminded of these rules. Most of us have heard them dozens of times, it seems patronizing to hear them again. But they often bear repeating.
There are no advanced mistakes, only basic ones. If you’re having a problem with a story, the problem is going to be something that’s elemental and simple, not something that’s advanced and highbrow.
NEW KNOWLEDGE CAN TAKE MONTHS TO INGRAIN
You have finite attention. Concentrating on multiple things at once will derail you. Practice one thing at a time, let it screw up your equilibrium, keep working at it until you can do it unconsciously. Writing skills flow in piece by piece. Good writing tends to come from a trained, natural reaction. More experienced writers have better trained natural reactions.
When someone says something like a script should be between 100-120 pages, it will generally cause an argument. It’s useful to remember that these are simply guidelines, and that it’s often more useful to consider why the advice is correct (it forces a useful economy of words, and makes the script more readable to buyers) than to find exceptions to the rule.
Polish-American scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski remarked that “the map is not the territory”, encapsulating his view that an abstraction derived from something, or a reaction to it, is not the thing itself. Korzybski held that many people do confuse maps with territories, that is, confuse models of reality with reality itself. (from wikipedia)
Ideally, we’d have a word in English that meant “something expressed as a rule, but that is in fact a relative guideline used to model reality.” Unfortunately, we don’t. Until then, remember that rules are merely helpful guidelines that are never universally applicable, but often more useful than nothing.
No one agrees on anything in screenwriting. One of the classic arguments is whether people should follow ‘rules’ or ‘just write a great script.’ This is a classic technician vs performer argument. It’s a war between two different approaches to learning and skill, and it’s useful to know where you fall on the continuum.
James Hunt vs Nikki Lauda. Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird. Michelangelo vs Donatello.
There are people who love “rules” and the neurotic security that comes with them, and there are people who hate them, seeing them as enemies to creativity. In my experience, the former group needs far fewer rules, the latter group needs more of them.
The irony is, both roads aspire to the same end goal – greatness. If you get really good at rules, you free yourself to play. If you get really good at playing, you end up discovering rules. The two ways don’t diverge, but they circle back to meet each other.
I’m a total technician, which means I’m bad at the things performers are good at. I work to shore up my weak side, but I’ll never be a true performer, just as true performers will never be a technician. Nor should they, the world needs all kinds.
Understanding the difference between the two styles, the gap in communication styles, and the strengths that come with both will help you enormously in writing and in life.