Three act structure may be bullshit, but it’s useful bullshit.

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.

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.

Thoughts on Film Critic Hulk’s “Myth Of The Three Act Structure”

People occasionally cite Film Critic Hulk’s indictment of the three act structure to me. I’ve always hated it.

Film Critic Hulk’s original post.

My version with more standard and readable grammar.

I translated it into plain English because I’ve always suspected that Film Critic Hulk uses his style to obfuscate poorly thought-out ideas and an extremely tenuous grasp of film criticism and theory. His ideas, while intermittently cogent, generally strike me as vastly inferior to the reviews you’d find on the wonderful Onion AV Club. Now it’s easier to read it for yourself.

I’d love to annotate the entirety of FCH’s post, like I’m doing with Save the Cat. I will if I detect even a flicker of interest.

MY THOUGHTS

The Film Critic Hulk doesn’t really like three act structure, so he’s not inclined to understand it. His examples of third act structure are obvious straw men. For a much smarter take on three act structure, consider the Bitter Script reader.

FCH says that many Hollywood movies are poorly outlined, conceptually anemic and broadly stupid. He blames three act structure, but this article is light on logical rigor, my takeaway was “If I like it, it was smartly constructed, if I didn’t, three act is to blame.” He also points out that Hollywood doesn’t even adhere to what he believes three act structure to be, which seems to undercut the main point he’s arguing.

He says that there is no such thing as three act structure. I actually agree with this. But he doesn’t seem to realize that any rationale that makes three act structure a myth would also make five act structure a myth (other than “Shakespeare used it.”). It’s all the same junk. Very occasionally, I’ll work with a writer uses five act structure as their primary tool for understanding screenwriting. Thus far, I’ve been able to help them within that paradigm, even though it’s not my “native tongue.”

I’m a proponent of the three act structure , so I clearly have a philosophical ax to grind. I like three act structure not because it’s real, or true, or the best, but because it communicates the best because most people know about it. I lean on it for the same reasons that Film Critic Hulk holds up Romeo and Juliet as the platonic ideal of three act structure when it’s clear he prefers Hamlet – more people know Romeo and Juliet better, it communicates better, and communication is important for writers.

That’s probably why most of them don’t write in all-caps Hulk speak.

A Hater’s Guide to Save the Cat – Part One

Blake Snyder was, by all accounts, a nice man. He tragically passed away in 2009. I’m not here to disrespect the man, and if you do, you’re an asshole. That said, this is a Hater’s guide to his book, Save the Cat, in case you ever have to quote anything about it to someone who’s taking it way too seriously.

PART ONE – THE ROMAN NUMERALS
FORWARD
Sheila Hanahan Taylor, then a producer at Zide/Perry, now a producer at Practical and adjunct faculty at UCLA, gives a glowing review, as she should, it’s the forward. Still, some choice sentences stand out.

“I also found myself trying to come up with a way I could politely refer Save the Cat to a number of repped, produced writers who could use a little goose from it’s tactics.” I would pay money to see the real-life flame war that would erupt if you tried that on the wrong guy with the wrong agent.

“[If everyone read STC] My weekend read would dramatically improve… On second thought, are you sure you want this published, Blake? It might beef up the competition.” I’m sure someone will point out that Mr. Snyder was long out of the writing game at this point.(1)

She notes his use of Miss Congeniality and other hit movies of the era as a good example of his ability to pitch advice in terms of how executives think.  We may never know why Miss Congeniality made such an impression on Mr. Snyder, but he went bananas for it. While I’m sure some bright spark will argue the relative merits of some of these choices, I think the larger point here is that studio heads are very cynical about the way they see movies (more box office = better film), a useful cultural point that gets lost amidst the more polarizing points that come in the book.

“Once you learn to think like the people with the checkbook, you’re one step closer to success.” Implicitly, the argument that’s being advanced is that STC is the closest model to showing how producers think that’s ever been published. That’s a very dubious inferred statement, but it’s worth understanding the basic premise.

She goes on to compare the precepts of STC to the same pearls of golden development wisdom that undoubtedly rolled forth from the story department of Zide Perry. She also announces plans to introduce Save the Cat to the UCLA screenwriting curriculum. She was at least partially successful, it’s available in the UCLA bookstore, and every extension course at UCLA recommends it.

INTRODUCTION (IN WHICH MR. SNYDER INTRODUCES HIMSELF, HIS CREDITS, AND HIS TITULAR TRICK)
Mr. Snyder acknowledges that the screenplay market is flooded, and expresses his admiration for Syd Field, Robert McKee, and Viki King of HOW TO WRITE A MOVIE IN 21 DAYS fame (people used to talk about this book a lot more than then do now. It was referenced in THE SOPRANOS for gods sake). Mr. Snyder states that this is one of the few/the only screenwriting books that talks the way writers talk and isn’t too academic. While certainly not academic, the “talks the way writers talk” is very arguable, given that most of the trusted pro writer bloggers (John August, Ken Levine, etc) give this book a tentative “marginally better than useless” at best.

Mr. Snyder talks about his credentials, about how he’s sold millions of dollars worth of screenplays. As a hater, it’ll be useful for you to know that he was born with a foot in the door (his father Kenneth was an Emmy-winning TV producer) and he sold in the 90’s, a glorious, coked up time where the spec sales fell like rain (I’m exaggerating, not by much).

He also talks about the writer’s he’s coached. As a coach myself, I’m in a poor place to make fun of this, but the glaring elephant in the room with the book is the lack of testimonials from working writers. He has good testimonials from producers, but that’s it. Given all the flack his book would later receive from the cynical chattering classes of the internet, the lack of testimonials from name writers shines particularly brightly here. The phrase “turd in a punchbowl” comes to mind.

Mr. Snyder says that movies need a conceptual hook. This is a fair point, especially when a spec comes from an unknown writer, but he’s far from the first to mention this. I’m reasonably sure Crafty Screenwriting and Breakfast with Sharks beat him to it. Still this is good advice. Write movies with strong hooks.

He hates on the practice of movies opening wide (putting a movie in 3,000 theaters opening weekend, so it doesn’t matter if it stinks). Ironically, this is probably the sentence where he shares the point of maximum commonality with people who hate his book. He quickly follows this up with a point that works against this own point, that people should “follow the rules” to make writing more commercial. There are problems with this statement (see below).

WHAT IS A SAVE THE CAT MOMENT?
Mr. Snyder explains a Save the Cat moment as a moment that makes a character likable. He uses this moment from SEA OF LOVE, a deathless classic that every real American has seen twice:

http://www.anyclip.com/movies/sea-of-love/the-guy-who-was-late/#!quotes/ (2)

Why use Save the Cat? “Because liking the person we go on the journey with is the single most important element in drawing us into the story.”   He might have said something like, “There are many elements that draw us into the story. I believe that empathizing with a character is the biggest part. That’s why I’ve titled my book the way I have.”  He didn’t.  A bigger problem than phrasing is the fact that saving the cat and likability have very little to do with his list of 15 beats, which end up being the money part of the book.

Mr. Snyder probably should have gone more into WHY likability is such a key issue, and then illustrated HOW his specific beats work to build that likability. He doesn’t, which is a major weakness in the book and the premise. A later chapter has more on the term, but it would have been nice to see a chapter on HOW to make a character likable (interestingly, there’s no Save the Cat moment in Blank Check), instead the concept gets short shrift and is tossed off in a few hundred words, then left to die.

Mr. Snyder sneers at LARA CROFT 2 (sic) and says that if they had followed “the rules,” and written a save the cat scene, it might have done better (historical note, it made 65 million domestic vs a 95 million production budget). This is another groaner moment.

  • There are no rules, and if there are/were, SAVE THE CAT was certainly not there yet.
  • Another turd in the punchbowl – 4 CHRISTMASES, held up in this book and subsequent ones as a model of his theory. It flopped, critically and commercially.
  • Again, I still don’t know HOW to write a Save the Cat scene, and I’ve read this book like a dozen times.

This sets up the biggest ad hominem critique I’m going to make against Mr. Snyder, and it comes back again and again. He has no sense of humor about himself, and he honestly believes his rules are empirically tied to box office performance. The Four Christmases thing is worth examining on several levels, but I’ll touch on it when he brings it up again.

Mr. Snyder brings it all home on page xvi –

“We are in the business of trying to pitch our wares to the majors, make a big sale, and appeal to the widest possible audience.” Oy. I agree that a beginner writer is well served by writing to the most lucrative development market, but the words “make a major sale” actually hurt the fillings in the back of my teeth. The spec market that bore, shaped and made Mr. Snyder aware was basically dead by 2005, which is why he had the time and financial interest in writing the book in the first place. He might have been hoping it was coming back, but it didn’t. Early, he said “this is a book that talks the way [professionals] talk.” This line is an example of how they talked in the mid 90’s.

He admits that this book is written for writers who want to work in the studio system and not the indie market, which is a a fair assessment. He thanks young writers who have given him new perspectives by “questioning me in that snotty-as-hell ‘tude that only insightful young people have,” a line that shows a marvelous economy, as it sounds simultaneously disingenuous, square and patronizing.(3)

“If my Save the Cat example has whetted your appetite to learn more tricks, let’s begin. Because it’s one of many that are basic. And they work. Every time. These are rules I hope you will use learn and use and even break. And hopefully when you’re movie comes out, and it’s satisfying and a hit — you can pass on your rules to others.”

Clearly, a goodly number of people were sufficiently intrigued to read on, this book was a bestseller, which is why we’re talking about it. But given that this is the hater’s guide, this is where he lost a large chunk of potential audience/credibility.  If tricks work every time, why would you want to break them? If they work every time, why did you transition from writing to coaching? If they work every time, why would LARA CROFT 2 (sic) have maybe made more money using a Save the Cat scene instead of DEFINITELY making more money? And, not to belabor this, but how the fuck do I write a Save the Cat scene?

IN CLOSING
“You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.” F. Nietzsche
“When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” Folk Wisdom.
“Only the Sith deal in absolutes,” O. Kenobi, missing the point of irony.”

Save the Cat’s introduction is a pretty good glimpse of the book to come. A smattering of good advice, that’s often undercut by the overweaning pride of its author. Mr. Snyder offers up each of these pearls as if he were a benevolent god shining his wisdom on the morlocks. If you’re a Save the Cat fan, it’s useful to understand that a lot of the flack the book received comes directly from the tone used by the author.(4)

Save the Cat is badly overhyped. It calls itself the “last book on screenwriting you’ll ever need,” when you could call it a good starting point for an understanding of screenwriting. It’s really simplified, it’s like an EZ Bake oven – it’s a kid’s toy, but a good chef could use it to make a fun meal. STC earns more flack from naive beginners who talk like it’s all you need to know about screenwriting, when in fact by citing it, they look like people with training wheels talking a big game to X games athletes.

Much of this stems from an apparent lack of irony from Mr. Snyder. Look at William Goldman and Stephen King. Both are highly accomplished commercial writers, but in their books they fall all over themselves with self-deprecating humor. It may be a pose (I don’t think it is), but it makes them super likable, they’re not trying to big time us, they’re trying to relate like a guy at a bar. In a sense, a self-deprecating voice is like a “Save the Cat” moment for a know-it-all author. Mr. Snyder ironically misses that point.

Snyder wrote STOP OR MY MOM WILL SHOOT and BLANK CHECK, and now he’s writing a writing book. That is freaking hilarious(5). If and when I write a writing book, I will mock myself at every fucking turn, because it’s easy, it’s fun, and it undercuts your own bombast (I haven’t done much of that yet – I will. To start: I’m far from rich. At this point in my life, I would kill to have the commercial success that Mr. Snyder had, either as a coach or a writer). Mr. Snyder either fails to see the humor, or refuses to comment on the humor, which leads me to believe that when he says the rules “work every time” or that LARA CROFT 2 (sic) could have made more money by following his rules, he’s not being hyperbolic, he’s committing the logical fallacy of magical thinking.

Personally, I find utility in everything.  It’s important to understand that everything has good and bad in it, and the purpose of this guide is to examine the strengths and weaknesses of a given approach.  Also, it’s fun to snark on the works of a dude who made tons more money than I did.

FOOTNOTES

(1) The secondary point one should take from this is that Ms. Taylor found the book useful as a conceptual framework. She might be the odd case, but if everyone in town were talking about Save the Cat (or whatever flavor of the month book comes next), the smart writer will find a way to make their story fit that pattern).

(2) In grudging fairness to Mr. Snyder, I just rewatched this scene and I forgot how truly good it was. Still, he might have considered his audience and used a more popular example. He uses Pulp Fiction and Aladdin later. It’s difficult to make a straight line that connects all three of the Save the Cat scenes he cites, but those are pretty much the only examples in book one (we’ll doubtless find out for certain as we progress through the tome, but I can’t remember off the top of my head.

(3) A recurring theme of this guide will be that Mr. Snyder writes from the point of view of someone who knows that he should SEEM amenable to other points of view, but who doesn’t really get WHY. I also what he might have made of the “snotty-as-hell” ‘tude that would surely have blown his way from the cynical internet circa 2014.

(4) Is that fair? Probably not. But as a screenwriter, Mr. Snyder was a communicator. He should know the old axiom: it’s not how the message was intended, it’s how it was received.

(5) These scripts don’t disqualify him as a teacher. You can often learn more about a craft from a hack than from a master.