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.

Terminology: World building scripts

A world-building script is a script that is heavily reliant on its setting. These are commonly genre scripts, but not always. A script that’s got an esoteric historical setting or relies on a densely woven political backstory has the same strengths, weaknesses and opportunities.

MINORITY REPORT is a sci-fi world building story. Much of the texture and fun of the movie comes from its densely imagined future.

THE WIZARD OF OZ is a fantasy world building story, one full of witches, magic, and flying monkeys.

GAME OF THRONES marries a fantasy world with internecine imagined politics.

All modern writing is built on writing that came before.

“You’re always talking about genre. That’s for hacks! I’m a creative person who writes serious art.” I hear variations of this a lot. I’m sure it’s intended as a serious defense of a philosophy, but to me it always reads as both an excuse for a lazy understanding of genre and audience expectation, and a fundamental misunderstanding of how culture works. This is the writing version of creationism.

Writing is concentrated thinking. Everything is built on what came before. To understand Tarantino, understand his influences and then you’ll see the specific brilliance that made him understand the art of the past and create new developments that pushed the art forward. It’s an evolution.

We can’t produce purely original thoughts because we’re the beneficiary of all the ideas and writing that are part of the culture we grew up in. Without that support and framework, we’d be like pre-lingual humans or feral children trying to talk. We might be able to produce something, but it wouldn’t be something the audience could necessarily recognize.

It’s important to understand how writing and genre works and how it feeds into the expectation of an audience.  Knowledge is power, even if you’re a genius like Mozart. Actually, especially if you’re a genius like Mozart. In his words:

“It is a mistake to think that the practice of my art has become easy to me. I assure you, dear friend, no one has given so much care to the study of composition as I. There is scarcely a famous master in music whose works I have not frequently and diligently studied.”