In my wife’s 2nd grade classroom, they define a story as a sequence of events that has a Beginning, a Middle, and an End.
If you were to take that idea and use it to tell a classic story, it might look something like this:
- Peter Parker becomes Spider-Man
- An evil scientist wreaks havoc on the city
- Spider-Man stops the evil scientist
Easy peasy, right? You’ve got characters, you’ve got conflict, you’ve got action, everything a good adventure story needs. So what’s the problem?
If you’re in grade school and your task is to write a short story about your favorite super hero, there isn’t a problem. However, if you’re trying to write a movie that fills 90 to 120 minutes of screen time, you may find that a three-act framework might stretch your ideas a little thin.
Our friend Film Crit Hulk explains:
Hulk hears it all the time when people complain about movies: “it’s the problems in the film’s second act!”
The problem with this generic “second act” designation is that it can imply a problem with virtually anything in the middle part of storytelling. Meaning it is a beyond vague way to talk about story structure.
Question: what is an act?
Hulk will ask young students, film journalists, even working writers and most don’t have an answer.
Sometimes they’ll fall over their words. Sometimes they’ll be hit by a bolt of speechlessness.
Their answers basically amount to an act being a term that’s a general placeholder for chunks of story that usually separate “beginning, middle, and end.”
Sound familiar? Film Crit Hulk continues:
So Hulk’s got another of Hulk’s famous working definitions for you. And it’s not out of Hulk’s butt here. It’s one used by many great screenwriters, professors, and other way-smart people.
The best way to put it is to define an act by its point of separation from the next (act).
Thus: The end of an act is a point in the story where a character(s) makes a choice and can no longer “go back.”
This means that the way we move from one act to another defines the act itself. We call these transitions ”act breaks.”
Film Crit Hulk:
The act break can be:
- a new and interesting plot development
- a poignant character realization
- a personality reveal
- two previously un-met characters becoming friends
- or even, if handled correctly, something as insipid as “no! The bad guys are here! Run!”
An act break can be anything as long as it has a significant changing effect on the narrative resulting in the character choosing an action defined by that change; one that causes them to move forward in this new reality with understanding.
More importantly, an act break creates propulsion.
Suddenly, it becomes clear why so many films have “second act problems”: A three-act story only contains two act breaks.
In other words, it only has two points in which the character makes a choice they can’t go back from.
That lack of propulsion, the lack of drama-energized progress, is a direct result of thinking about stories in terms of “three-act” structure.
Not only does three-act structure not accurately reflect the way good stories work on a dramatic level, it doesn’t tell us how to write (or even outline) a dramatically compelling feature-length film story.
Depending on how you cut it, some movies have five acts, some even have upwards of twenty. It all depends on what kind of story you’re telling and what’s appropriate.
Our friend Dan Harmon (Community, Rick and Morty) has an excellent toolkit for thinking outside the three-act box.
It’s incredibly handy for beginners, journeymen, and masters alike. You can learn about it on his website Channel 101 by clicking here.
To read Film Crit Hulk’s full essay on the myth of three-act structure, go to his blog here.
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Screenwriters shouldn’t direct on the page? […] Screw that. We’re building a movie on paper. We should use all tools available both to make the reader see the film and our fellow filmmakers understand our intentions. — Craig Mazin (Scary Movie 4, The Hangover Part II, Identity Thief)
The first draft is just you telling yourself the story. — Terry Pratchett
Storytelling comes naturally to humans, but since we live in an unnatural world, we sometimes need a little help doing what we’d naturally do.
Draw a circle and divide it in half vertically.
Divide the circle again horizontally.
Starting from the 12 o clock position and going clockwise, number the 4 points where the lines cross the circle: 1, 3, 5 and 7.
Number the quarter-sections themselves 2, 4, 6 and 8.
Here we go, down and dirty:
- A character is in a zone of comfort,
- But they want something.
- They enter an unfamiliar situation,
- Adapt to it,
- Get what they wanted,
- Pay a heavy price for it,
- Then return to their familiar situation,
- Having changed.
Start thinking of as many of your favorite movies as you can, and see if they apply to this pattern. Now think of your favorite party anecdotes, your most vivid dreams, fairy tales, and listen to a popular song (the music, not necessarily the lyrics). Get used to the idea that stories follow that pattern of descent and return, diving and emerging. Demystify it. See it everywhere. Realize that it’s hardwired into your nervous system, and trust that in a vacuum, raised by wolves, your stories would follow this pattern.
I will talk in greater detail about this pattern in subsequent tutorials.