5 Reasons the Three-Act Structure is Stifling Your Creativity and Killing Your Screenplay

fistful_of_dollarsAh, the movies. Don’t you love how subjective they are? That action flick you love is the same one your significant other hates. That melodramatic scene that brings your mother to tears makes you laugh uncontrollably in its silliness.

A field as abstract as screenwriting is an easy target for anyone who fancy themselves an expert to share their techniques as if they were the only truth under the sun. You gotta be careful when sifting through all the information out there. It’s not about the credentials of who’s giving the information. It’s more about the information itself, which is, again, subjective. With so much discrepant information available, all you can do is go with your gut feeling. Take everything with a grain of salt till you find an approach that makes sense to you.

The three-act structure is one such component of screenwriting that often ignites fiery, passionate debates from proponents of either side. Whereas some people swear by the three acts, others couldn’t care less. Here’s what one such opponent has to say:

The Greeks had no act structure in their plays. The plays had one act. The Romans had five acts. It’s arbitrary. It appeared in plays because of the need to have intermissions. People can’t sit for three hours in a theatre listening to an auditory experience without taking a break or going to the restroom. It appears in television shows because they want to have commercial breaks so they can sell something. None of which has anything to do with story.”

– James Bonnet

Mr. Bonnet, an accomplished story consultant and screenwriting coach with many books in print, shows no love for the three-act structure. Could he be right? Maybe… maybe…

In any regard, when I first started this website, I knew I would have to talk about the three acts. And I have – here! I did so because it is a “thing.” The three-act structure, whether effective or not, is ubiquitous, and I wanted all curious minds to learn what it is.

Now that I have dispensed some basic definitions and “rules” on the aforementioned article, it’s time I contradict myself and give you another perspective. Here are 5 reasons why you should be careful with the three acts:

1) The Audience Doesn’t Watch Acts, They Watch Characters

Acts and plot points are a roadmap for writers. Before you begin writing your screenplay, of course you wanna know where you are headed… where and how the story is gonna twist… where and when the main character’s gonna fall and tumble and have to pick himself up. But remember: the audience doesn’t watch acts, they watch characters.

Of course, characters rise or fall with every twist and turn. But what happens to them between act breaks is equally important. For example, a movie like Little Miss Sunshine (with an Academy Award-winning screenplay) has little emphasis on the three acts and a whole lot more focus on characters, creating exciting and memorable protagonists that make the film original and fun the whole way through. Each character has their own growth, stemming from goals and obstacles that are not necessarily connected to the act breaks.

Similarly, a scene like the Expectation vs. Reality scene in (500) Days of Summer is great because of the emphasis not in the acts but in the two main characters and their emotions.

Of course, in the context of the film, this is even more powerful because you know their history together.

2) The 3-Act is a Shortcut to Teaching, not a Technique for Writing

The three-act structure definitely has a place in Hollywood transactions and discussions on the craft. But the reason why you and I have heard of such concept has little to do with Hollywood and more to do with how easy it is to teach this structure. Professors and authors love it. You only need a white board, three lines, and some words to teach this all-encompassing, far-reaching “technique.”

The problem with it is that quite often that’s all they teach. I kid you not; I’ve had film professors who outlined this structure class after class after class… as if a writer could create a screenplay on that alone. Even some authors! They outline the structure on their books without giving you the proper warning or guidance.

More importantly, as far as the writing process goes, from original idea to final draft, establishing the three acts is something that you do in the outline phase of the script, well in advance before actually writing the script. So remember: having the three acts is the equivalent of a shopping list before you go to the supermarket. Though you have a list, you still need to walk aisle by aisle, check shelf by shelf. Screenwriting is hard work, and the three acts is the easy part.

3) The 3-Act Model Only Climaxes Twice

If you look at the three-act structure, you will notice that the plot points only occur twice in the movie: between Act 1 and Act 2, and then again between Act 2 and Act 3:

3-act-matrix

But Act 1 is roughly 30 minutes long, and Act 2 is 60 minutes long. And if you think you can wait up to 30 minutes to give your audience a jolt, then you are really asking them to take a nap between acts. Seriously.

What I mean is that you need more plot points in your script. At least more than two, but probably more than that.

A better alternative is too focus on sequences. A sequence is a coherent collection of scenes with beginning, middle, and end. It  runs around 15 minutes long. This is how the first sequence ends in Silence of the Lambs.

This is a plot point, a twist at the end of the first sequence, 17 minutes in. The sequence ends with this major emotional beat in which Dr. Lecter, one of the movie’s antagonists, reads Clarice’s intention like a laser and becomes offended, dismantling her mission, sending her back to square one. This is a major setback for Clarice.

If you plant a plot point every 15 minutes in your film, your audience will love you. Of course, you still have to use the scenes in between sequences to build up to it. Which brings me to my next point:

4) The Unit of a Screenplay is a Scene, Not an Act

While we are on the topic of great writing, don’t forget that the unit of a screenplay is a scene. You have to make each of them count. Scenes are so important that there’s a new heading (or slug line) before a new one. Scenes should not merely fill space between plot points. Each scene must be unique and move the story forward.

The overly-indulgent emphasis on the three-act structure is actually a disservice to many budding writers out there. Yes, you should know what it is, but the real craft of screenwriting is making one scene better than the next. Take a moment to think about your favorite scenes in the movies… or a scene from a movie you watched recently. Odds are that scene is not part of the defining moment of the act, namely the plot point.

Consider the training montage in Rocky:


Or when Clint Eastwood delivered this famous line in Dirty Harry:

These great scenes are as far from the act breaks as possible. The clip from Rocky is the culmination of a man’s many weeks of hard work and training. It is illustrative of Rocky’s limitless pursuit for a perfect body and technique, both of which he will need for the challenge of a lifetime. The clip from Dirty Harry is part of the main character’s introduction, early in the film. Harry is such a badass he doesn’t even spit out his hot dog!

And here’s another one that has even more substance to it:

What’s the scene really about? On the surface, it’s about learning karate. But it has other elements going on. There’s a sacred pact that’s made here (“I promise teach, you promise learn”). There’s also a clash of culture and age, combined with the reluctance of a boy who doesn’t see the value of the task at hand. It may not be the scene you remember walking out of the theater (I agree, the fighting is more fun), but it’s a scene nonetheless, and it’s a great one in the big scheme of things. In addition to foreshadowing later events, it also establishes conflict between two of the good guys.

When a producer is shopping for a script, acts help them understand the progression of the story. But scenes are the real building blocks of a movie. It’s how good your scenes are that’s gonna make or break your screenplay.

5) The 3 Acts are Subjective and Arbitrary

I have a friend who says that even a fart has three acts, though he refuses to tell me what they are specifically. His point is that anything can be divided in three parts. And he’s right. The three acts are code for beginning, middle, and end, which is everywhere, really. Within the field of filmmaking, some writers will argue that movie scripts should have four, five, or even seven acts! This can go as far as your imagination will allow it. Many authors — especially those pricy script analysts who charge top money for seminars and course packages — come up with different structures because they want to sound new and original. It’s a marketing strategy that helps them sell their products.

The truth is: the three-act structure can easily be broken into smaller acts. In other words, the 4-act, the 5-act, and the 7-act structure already exist within the 3-act structure. What changes is merely the definition and length of the act. Consider for example, the second act in the three-act structure. The three-act structure says you should break act II with a mid-point. Right then, you have 4 acts. If you break acts into sequences, now you can have up to eight acts.

Don’t get bogged down by terminology. A good screenplay is a good screenplay is a good screenplay.

Final Thoughts

There you have it. Five reasons (in my humble opinion) why the three-act structure is producing bad writers. It has nothing inherently wrong with it. The problem is how writers use it, focusing too much on it and neglecting the rest.

This post is not about denouncing the three acts. This post is about helping you understand that the three acts, though crucial to a script, is only a small piece of the puzzle. An over-emphasis on it can actually undermine your screenplay.

If you can remember only one thing from this reading, then remember this: screenwriting is hard; the three acts are easy. In other words, don’t stop at the three acts. Keep developing all other areas of your script till you end up with something as hard as diamond.

And because Clint Eastwood is such an awesome badass, here’s another great scene with him:

THEME: What Ties it All Together

If plot is what’s on the surface of a film, easily visible to the audience, then the theme is what’s under the surface… kinda hidden like a secret gem, waiting to be uncovered. Themes are sometimes called a life lesson or a message, and the best ones are always subtle.

Some authors claim that themes are one word long:


“The theme of a story is the aspect of the ‘human dilemma’ that it will explore. Betrayal, loyalty, self-worth, ambition, jealousy, hypocrisy, obsession, alienation — these are all valid themes that could explore. Note that there are no verbs involved, no value judgements inherent in potential themes. Something like “love conquers all” or “jealousy destroys from the inside” is a value-charged thesis rather than a theme.” – David Howard, author of How to Build a Great Screenplay: A Master Class in Storytelling for Film

While other authors argue that themes could be a sentence long:

“WITNESS has a point of view. Love cannot bridge the gap of two different worlds. In THE AFRICAN QUEEN, the opposite is true. Love can bridge the gap of two different worlds. […]  The message in CHINATOWN is this: You can get away with murder if you have enough money.”- David Trottier, author of The Screenwriter’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script.

Though these two writers define theme differently, their interpretations are still pretty similar. Notice how Trottier’s examples still have  thematic words like “love” and “money” that  define what the movie is about. And regardless of what you call it, your film will always have a moral and a message. The important thing is that you know what you are trying to convey with your film, so that you can be consistent and effective.

However,  Trottier urges your caution: “This moral is not a sermon and it is not preached. Often, you don’t know that this moral or message is when you start scripting your story. Not to worry – you’ll know before you’re through. Just keep writing. CAUTION: There is a danger in focusing on the movie message. You run the risk of writing a preachy script.”

And on this  point both writers agree. Howard calls it a “thesis” and you don’t wanna bang your audience’s head too much with it. They paid $20 for entertainment, not a sermon.

Theme is NOT the Same as Conflict!

I wanted to make a special mention of this because I have seen many professors and publications make this error. If you ask someone for an example of a theme, they might answer: “Man vs. Nature” or “Man vs. Himself.” In my opinion, these are not themes but types of conflict. Types of conflict are the framework for any plot, but they are different from the theme. Below are the four most famous types of conflict:

  • Man vs. Man (Dirty Harry, The Terminator, Witness)
  • Man vs. Himself. (Finding Forrester, The Truman Show)
  • Man vs. Nature (Dante’s Peak, Noah)
  • Man vs. Society (High Noon, Milk)

Some of these overlap. High Noon, for instance, is both a Man vs. Society and a Man vs. Man kind of plot.

Theme as Unity

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) tells the story of a handicap photographer (James Stewart) who suspects a murder has happened in his apartment complex after noticing abnormal events unfold from his living room window. This is the forefront of the movie; its plot. Nobody gets out of the theater not knowing that.

The theme, however, is subtle. Most people that have watched Rear Window may or may not have grasped what its theme is. Since themes are delicate and subjective, scholars and critics may occasionally debate. But I think that in Rear Window, the prominent theme is relationship. Even more so than romance because romance implies good moments. But relationship also contains the nitty-gritty stuff: arguments, despair, and solitude.

In Rear Window, the apparently disjointed string of events is held together through this theme, which furnishes it with unity.

The romance between Jeff and Lisa (Grace Kelly) is too obvious an example, but even a superficial analysis of some of the neighbors is enough to elaborate the underlying relationship theme:

  • In the beginning of the movie, a newlywed couple moves into an apartment. All joy. Blinds drawn implies a honeymoon in progress. But as the story unfolds, their marriage deteriorates.
  • Miss Torso, a lovely ballet dancer, is often “doing a woman’s hardest job: juggling wolves.” With so many suitors, her options are plenty, though she often dismisses them all.
  • Mrs. Lonelyhearts is an old, single woman who seemingly failed to attract a man into wedlock during her prime years. Clearly disturbed, she hosts dinners for two even though no one joins her. Alone, she addresses an invisible man, product of her imagination, with whom she dines.

Clearly all these side characters and sub-plots were created to develop the theme. Furthermore, the heart of the plot – the murder – also draws a parallel to it, as one of the possible causes for the assassination was the bitter relationship in which the murderer and his victim lived in.

Theme as a Lesson

Besides providing unity and tying the story together, theme can also exist to send a message or teach a lesson to the audience. In the 2009 movie (500) Days of Summer, one of the lessons expressed is: if someone wants love, then they need to take action and chase it.

500-days-of-summer

Like in Rear Window, one of the themes in (500) Days of Summer is relationship.

From the beginning, the movie builds this lesson until it’s clearly stated in the ending: “Love doesn’t just happen.” This concept also illustrates the main character’s arc. At the movie’s beginning, Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the type of guy who waits for love instead of making it happen. At the end, Tom finally takes action and is rewarded.

A Little Trivia

“If you have a message, call Western Union” is a famous sentence sometimes quoted by producers to express their disdain for  themes or messages or lessons in the movies. Some producers simply don’t like to talk about it because it’s too brainy.

The quote is often misattributed to the famous producer Samuel Goldwyn (The Best Years of Our Lives, Guys and Dolls), but there’s no consensus as to who said it first.

I wish I would know how most producers, directors, and writers approach the idea of theme. Is that a priority in their movies? Or do they just allow a theme to emerge as the story progresses?

Do you agree with the themes and lessons above? Or could (500) Days of Summer be about something else? What about Rear Window? As I mentioned, themes are subjective and open for interpretation. I would love to hear your thoughts below.