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.

 

CHARACTER ARC: Because the Only Constant is Change

Definitely one of the most basic principles in screenwriting is character arc – the notion that characters must evolve, grow, learn, or change as the plot unfolds. The audience in general expects a character to finish the movie in a better position than that in which he started because that is what everyone strives for. Life sometimes allows that, but not always.

The arc doesn’t imply that characters will always be richer, smarter, or get the girl at the end. Perhaps a greedy person would end up in jail for embezzlement or an impulsive lover would end up murdered at the hands of an angry husband. Who knows. Shit happens in life and the movies.

Spoiler Alert: The following paragraphs contain spoilers.

Positive and Negative Arcs

Here’s a positive change or arc: in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) starts out as a student in the FBI who’s assigned a special mission. At the movie’s resolution, Clarice has improved her investigation skills and gun technique, both of which allow her to complete her mission and graduate from the FBI Academy.

An elaborate arc will present growth in many aspects of a character’s life. In The Graduate (1967), Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) starts as an awkward, introverted, 20-year-old young man who lives by his parent’s rules and wishes. As the story unfolds, Benjamin begins making his own choices, often against his parents’. Furthermore, through an early exposition, it is implied that Benjamin is a virgin, which changes after his affair with Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). And by the movie’s end, he also gets the girl he wanted, already wearing a wedding gown.

This is not the norm, but one powerful version of the character arc is when the arc goes “down the hill.” In Gone With the Wind (1939), Scarlet O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) never accepts Rhett’s (Clark Gabble) unrelenting courtship. Rhett, in the other hand, arcs as he realizes Scarlet will never want him, so he leaves her, saying the famous line: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!” In her despair, Scarlet denies her fate and utters: “Tara. Home. I’ll go home, and I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day.”

A character arc can also be dark or somber. In the highly acclaimed Billy Wilder picture Sunset Blvd. (1950), one of the two main characters die, and the other one is arrested.

What Drives Change?

Take a second to think about the question above: what makes people change? Go ahead, I’ll wait. Think of the last time you or a friend or a relative experienced a big change. What was responsible for such change?

Although everyone wants to better themselves and improve their lives, change is not necessarily easy. Usually, people will take small steps towards a major goal, but big changes usually require a catalyst.

What do you think would make a sports-averse 40-year-old man start running daily after decades of a sedentary lifestyle? How about a heart attack? That sure would take most people off their butts and the cheesecake diet if it meant more health.

In storytelling lingo, we would call the heart attack conflict because that’s what it is. Like in life, conflict is really good at making people change and change quickly.

Movies are no different. Sometimes a character wakes up one day and decides to pursue their dreams. But often they need life to club them in the heads and say “You’ve been doing this all wrong. Try this other alternative instead.”

In (500) Days of Summer, Tom was writing greeting cards while his dream really was architecture. The catalyst in this plot was Summer. Tom was too comfortable in his day job to chase anything else until the girl of his dreams encouraged him to do it. And if you saw the movie, you know how hard this was for Tom.

To mention The Silence of the Lambs again: do you think Clarice was excited when, as a young FBI student, she was an invited for a special mission? You bet! But that special mission really involved a lot of  life-threatening moments (AKA conflict).

As Seen at the Movies…

Positive arcs

In Matrix (1999), after learning that he’s the One, Neo uses his recent-acquired skills to vanquish Agent Smith. Neo’s arc is both internal (as he believes in himself and accepts his responsibility) and external (as he develops his fighting skills and uses them to combat the enemy).

In Rocky (1976), small-time boxer Rocky Balboa trains hard and “goes the distance” with heavyweight champion of the world, Apollo Creed.

In 12 Angry Men (1957), Juror #8 convinces his fellow  members or the jury that the case they are debating has room for “reasonable doubt.”

In Shawshank Redemption (1994), Andy Dufresne escapes from the Shawshank Prison and unveils the corrupt warden’s money laundry operation to the authorities.

Negative or “Down-the-hill” arcs

In Shattered Glass (2003), journalist Stephen Glass’s lies are uncovered and he gets fired from the newspaper.

In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Butch and Sundance are cornered by the Bolivian army and ultimately shot down.

It’s important to note that characters (like humans) are complex creatures and their transitions are never clean or black-and-white. Sometimes only one aspect of the character evolves, while others remain the same. With that in mind, don’t always (if ever) write characters who change from wholly evil to wholly good or vice versa because that rarely happens. A subtle transition is sometimes more identifiable for the audience.

Character arc alone will not save a terrible screenplay, but it will make a bad story better. Keep in mind that the audience expects this in all narrative films. There’s no magic formula to it. A fantastic a plot built in a solid structure with enough conflict will bring about the character arc.

What about you? What are some of your favorite arcs in film history?

 

The Three-Act Structure

steve spielberg quote

The 3-act structure is an old principle widely adhered to in storytelling today. It can be found in plays, poetry, novels, comic books, short stories, video games, and the movies. It was present in the novels of Conan Doyle, the plays of Shakespeare, the fables of Aesop, the poetry of Aristotle, and the films of Hitchcock. It’s older than Greek dramaturgy. Hollywood and Broadway use it well. It’s irrefutable and bullet-proof, so to speak.

Though quite simple, the 3-act structure has proven to be a valuable weapon in the arsenal of any screenwriter. Yes, there are alternatives to telling a story. But the 3-act structure is a highly accepted and greatly successful method.

In a nutshell, the 3 acts are labeled as:

Act I: Setup

Act II: Confrontation

Act III: Resolution

Some people like to call them beginning, middle, and end, which is not inaccurate. The point of the acts is to make sure that the story evolves and the stakes get higher.

3 act structure

All acts have their own sets of guidelines and rules that make the foundation of story development. The next sections will go over the differences of one act and the other, plus the obvious and the obscure dos and don’ts of the craft.

Spoiler Alert: The following sections contain story spoilers, used here to illustrate the concept at hand.

Act I: The Setup

The first act is where all the major characters of the story are introduced, plus the world where they live in, and the conflict that will move the story forward. In Act I, the writer has the freedom to create any setting and reality that he so wishes. It’s in the first pages of the script that he defines the reasoning and logic of the story. This early in the script, anything is possible.

The story may happen in the distant future or long time ago in a galaxy far far away. It may take place in downtown New York or in an African jungle. The first act also establishes genre. It may be a drama about a widow that struggles to re-encounter love, or a suspense about a young trainee summoned out of the FBI academy in a special assignment to interview a dangerous psychopath.

The writer may even distort reality or create his own. Toy Story (1995) opens with a young boy, Andy, playing with his toys. As soon as Andy exits the bedroom, leaving the place unsupervised, his toys promptly gain life. Yet we don’t frown or disapprove of it. At the movie’s very beginning, the audience has their mind open for practically anything. As the movie progresses, the viewer unconsciously forms a frame for the story, and their suspension of disbelief narrows, limiting what they will accept as plausible and congruent.

Ideally, your main character can never be lucky further down in the script. But while the story is introduced, this gimmick is acceptable if done right. In Three Days of the Condor (1975), CIA employee Joseph Turner (Robert Redford) survives a massacre that kills all of his colleagues while he steps out of the office to get lunch. In Dances With Wolves (1991), Lieutenant John J. Dunbar (Kevin Costner), learning that he must have his injured leg amputated, decides to commit suicide. He steals a cavalry horse and runs it into the infantry of the Confederate army. In doing so, he incites his fellow Union soldiers to rally, which leads to an unexpected victory. His plan to die fails, but he becomes a hero.

Act I must also present a strong hook – an exciting scene early in the script that grabs the audience’s interest and hooks them. Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) starts with an action-packed, attention-grabbing sequence that introduces Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) performing acrobatic stunts while penetrating a cave and lost temples to find a valuable artifact.

Part of that hook is the inciting incident that takes place somewhere in the beginning of Act I. This inciting incident often provokes a change in the protagonist’s routine – something new they experience that could either challenge or encourage them. In The Silence of the Lambs (1991), FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) meets with Dr. Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). The confrontation of both parties is nerve-wracking.

Act I ends with the first plot point of the movie. In Thelma & Louise (1991), Plot Point I happens when Louise shoots dead a man who was on the verge of raping Thelma. This action completely changes the course of the story . Thelma and Louise were up until now just trying to have some off-time away from their tedious lives. But when Thelma kills that guy, they become criminals. Quickly, the police are brought into the picture.

Act II: Confrontation

The second act is by far the longest, encompassing half of the movie and taking place between the first and third acts. For some screenwriters, Act II is the hardest one to squeeze out. This happens because after the initial boost of a new story, the writer is left without plot elements to introduce. The story, its characters and conflict are all established. At this point, the writer has created a solid frame for his narrative. Yet he’s still roughly sixty pages away from the ending.

With so many blank pages remaining, the writer faces the challenge of keeping the story moving forward and not boring the audience. One device to accomplish this feat is the creation of subplot. The subplot is a minor story layered under the main narrative. It often adds a three-dimensionality aspect to the characters by allowing them to engage in a behavior that is not necessarily connected to the main plot, but still relevant in the overall narrative and often linked to a central theme.

In Peter Weir’s Witness (1985), the main storyline follows Philadelphia policeman John Book (Harrison Ford), as he investigates the assassination of a fellow police officer. His only witness is an Amish boy (Lukas Haas), who saw the murder happen at a train station restroom in the big city. When Officer Book discovers that someone from his own precinct ordered the killing, his life is in danger, and, after being shot, he runs away to the Amish countryside of Lancaster. During the second act of Witness, John Book and Amish widow Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis) engage in a brief courtship that fails to evolve into an affair. Also during Act II, Book befriends many members of the Amish community – an event that foreshadows the resolution in Act III, when the community comes to Book’s rescue .

As epitomized in Witness, the second act may be a moment in which the hero leaves his comfort zone, which fuels the writer with another set of possibilities. In The Lion King (1994), after Mufasa dies, Simba runs away. Timon and Pumbaa save him from the desert, and Simba has to live in the Jungle, eating bugs and beetles! During Act II in Toy Story, while Andy’s mom’s fills up her vehicle, Woody leaps out of the car in order to rescue Buzz. But before Woody can convince Buzz to climb back in the car, Andy and his mom take off, leaving Buzz and Woody stranded in the gas station. Before the movie’s resolution, the two toys find themselves into an even worse setting – Sid’s creepy bedroom.

In the second act, the stakes escalate. If the hero is “on the fence” or confused about what he should do, then something must happen by the midpoint of the script to make his goal clear. In Thelma & Louise, the two protagonists realize that, with the police on their tail, they cannot return home and live a normal life. They have to keep driving towards Mexico.

A pivotal element of this escalation inherent to Act II is Plot Point II, which catapults the story into the third and final act. Much like Plot Point I, Plot Point II also affects the main character by changing the direction he’s headed. The difference is that the stakes are much higher. This is often a moment of crisis, in which all hope seems lost.

       

Act III: Resolution

The last act, Act III presents the final confrontation of the movie, followed by the denouement. This act is usually the shortest in length because quickly after the second turning point of the script, the main character is face to face with the villain or just about. Showdown ensues and then conclusion.

In The Silence of the Lambs, the third act kicks off when Agent Starling enters the house of Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), the criminal who she’s been trying to find. This moment is tension-packed because little does Starling know the identity of the man that’s welcoming her. When Starling finally finds out, she’s inside the serial killer’s domain and unable to call for back-up.

As illustrated by The Silence of the Lambs, Act III contains a moment often labeled as mandatory – the confrontation between hero and villain, the clash between good and evil, a duel. In the moment that Clarice Starling walks into Buffalo Bill’s house, the writer fulfills a promise made by him in the first act, when he set up those two opposing forces.

The spectators are smart, so don’t underestimate them. Whenever the writer establishes a prince, a princess, and a dragon, the audience will urge for a confrontation in which the prince slays the dragon to rescue the princess (like in Sleeping Beauty). You can always tweak the formula (like in Enchanted), but if the dragon is not dead by the end of the film, your audience will walk out dissatisfied, even if they can’t pinpoint the reason.

The third act is also when the writer ties up any loose ends and offers a resolution to the subplots. In Witness, the third act takes off when the corrupt cops find John Book hidden in the Amish community. The mandatory confrontation between the opposing forces takes place, and then Book and Rachel meet. Both have to make a choice. Either Book stays to be with Rachel or Rachel leaves to be with Book.

In the final moments of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, the audience learns what “rosebud” means – a questions asked in the first act.

The resolution can also give extra information for a more elaborate character arc. In Titanic (1997), after revealing what happened to the Heart of the Ocean, we cut to Old Rose’ bedroom. The movement of the camera shows her nightstand with photos of adventures she did when young – promises kept to Jack.

Although I consider the three acts to be an essential element to many films, there are many professionals out there who disagree. I share some of my reservations about the three-act structure on this post:
In it I mention a few pitfalls that writers make and how to avoid them, so if you are serious about being a screenwriter, I highly recommend you give it a read.

 

Screenwriting Basics

Humans have an almost unreasonable and insatiable craving for stories. They surround us night and day, every day of the week. The stories. At home, work, school, parties, malls, diners… People are always narrating and listening to anecdotes and chronicles. It may be something as notorious as the Madoff scandal or as trivial as a mean cab driver who refused to give the right change. Regardless of their nature, relevance, or truthfulness, stories have permeated society. And we love them. Movies tell stories, so we love them as well.

In filmmaking, the story is first developed in the screenplay. Every movie, short or feature, starts with a script – the blueprint for the construction of the motion picture. The screenplay furnishes the framework for every movie production; it is the basis for the decisions made from the early stages of pre-production to the final phase of post-production.

The Process

Writing a screenplay is no easy task, especially features. Those blank sheets of paper are intimidating. Characters, locations, plot, genres… The variables are one too many.

Attempting to follow a current trend is usually a big mistake and a waste of time. Today’s gold is tomorrow’s trash. Plus, after you take the time to write and sell it, the producers will take from several months to a few years to actually finish the movie. By then, there will be another demand in town.

If you have an original story that is remarkably executed, buyers will come sooner or later. Rule #1 is to be true to yourself. Don’t write a screenplay because you think it will sell, and you need money. Write it because you love the story and characters. Write it because you want to entertain or instruct or move an audience.

The Rules

Screenwriting has no hard and fast rules, not even the one mentioned above, so ignore it if you want. Writing for the screen is a subjective craft in which anything might work, but probably nothing will. William Goldman said: “Nobody knows anything.” That is the greatest truth in the business.

However, in the absence of rules, we’re left with the norm – a set of guidelines that has proved valuable and efficient throughout the years of filmmaking. The main concepts to fathom are: the 3-act structure and character arc. Those two are standard in the industry, followed practically by every movie, both commercial and independent. Another nugget of knowledge is high-concept, though those are much rarer to find.

***

Go to Screenwriting Index

Go to Home Page