Monthly Archives: September 2012

So What’s All This Fuss About Act Structure? Part Three.


It has been said that the three-act structure has been the basis of all successful stories (particularly script) for three-and-a-half thousand years – since Aristotle in fact. One wonders then, if Aristotle’s supposed hypothesis was so important, why the majority of scripts written up to the nineteenth century Aristotlewere in five acts; where does the one act play fit in? Why will you never see in any screenplay the headings “Act 1”, “Act 2,” and “Act 3” despite the industry’s obsession?

Now, if you think that I am about to rebel and tell you that structure is not important, you would be wrong. Structure is all important. However, the act structure (particularly when it comes to screenplays) is quite arbitrary.

Let’s see what our friend Aristotle said about structure:

“Now a whole is that which has beginning, middle, and end. A beginning is that which is not itself necessarily after anything else, and which has naturally something else after it; an end is that which is naturally after something itself, either as its necessary or usual consequent, and with nothing else after it; and a middle, that which is by nature after one thing and has also another after it. A well-constructed Plot, therefore, cannot either begin or end at any point one likes; beginning and end in it must be of the forms just described. Again: to be beautiful, a living creature, and every whole made up of parts, must not only present a certain order in its arrangement of parts, but also be of a certain definite magnitude. Beauty is a matter of size and order, and therefore impossible either (1) in a very minute creature, since our perception becomes indistinct as it approaches instantaneity; or (2) in a creature of vast size—one, say, 1,000 miles long—as in that case, instead of the object being seen all at once, the unity and wholeness of it is lost to the beholder.”

Basically, the structure consist of a beginning, middle, and an end! Genius!. Granted, he does go on to describe some of the necessary elements of those parts, but the three-act-structure as we know it never make an appearance.

I already stated in the first part of this series that the five acts, which Elizabethan plays comprised, were mostly there for practical reasons to do with trimming candles. It is also suggested that Shakespeare may not have written in acts at all but that these were later added by the printers.

Shall we take a look at the arbitrary nature of act structure? I will cite some examples.

An Inspector Calls – J B Preistly:

J B Priestly wrote this popular piece of work with two act-breaks. Act one ends when the Inspector returns to the dining room, thus interrupting Sheila and Gerald’s argument. Act two begins with the Inspector interrupting Sheila and Gerald’s argument. Act two ends when Eric enters immediately following the revelation about his involvement with Eva. Act three begins when Eric enters immediately following the revelation about his involvement with Eva. Arbitrary?

When performing An Inspector Calls, it is obvious that this is really a one act play, albeit over an hour and a half long. The act-breaks are merely there to give the audience a break, although why two breaks in a play of less than two-hours is a puzzle.

Top Girls – Caryl Churchill

This is a play written in three acts. However, each act contains scenes in different locations. In her own notes, Churchill wrote:

Top Girls was originally written in three acts and I still find that structure clearer: Act One, the dinner; Act Two, Angie’s story; Act Three, the year before. But two intervals do hold things up, so in the original production we made it two acts with the interval after what is here Act Two, scene two. Do whichever you prefer.


Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer – directed by John McNaughton

By traditional three-act analysis, the final act of the drama would seem to be almost entirely missing from this film.

Pulp Fiction – Quentin Tarantino

Tarantino famously stated that every film should have a beginning, a middle, and an end but not necessarily in that order. Hence Pulp Fiction.

These are just a few examples. Many films are written with non-linear time frames in order to comply with the three act structure and get all the plot points in the correct place. This is not a criticism, just an observation.

There are many examples in film and, especially, stage where the act structures, as written, bear little relevance to the story structure. There are some films that are so complex in nature that they almost defy any attempt to analyse them in three act form (I believe Casablanca falls into this category).

As I implied in part one of this series, you can analyse almost any script in terms of the three act structure and point to the plot points as you interpret them. However, if Aristotle was so right, why weren’t the medieval or Elizabethan plays written in three acts?

You could even analyse almost any script in terms of the classic five-act structure. You could make them fit any paradigm you like. Hell, just to prove my point, I may even publish an analysis of Star Wars in terms of its eleven-and-a-half acts!

Well, don’t we need structure to write a script? The answer is a resounding YES! But the three act structure is simply not enough.  You can decide on your inciting incident and place it before page ten; you can place your major turning point on page 25; your crisis point can go on page 60; a second major plot point can appear on page 90; then you can race towards the climax and denouement before page 120. But how do you fill the space between them? Are you going to be tearing your hair out because you can’t weave a story into “the difficult second act?” How do you do it without sweating blood? I know but that’s for another blog.

Twitter: @JohnMc_Lpool

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So What’s All This Fuss About Act Structure? Part Two.

An Obsession in Three Acts.

In the last part, I took a look at the origins of act structure and described a typical Shakespearian five-act story, even though Shakespeare probably never wrote in acts. In this episode, we will look at the Holy Grail of screenwriting – the Three Act Structure.

So what is this three act structure about? Quite simply a beginning, middle, and an end! Simples, yeah! More formally:

Act 1 Exposition/introduction – the setup

Act 2 Confrontation, Complications, and obstacles

Act 3 Resolution

Now, Syd Field (the self styled guru on screenwriting) is probably the man responsible for the lie of the three act structure (if anyone knows of an earlier writing on this, please let me know). In his book “Screenplay,” he gives us the new paradigm for screenplay structure, telling us that the middle and longest act is often tedious to write and watch. He also told us that it can be divided into two sections, thus the structure becomes Act 1, Act 2a, Act 2b, Act 3. Well, excuse me, Mr Field, but isn’t that actually a four act structure! It was Syd Field who has made us believe that the second act is the most difficult to write! Well it is if you follow this structure because the second act only has two elements described – the mid-point and the second act turning point or plot point! Robert McKee (Story) did us no favours in furthering our obsession with this structure, either.

three act structure

The Three Act Structure

Now the guru who is Syd Field can be found on IMDB. His screen writing credits include Mnemosyne (story concept only), three episodes of “Men in Crisis” and… erm… that’s it! Heard of them? No, neither have I! However, his text-book credits are numerous and essential reading on most writing courses. The problem is that they all offer us the same gifts presented in different wrappers.

Let’s look at the example of Star Wars. Yes, I know everyone uses it as an example but that’s because (almost) everyone has seen it and with good reason. It’s a perfect specimen of an adventure story in the Greek epic style.

Act 1 Exposition/introduction – the setup

In its opening few scenes, we learn that there is a war going on in outer space and that Princess Leia has escaped with the plans to the death star – Lucas breaks the number one rule of storytelling to do this by telling us in the opening crawl. Princess Leia is captured but manages to send a message out via two droids.

Luke, a young farmer, lives with his aunt and uncle on a desert planet. Luke would like to join Starfleet academy but is prevented from doing so by his uncle (echoes of Parcival anyone?). They buy the droids. One of the droids goes missing to search for Obi-Wan. In his search for the droid, he is attacked by the Sand People but is rescued by Ben Kenobi. Luke finds out about the war and Leia and Obi-Wan.

Luke then discovers that his family have been killed by soldiers looking for the droids. This is Lukes turning point. The point where he has no choice but to  enter the adventure.

Act 2 Confrontation, Complications, and obstacles

Luke and Ben find Hans Solo and try to persuade him to take them to Alderaan. After an altercation with some locals, they all escape in Solo’s ship, The Millennium Falcon.

They try to find Alderaan only to discover that it has been destroyed. They are pulled into the Empire’s space station where Pricess Leia is being held prisoner. They manage to find the Princess and release her. In trying to escape, the group end up in the refuse treatment plant and come close to being killed. They are rescued by the ingenuity of the droids.

Before they can escape, they have to battle with storm troopers and, eventually, the evil Darth Vader. In order to let the others escape, Obi-Wan sacrifices himself in a battle with Darth Vader.

Act 3 Resolution

The rebel forces assemble and train. Hans Solo takes himself off (well it’s not his fight and he has done what he was paid to do). Unknown to them all, Darth Vader has followed them in the death star and will be more than happy to destroy the rebels planet. They must destroy the death star or be destroyed.

A battle takes place in space above the planet. Luke must make it to the vulnerable spot that they have discovered on the death stars plans and destroy the space ship. With seconds to go, it looks as though he will be prevented from this by Vader, who has joined the battle and is in hot pursuit. Hans Solo saves the day as, after a change of heart, he returns to help them.

After hearing Obi-wan’s voice, Luke puts away the computer and uses “the force” to aim his weapons and successfully destroys the death star.

All three are awarded medals in a ceremony and the forces of good have won the day.

There you have it. Star Wars in three acts. However, if you look closely, you will see flaws in the analysis, even in this perfect adventure movie. As I pointed out last time, such analysis is akin to Nostradamus’s predictions – easy to shoehorn the facts into the belief after the event.

In the third part of this series, I will show you what is really wrong with the three act structure and why, although it is a useful starting point, it is an inadequate model for writing scripts. The next part may go some way into explaining why so many excellent writers never even have a script read, let alone produced.

Twitter: @JohnMc_Lpool

Spotlight: 0535-6721-0732

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