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 were 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.