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

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