Category Archives: Writing

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Who’s the Hero?

Our hero

I have recently started writing a series for publication that analyses well known films in terms of structure and monomyth (Joseph Campbell). As always with these projects, I surfed around the web to see what else has been written – partly for inspiration but mostly because there is no point in re-inventing the wheel.

What has struck me most in this research is that writers, even professionals, have difficulty in identifying the Hero or protagonist. Many people identify the central character as the hero and these two are not necessarily the same. Similarly, there is also often confusion between inciting incident and call to action; while these two are often the same points, in a significant number of films, they are not. These two confusions are often linked.

The first time I realised this was when researching “V for Vendetta” the fabulous adaptation of an Alan Moore graphic novel. Ninety percent of writers on the film identify V as the hero, while he is anything but. I’ll explain.

In order to identify the hero, we must refer to both Syd Fields’ Three-Act-Structure and Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Having looked at these, a number of questions arise, some are listed here:

  • What is the Inciting Incident and who does it affect most?
  • Who receives the call to adventure?
  • Who is initially reluctant to become involved.
  • What is the act one plot point that drags the hero into the story?
  • Who crosses into the world of adventure?
  • What is the midpoint crisis and who does it affect?
  • Who takes the final action at the climax of the film?

Note that the inciting incident and call to adventure, while they may be the same incident, are very often separate. The most notable to me is Star Wars, which causes vast debates on the internet. The inciting incident is Leia’s capture, despite the contradictory commentaries; without this event, there would be no story, the droids would never find Luke and the adventure would not begin. However, Luke’s purchase of the droids and his discovery of the message from Leia is the Call to Adventure.

Asking the above questions in reference to V For Vendetta reveals that Evey is clearly the hero of the film. V is sometimes a mentor, sometimes a tormentor, always a shape shifter and shadow figure but not the hero. The Fingermen’s intended Rape of Evey and her rescue is the inciting incident. At the end of act one, she pepper sprays Dominic and is knocked unconscious – this drags her into the adventure. the mid point crisis centres on Evey’s imprisonment. It is Evey who commits the final act that ends the story.

Similarly with The Usual Suspects. Ask those questions and you will see that, despite what ninety-five percent of the commentators tell you, Verbal is not the protagonist. You can work the rest out for yourselves.

Watch out for my in depth analyses of these two films to be published shortly.

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In the Beginning There Was… a Sentence or Two

ClapperOkay, you’ve got your wonderful story idea. This is going to knock the socks off Hollywood. It will make Dennis Potter turn his grave with the shame of never having thought of anything so great; Jimmy McGovern and Paul Abbott are going to fight for you on your doorstep; the BBC will want you to make it into an epic radio series.

Back on planet earth, where do you start?

Snyder (2005) suggests that the very first thing you should write is a log-line. But what is it?

A log line is a one or two sentence description of your script. Although it is used primarily in the film industry, it is a really useful tool when writing any script. Why? Because is sets the tone, tells us what the theme is and what the script is about – well, that’s the theory.

Blake Snyder defines the log line as “a one or two sentence description of your movie that tells us what it is”, while Linda Seger (Seger, 2010) describes it as a “…distillation of a story,” and Christopher Lockhart (Lockhart, 2012) tells us that “A logline conveys the dramatic story of a screenplay in the most abbreviated manner possible.”

Wherever “screenplay” appears in the description, replace it with “script” because the principle is equally valid whether you are writing for stage, screen or radio. In fact, novelists and short-story writers will also find it useful.

Now we’ve got some academic definitions and descriptions, you will want to know how go about writing your log line.

Before you do, let’s have a look at some examples. A great source of log lines is the Internet Movie Database (IMDB). For those who don’t know what this is, go and have a look now at However, do take care as these are often written by fans rather than the writers so are not always examples of good log lines. Taking some random examples of varying quality:

  • When the star-crossed lovers of two enemy families meet, forbidden love ensues.
  • Meet Elle Woods. She’s a lawyer with a heart of gold…and a mane to match!
  • Man Has Made His Match… Now It’s His Problem
  • Over 3000 Islands of Paradise. For Some it’s A Blessing; for Others… it’s A Curse.
  • Some memories are best forgotten
  • The future depends on a past he was paid to forget.
  • The shadow of this woman darkened their love.
  • Check in. Unpack. Relax. Take a shower.
  • Strangers shouldn’t talk to little girls.
  • A ringing phone has to be answered.

Can you identify the films from the log lines? Some of the above will be obvious, some less so. If you are stuck, google them. The Christopher Lockhart pdf gives us three-hundred of them to think about.

Various writers analyse the content of log lines in their own way.

“…who the protagonist is, what challenge or conflict or situation the protagonist will confront, and when the story takes place if it isn’t in the present.” (Seger)

“… a type of hero (that means the type of person plus an adjective that describes him), the antagonist (ditto), and the hero’s primal goal. It must have irony and it must bloom in our brains with potential.” (Snyder)

“…who the story is about (protagonist) what he strives for (goal) what stands in his way (antagonistic force).” (Lockhart)

Leaving some of the dubious grammar and punctuation aside, these descriptions should give a rough idea about what is expected.

Back to your story. Before writing your script (short story or novel), you will have a fair idea of what it’s about. You will have an idea of the message you want to get across (the theme). You will know your hero or protagonist. You will know your antagonist, which doesn’t have to be human – as in 2001, a Space Odyssey (a super computer), Cast Away (the environment), The King’s Speech (a personal affliction). You will know what conflicts or challenges your character faces.

Let’s take an example from Lockhart’s epic list – The Bourne Identity.

Jason Bourne is a highly trained assassin but he has lost his memory. This is the “who” of the story. He is the protagonist and we know he’s an assassin (type of hero).

The government want him dead. The government is the antagonist.

Jason struggles to find out who he is and avoid the assassins who are sent to eliminate him. These are the conflicts and challenges.

The themes within the film are about finding your own identity (something many of us struggle with on a metaphysical level) and those who should be your allies being out to get you. These are my opinions; you may have your own.

Putting all these together in a concise manner may result in the log line from Lockhart’s list –

“A man with amnesia discovers he is a governmental assassin who has been targeted for death by the organization that employs him.”

We can break this up into its constituent parts:

“A man (the protagonist) with amnesia (being used as an adjective) discovers he is a governmental assassin (type of hero) who has been targeted for death (conflict or situation) by the organization that employs him (antagonist).”

It also has the irony that Blake Snyder wants – his employers are trying to kill him.

You may not consider this to be the ideal log line but it serves to illustrate the process. What is missing from Lockhart’s log line is the protagonists overriding objective/s or what Snyder refers to as “primal goal.” I would add something like

“He must keep himself alive long enough to uncover his own identity.”

You may wish to look up the log lines offered on IMDB. You may wish to try writing your own. You may like to revisit the examples given above and decide which are good.

Why do you need a log line?

Imagine yourself on the ground floor of a hotel, awaiting the lift (elevator to… well, most of the rest of the world). The doors open and you enter. Just as the doors start to close you hear “hold the elevator!” You press the button to keep the doors open and in dives the producer or director of your favourite film.

You have this story in your head and you blurt out “I love your films. In fact, I’m working on a script myself.”

“Oh yeah! What’s it about?” she says.

You have, until she gets out at her floor to tell her. A killer log line should give her enough information to know whether or not she would be interested in reading your script. A garbled half-description of the story won’t.

You’ve grabbed her attention and she wants to see a treatment and the first ten pages this time next week. At least you know your protagonist; you know their challenges and conflicts; you know the theme; now you can focus on writing your treatment.

Over to you.


Lockhart, Christopher (2012)

Snyder, Blake (2005), Save the Cat. Michael Wise Productions, California.

Seger, Linda (2010), Making a Good Script Great. Silman-James Press, California.

Other Useful Web-pages






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Five More Mistakes that Make You Look Like an Amateur

My last blog took a look at five mistakes that make writers look like amateurs. Today, I’m giving you five more, as if you hadn’t guessed.

Trying to Write a Shooting Script

                                     DISSOLVE TO:


EXTREME WIDE SHOT – Erica stands on the beach staring at something on the sand

MEDIUM WIDE SHOT – Erica stands over the dead body of her lover.

DOLLY IN – on Erica. Her face quivering.

EXTREME CLOSE UP – Erica’s eye. She is crying.

Okay, big problem about writing camera shots and transitions (like “Dissolve to…”) – that’s a directors job! If a writer tries to tell a director how do to his job, how do you think the director is going to feel? Yes! Pretty irritated.

Now, you have seen these in practically every screenplay you have ever read; right? This is because most of the screenplays you can get your hands on are shooting scripts; or transcriptions written by people who think they know how to transcribe a screenplay.

Avoid calling camera shots and angles at all costs. You will look like an amateur and, chances are, you probably don’t know what you’re talking about anyway. Do you know the difference between a tracking shot and a dolly shot?

You can cheat this by describing exactly what we see. The above example (clumsy as it is) can be written so that the director knows exactly what you have in mind without telling him his job.


The rolling surf breaks on the sand. A small figure in the distance stands looking at something on the sand. It is Erica standing over the body of her lover.

Erica’s face quivers as she tries, but fails, to hold back the tear that now rolls down her cheek.

See. The director knows what you were seeing as you wrote it. She may reinterpret it but at least you didn’t try to dictate.

The rule here is, as always, write only what an audience will see.

Characters Tell Each Other Stuff They Already Know

“How long have we known each other?“ “Oh! Let me see, about ten years.” Fetch me a bucket, please. If they are best friends, they know exactly how long they have known each other. Even more so if they are married.  Do not tell the audience stuff the characters already know using dialogue. Find another way.

Even worse is “How long have we been married?” Yet I see this time and time again.

There is always at least one moment in an episode of CSI where one of the forensic team will explain the science to another investigator – who’s been doing the job for years. So, you say, they do so why can’t I. Well, there are two reasons. One – you haven’t been commissioned to write an episode of CSI and two – that is their style and they have even parodied themselves for it in some episodes.

For those who have heard the expression before but may not know what it means, this is “on the nose” dialogue. Lines of script intended solely to inform the audience; exposition. Another big DON’T.

There is a wonderful radio script, written by Timothy West, called “This Gun in My Right Hand is Loaded,” which is a parody on this amateur style of writing. If you can find a copy, it is well worth a read.

Panic About Having Your Script Stolen

Have you seen this on a script

© David R Smythe (Liverpool UK) March 2013

WG Registration 987654 (or WGA/WGAe/WGAw)

All Rights Reserved.

Protected under copyright legislation


Yes, I have seen details like this on the title page. It immediately screams “amateur paranoiac” (not even a professional paranoiac).  If you put © David R Smythe 2013 on every page then you should admit yourself to the nearest mental hospital straight away as such a level of paranoia is probably dangerous.

I have also had people email me and say something like “I have this fantastic idea for a script but I’m not sure I should discuss it with anyone in case someone steals it.” Yes, another paranoiac.

I wanted to audition for a part in a friend’s film a few months ago and, as a professional actor, I asked if they could send me the complete script; I wanted to know if it was worthy of me being involved (that’s not as arrogant as you may think). It took a while because the writer said that another writer had advised them not to show it to anyone until it had been registered. Because the UK Writers Guild doesn’t have a script registration service, they sent it to the Writers Guild of America. Two paranoiacs.  Neither of them realised that registration with WGA does not give them any greater protection in the UK.

So, let me put you straight on a few things.

Firstly, there is nothing new under the sun.

Depending on who you listen to (or read), there are anywhere from two basic genres (Aristotle – Comedy and Tragedy) to thirty-six dramatic situations (Georges Polti). So, your idea is definitely not original. West Side Story is based on Romeo and Juliet; Forbidden Planet is based on The Tempest; Star Wars is based on Homer.

Ideas do not sell scripts; only scripts sell scripts. You may have the greatest idea ever dreamed up by any writer in the history of story telling but if you can’t produce a well-crafted script you’ve got no chance.

Another word about ideas – if you only have one idea, then you are not a writer.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of scripts are submitted to production companies, agents, theatres, etc. That amounts to millions and millions of scripts since Shakespeare’s time. What are the chances that some are similar to others?  The literary manager of a major theatre in Merseyside told me once that more scripts get rejected because they are similar to something that has been produced or is in development than because they are badly written. So no amount of © symbols on your script is going to prevent someone from writing something similar.

In all those years and with those millions of scripts, there are but a handful of recorded cases where a script has been stolen.

As a professional writer, I have two major issues about me stealing scripts (apart from the morality of it). Firstly, no-one would write as I do so, by the time I’d finished rewriting, the script would be totally unrecognisable. Secondly, I wouldn’t last long in the business if I were caught plagiarsing.

In the UK, an artistic work is automatically copyrighted as soon as it committed to any form of storage media – paper, canvas, electronic data, etc. There is no need for registration or mailing it to yourself. You can do these things if it makes you feel comfortable but, really, it isn’t necessary. Nor is placing copyright information on your script. It really does make you look like an amateur.

In the US – go ahead and register it, you will only waste $25 or so. But DON’T put copyright information anywhere on your script.

Disclaimer: David R Smythe is a fictional character and is not intended to depict any person, living or deceased. Apologies if you are unfortunate enough to have been born David R Smythe.

Mind Reading Characters

“John looks across at Melisa, remembering times gone by”

“Longing for his touch, Linda picks up the phone, wonders what his response will be and phones James.”

“They light their cigarettes, each wondering if this will be their last.”

The above examples are nice descriptions but how do we, as audience, know all this. This is all very well in novels, but not in a script. We need to know what we can see. There is no way of telling what is in a character’s mind so don’t tell us.

I call this mind-reading. It’s a bit like telling your husband that he’s embarrassing himself. You can’t possibly know that he feels embarrassed.

Instead of: “Diane looks at the photograph and feels sad,” write “Diane’s eyes linger on the photograph, a tear rolling down one cheek”

There are exceptions, as with all writing rules, when nothing else can explain how the actor needs to portray the moment. These are few and far between so best avoid them.

 Telling rather than Showing

This one is a sort of extension to mind reading, which, in itself, is a way of telling the reader rather than showing the reader.

Don’t give us


Dave and Jimmy stand in the middle of the castle. It has been left in ruins for more than five centuries. It is a freezing cold morning

Why? Because the reader will have an instant picture in her mind of a castle. This maybe a fairytale castle or it may be Colditz. The image is then shattered by the description that it is the ruins of a castle. Also, if we don’t need to know that it was destroyed five-hundred years ago, don’t tell us. If we do need to know, then reveal it in dialogue.


Dave and Jimmy stand in the middle, shivering.

Another expression that tells us the writer is an amateur is “We see.”

Eg: We see a car approaching from the distance. We hear the exhaust long before we can see the car.

Again, this is telling us that we see, or we hear something. Don’t tell us; put the images in our minds and the sound in our ears.

“Noisy exhaust in the distance. Paul turns to see a car approaching from afar.” This rewrite also puts the senses in the correct order – sound first followed by visuals.

So, there you have it. Another five writing mistakes you need to avoid if you want to look like a professional. If, dear readers, you can think of any more, then “A Further Five Mistakes That Make You Look Like an Amateur” is waiting to be written.

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Five Writing Mistakes that Make You Look Like an Amateur

Ooops-Mistake-288x300We all have our favourite peeves when it comes to writing errors. Well, here are five of mine that scream amateur whenever I see them

Using Words That Make You Seem Educated

We’ve all seen it on TV. The comedy character that uses words in completely the wrong context. Well, I’ve got news for you; those people appear in real life as well; those real-life characters are often professionals; more often, those people are writers.

The example that gets up my nose more than anything else is the use of “comprise” and any of its derivatives.

Let me ask you a question. What does “comprise” mean? If I bet every one of you a week’s wages that you can’t give me a suitable synonym and you all accepted the wager, I’d be very rich. At least ninety percent of you would not be able to tell me the correct definition.

Hand up anyone that would define it as “consist” or “compose.”


Congratulations. You are among the ninety percent who would be wrong.

The word “comprise” is defined as “include” or “contain.” So you can see that, used in a sentence, “comprise” or any of its derivatives will never be followed by “of” because it will not make sense.

Sadly, even journalists betray their lack of education by composing sentences like – “the article was comprised of a number of definitions for the key phrases.” A sentence that is wrong on more than one level, but specifically because of the use of “of” after the supposedly educated word. The correct use for the word would be –

“The article comprised a number of definitions for the key phrases.”

There are many further examples of “educated” words that are often used incorrectly. The key lesson here is –

Always ensure that you are certain of the correct usage for any unfamiliar words.


It’s no accident that the reading age level of our most popular newspapers is about eight. It is not that The Sun is marketed at eight year olds.  It is pitched at that level to make it readable to the maximum audience.

Pick up a literary prize winning book and try to read it. You will (often) find it a much higher reading level that, say, a Mills and Boon or a popular crime novel. That is because they are aimed at a different readership. You certainly don’t need to be a Mensa member to read Fifty Shades of Grey.

Those of you who have read the whole Harry potter series will understand the importance of this principle. The Philosopher’s Stone was intended for a readership of between ten and eleven, while The Deathly Hallows was almost an adult novel.

So, decide on the reading age of your target audience and then knock a few years off. To appeal to a mass market, you need to set the level at about 12.  It’s quite easy to gauge these days since Microsoft Word and, I’m sure, other popular word processors, has a “Readability Statistics” function.


Back to our comedy characters again.

The office manager asked his staff to keep him appraised of the situation.

Well, he may have done so but he was demonstrating that he is not as educated as he was trying to let everyone think.  You see “appraise” means to evaluate, review or judge not inform. What he should have asked was for his staff to keep him apprised of the situation.

The most irritating incorrect word for me is the use of “less” when the writer really means “fewer.” We’ve all seen the signs at the checkouts that say “10 items or less.” Enough to make me want to throw up. Will they ever learn that “less” applies to an analogue quantity (something that can’t be counted) while “fewer” is the word to apply to digital quantities (those that can be counted).

There are plenty such pairs of, supposedly, confusing words. Since there are many websites that list examples, I won’t repeat any more here. Just Google “most confused words in the English language” and you’ll find plenty.


When you perform a grammar check on your word document, you may receive a warning that the highlighted phrase is in passive voice and that you should consider rephrasing. I suspect that many of you will not know what this means. Let me explain.

In English, the normal syntax for a simple sentence is subject-verb-object, as in

  • The cat sat on the mat
  • John entered the room

We are told who did what to what. Simple and understandable. This is active voice since the object is doing something.

In scientific writing, however, it is has become common practice to structure the sentence to use a passive voice, which means swapping the subject and object. So the above sentences become:

  • The mat was sat on by the cat
  • The room was entered by John

Therefore, the mat and the room have become the subjects but don’t actually do anything; rather, something is done to them.

For some reason that completely escapes me, this has now become common in the field of journalism. There seems to be an obsession with turning every report into a series of passive sentences to the extent that they become clumsy and almost nonsensical.

I’m not saying that passive voice is never desirable. A full discussion of this is beyond the scope of this rant. Do, however, minimise the passive voice content of your writing.


I have been a member of a number of writing groups over the years. As an actor as well as a writer, I get asked to cold read quite a bit. Few things irritate me more, in these situations, than a badly formatted script. It is hard to read and reflects badly on my skills as an actor.

If you are going to submit any form of written work, find out what the industry expects. There is no excuse for ignorance in this matter and ignorance will just mean that you have wasted your only opportunity to get noticed.

For example, manuscripts for novels should be double-spaced typed in black, 12 point Courier with a first line paragraph indent of five characters. All margins set at 1” (although I still remember when 2” left margin was the norm) and left justified. Every page should be numbered. However, some publishers may have different requirements – always check.

There is a reason for this specification – it makes the manuscript easy to read and allows space for comments to be written in by the reader. If you submit a manuscript that is single spaced, typed in an 8 point fancy font it will scream amateur. Guess where it will end up? It will go straight in the bin.

So, there you have it. Five writing mistakes that will definitely make you look like a rank amateur. Even if you are, you don’t really want people to know, do you?

Oh, if I’ve made any mistakes, please tell me.

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Irritating Incorrect Usage

There are a few things that annoy me about some writers and, in particular,  many journalists.  These are same things that annoy me about the anonymous writers of marketing materials and signs. These same things annoy me even more when they come from the pen/keyboards of those who are trying to educate us.

But, one of those things that annoy me most is the incorrect use of words. Even more does it annoy me when the culprit resorts to using a word that they think will make them seem educated when it actually demonstrates the opposite.

The Which/That Argument

Take, for example, the use of the word “which” to introduce a restrictive clause.

For those who don’t know, a “restrictive clause is one that qualifies the subject of the previous clause and is absolutely essential to convert the correct information.  Let us use an example:

In a piece of writing, you want to describe a walk down a particular road. Of of all the roads available, you walked down the road with fresh tarmac. So the main clause might be

I walked down the road.

The sub clause might be:

had fresh tarmac.

This sub clause is essential to the description, otherwise the reader might think you walked down one of the other roads. The correct linking word would be “that” because it is a restrictive clause. The whole sentence becomes:

I walked down the road that had fresh tarmac.

We are in no doubt about which road you walked down.

However,  if there was only one possible road so that we can be in no doubt, then it is a non-restrictive clause. This means that the subordinate clause adds further information and is not essential to the context of the story. In which case, the correct word is “which” so the sentence becomes:

 I walked down the road, which had fresh tarmac.

See? The sub-clause can be removed and the story still makes sense.

So the general rule is, if the sub clause can be removed without detracting from the details, then we use “which” and it is always preceded by a comma.  If it is absolutely essential and cannot be removed then the word is “that” and there is no comma.

Unfortunately many people who should  know better use the wrong word, generally thinking that “which” sounds more educated. It doesn’t. The words do not mean the same thing and are not interchangeable.


I have always loved this word. I don’t know why but I do. So do many other people. The difference between me and most of the other people that love the word is that I know how to use it, most do not. (notice I used that rather than which)

Now, I can easily forgive the layman for the incorrect use of this word. However, journalists and (especially) estate agents who bastardise this wonderful word should be taken out and shot. And when it used incorrectly on the web-pages of a university English department then someone should be hung-drawn-and-quartered!

Let me explain:  Comprise means consist-of, contain, made-up-of, consist-of. So the correct usage would be, for example:

the ground floor comprises two reception rooms and a kitchen-diner.

See. It should never be “comprises of.” Even just writing it as an example makes me feel like vomiting.

I spend a lot of time looking at estate agents websites. Almost without exception they will use “comprises of” in their descriptions.

I have seen the incorrect use of this word in magazine articles, newspapers, and marketing material. I have heard news readers use it and MPs. I have even seen this bastardisation on the websites of university English departments – yes, more than one but I won’t say which.

This is the perfect example of a word people use because they think it sounds educated but they have no idea what it actually means.

Less Than and Fewer Than

How many times have you seen a sign over a supermarket checkout that says:

        10 items or less?

(notice I used “that” and not “which”)

I have only ever seen one supermarket get this right and yet it is an official sign that is part of their overall marketing strategies.

You may be forgiven for asking what is wrong with it, unless you are a sign-writer or journalist, in which case you should be shot immediately. The correct form should is:

10 items or fewer.

Why? Quite simply because “item” is a digital term and “less” is an analogue term. An explanation?

Analogue quantities are infinitely variable like time, weight, distance. Digital quantities can be counted by number such as balls, cups, books, items.

So, I may be able to work fewer hours but I will have less time to complete the tasks.

So, you now have my permission to take a permanent marker to the supermarket and cross out the word “less” on these signs, replacing it with “fewer.” Tell them a grammar-nazi told you that you could.

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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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