Screenwriting: the 3-act structure, and how to break it
|FEATURES - MOVIES|
It's good to break the rules - if you can understand what they are...
The aim of a screenwriter is to micro-manage: to take a set of characters, an environment, and a particular time-frame and to construct a plot that encompasses the human senses of sight and sound, without limit to what, whom and when we can write about.
If we are going to turn a successful film into an equation – and I do this slightly tongue-in-cheek, remembering the beginning ofDead Poets Society – then it might be as follows:
Conflict + Tension = Emotion.
However, emotion on its own is not enough, if it is imbalanced. Rather it is the gradual and sudden changes of that emotion that keep us hooked from beginning to end. Note the key emotional shifts in Dead Poets Society: Todd Anderson being forced to recite his poetry in front of the class, Neil’s success in the play and subsequent demise, and, of course, the treatment of Professor Keating.
We might then say in fact that:
Conflict + Tension + Structural Balance = Structured Emotion...which brings about a successful screenplay.
Take Oscar-winning film Annie Hall, which is sandwiched between Rocky and The Deer Hunter on the Academy honour roll, and we see that beneath the memorable characters, memorable dialogue and memorable scenes, that there is an invisible hand at work, guiding us through the cinematic journey.
Actually, Annie Hall goes one further by having a memorable structure as well; but this is a rarity, and works precisely because it is a story about remembering an event. Notice how from the very first minute Alvy Singer tells us how the memories of his relationship with Annie Hall flash through his mind. This gives us structure, but also a licence to adapt this structure without confusing the audience.
On the other hand, films such as Crash take a multi-strand approach and interweave numerous stories that focus around a single theme – in this case racial discrimination and more specifically how ‘all of us are a little bit racist’ (to quote from Avenue Q) even if we are essentially good people. Again, notice how in Crash the structure is clarified up front, when we are told that people in LA ‘crash’ into each other to elicit emotions. Immediately we can see that this story is going to show numerous characters in conflict with each other.
Another important technique that is not-linear, like Annie Hall, in its approach is the flashback. This can work in two ways: consider The Usual Suspects where Kevin Spacey’s character, Verbal Kint, is hauled in front of the police, despite his immunity, and is forced to reveal recent events. This technique is typically used for a thriller because it gives a sense of mystery as to how the story in the past relates to the present situation. Clues given by Kint in his interrogation add a sense of intrigue, particularly given the initial flashback at the start of the film. The alternative is to show a key plot point in the present, for instance a suicide or a murder, and then flashback to the past until the beginning of Act 3, when we reach the suicide or murder and then maintain the intrigue by making us wonder how will this situation resolve itself.
Other films to consider when attempting a less conventional structural approach are Groundhog Day and Memento. The latter concerns temporary memory-loss and is unusual in that the story is told backwards. However, whilst this was an original concept – which is very important for the sale of a script – the film struggled, since it was difficult to get engrossed in the story: firstly because we know what happens, which lowers the intrigue, and secondly because every time we get into the story, the protagonist loses his memory and we have to start all over again, which adds too much exposition. Despite this, it's noteworthy that in all of these cases the structure of a film or script is dependent on the concept and not the other way around.
In general, however, scripts follow a standard route from the beginning of the protagonist’s journey, through the hurdles they face to achieve their goal, to their final destination as successors or failures - the typical 'three-act' structure as identified by Aristotle in The Poetics.
However, despite the generality of this approach, there are fundamental differences to be aware of, which often occur due to the genre of the story. One can demonstrate this by journeying through two separate plots which follow the same protagonist but zoom in on different time-frames of his life.
These are the two stories of X:
1) The life of X as a tycoon in the stationery business.
2) Ninety minutes of X's day when he is taken hostage in his office.
Notice immediately how story 1 is clearly a drama whilst story 2 is likely to be a thriller or action-adventure piece. The time-frame of the film is influenced by the genre - but the structure remains fundamentally the same.
To begin, then, we need to quickly introduce our character and his or her goal. This could be in the first minute through a narration (Annie Hall and Crash – noticing that these films contain unusual structures) or by an inciting incident once the key characters and environment have been introduced (think Gladiator and the attempt to kill Maximus). Again, different genres introduce the goal in different ways.
In story 1, this might be X's desire to emulate his father and become a business success in the stationery industry. In story 2 it might only be to stay alive once the kidnapping has begun. In either case, it is the goal that gives us purpose - as true in life as in a screenplay.
Once we have this goal, we need to quickly set up the barriers to achieving it: for a romantic comedy such as Notting Hill, this will be in the separation of character worlds: “I live in Notting Hill, she lives in Beverly Hills…” meaning that they will have to overcome the odds to be together. However, in other genres this could be an army (300) or political forces conspiring (Spy Game).
In any case, there are three types of barrier: external, internal, and human. External usually relates to the environment, internal to a character flaw of our protagonist, and human to an actual external enemy of some kind.
Within story 1, the external barriers might be, for instance, a lack of money and tough economic conditions (perhaps a recession or stock-market crash). The internal barriers could be a chronic shyness or a phobia (think of Tom Cruise’s fear of court in A Few Good Men). Finally, the human antagonist could well be X's father, or a greedy business rival. There is no right or wrong here, though these choices of barriers are critical to the overall plot and must be chosen with caution.
A good plot will normally combine all three of these antagonistic forces - external, internal and human - but not necessarily at the same time. Most scripts will also focus on X's personal change: an effect brought about by the scale of conflict undertaken in trying to reach his overarching goal. More rarely, films such as Forrest Gump, and novels such as The Idiot, are able to create an unchanging heroic character who affects those around him, but is unchanged himself. Usually, this is to portray a group of people who antagonise a flawed but gentle man or woman, and learn through their dealings with him or her to change for the better.
An important element when choosing our goal is this: are the stakes high enough?
In the majority of memorable plots there is a death, or at least the threat of death somewhere along the way, and we are therefore concerned when a character to whom we have an emotional bond is threatened with the loss of life. There is also a sub-conscious, empathic feeling that maybe this could happen to us, which only serves to heighten the potential tragedy still further.
On the other hand there are some very good films that contain no death (notable exceptions being Annie Hall and Notting Hill – within the relatively safe confines of the romantic comedy, perhaps because the loss of ‘the one’ is emotional enough). Nonetheless every good plot creates a series of powerful, contrasting emotions in its viewer: these could be happiness and sadness, humour and tragedy, desire and repulsion, fear and excitement. As long as the viewer feels something strong by the end, we have succeeded. This issues from having a credible goal and high stakes. A good ploy when beginning a script is to compare the stakes in your script to those of your five favourites in that genre.
Once the stakes have been set and X has started his journey, the beginning of our story - Act 1 - is over and we move into Act 2. This part of the script is characterized by a series of mini-conflicts created by the external, internal and human antagonists. There is no fixed way to structure these mini-conflicts, but consider the following example...
In story 1, X might use one part of his character - let's say ruthlessness - to achieve some kind of financial success with emotional support from his love interest or family. This same character trait may then lead him to lose something much greater: the woman he loves, or perhaps the respect of his family (as in Scarface or Wall Street). The ensuing effect of losing this woman - who had been partially responsible for his success by boosting his self-esteem at a critical moment - could then lead to a more catastrophic loss, which is to say a financial and emotional loss. X could well then realise the error of his ways, fight for the woman he loves, and in the process develop as a human being by overcoming his ruthlessness and his crippling desire to succeed at all costs.
Along the way he will realise that he does not need her to be successful, but he does not want to be without her. With the love of his life back by his side, X readies himself for his biggest challenge - the final showdown - regaining his fortune and emulating his father. Notice the interconnection between what X wants and thinks he wants, and what he needs and thinks he needs.
The conflict arises out of X's confusion, and it is only by going through an emotional journey that he realigns his needs and wants. Think, perhaps, of that undoubted classic Austin Powers 2, where Austin has lost his mojo, but by the end, having rescued Felicity Shagwell, realises he had it all along.
Story 2 will have similar peaks and troughs, but instead of these being rooted in tangible gains and losses - that is, money and a love interest - they may involve X and his colleagues struggling to escape the clutches of the kidnappers. A possible scenario might be that X comes up with a reckless plan of escape (notice the same character flaw as story 1), and they may attempt this escape whilst the kidnappers negotiate with the police. However, whilst one colleague may escape, the kidnappers recapture the others and kill one as a collective punishment.
As the stand-off with the police continues, we begin to learn why the kidnappers have chosen to take them as hostages through clues found or deduced. X realises that he can no longer afford to be reckless, because the lives of him and his last remaining colleague - perhaps his love interest - are at stake. After finally working out that the kidnappers are there based on a misconception that X and his company had indirectly injured them in the past, X comes up with a plan to prove that in fact the kidnappers are acting under misguided pretensions. He successfully proves this by intelligent means, but as we reach the end of the act he realises that he is the kidnappers' only means of survival from the police.
In each example there are three or four key moments in this act. A good writer will build us up slowly to each of these key moments, never letting us guess quite how things will turn out. This process is called writing in sequences. The key moments - known as plot points - need to be evenly spread and should be the result of a series of choices by X which build in significance towards a mini-goal.
In story 1 the first mini-goal of Act 2 might be to win over the love-interest. In story 2 it might be to remove the handcuffs and knock out the guard. The success or lack thereof of this mini-goal will lead X toward a new mini-goal as he evaluates how to reach his primary, overarching goal. The easiest way to study sequences is to watch murder mysteries, and see how the protagonists move from place to place. Perhaps one of the best examples of sequencing arises in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown.
It is important to note that throughout this Act - which forms the bulk of a script - the pace of the action needs to change constantly. Too much action and we will tire out our viewer, too little and we will bore them to the point that they lose interest in our character and story. Often the more exciting, thrilling, dramatic moments will coincide with the climactic point of each mini-goal. Preferably, each of these climactic points will be more exciting, thrilling and dramatic than the last. Finally here, each mini-goal should make the viewer feel contrasting emotions, as we go from high point to low point to high again (or vice-versa). The stakes are high, the emotions high, and the audience is gripped.
By the beginning of the end of our plot, the goal for X has to be in sight. His and our perception of this goal may have altered, and the stakes may have increased, but now X is at the final hurdle and it is his biggest challenge yet. It will push X to his physical or emotional limits - preferably both. Again, the approach will depend very much on the genre: in a romantic comedy the protagonist will have overcome his or her flaw and will be doing whatever they can to win back their love interest (Notting Hill is perhaps the perfect example of this, whereas Annie Hall follows Woody Allen’s typical pessimistic view on life). With regards to an action-adventure, the third Act could involve deprogramming a bomb now that its location has been uncovered, for instance in Die Hard With A Vengeance.
In story 1 this Act might consist of X's final struggle to regain his business and his wealth - or, if he has been greedy, it might be his final demise at the cost of his loved ones (interestingly, this is the point where Scarface and Wall Street depart from each other). In story 2 it will be X's final attempt to escape from the clutches of his kidnappers.
In this Act there may well be another mini-goal prior to the climactic scene and often this may have the intention of making the viewer believe that X will fail in his goal (A classic example would be most of the early James Bond films where 007 gets captured before freeing himself and saving the day…and the woman). In general, however, X will snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and this final release of tension will give the audience its final burst of emotion. The very final scene is often expositional and gives closure to the plot, letting us, the viewer, know that everything has turned out well in the end.
The structure, then, is the foundation of every good and successful screenplay. All plots tend to follow a similar path as they are a formulated means of manipulating human emotions. Some authors such as Robert McKee or Blake Snyder provide structural templates that claim to be the basis for all screenplays. However, whilst they can be a useful guide, I believe that to create an original and exciting plot it is important to follow your instinct as a story-teller without being pigeon-holed into a ten or twenty-point plan.
In any case, despite the formulaic nature of film structure, there are 'other ways of telling the same story'. A film such as Seven Pounds is set in what seems to be an elongated third Act which 'confusingly' is itself written in three acts. This only works because we are not told what the hero's goal is, and this adds to the sense of mystery. Therefore, when we arrive at the final ‘Act’, we get not only what the Will Smith character is about to do, but we also finally understand why. It is this double-barrelled reveal that creates such a powerful ending (I have written a more detailed look at this for www.twelvepoint.com).
The films mentioned so far do push the boundaries of the traditional approach to structure. However, these innovations bring their own pitfalls, and an expert hand is required when choosing to stray from the traditional forms of structure. The content of the story should determine the form of the structure, and not the other way around.
Ben Lamy is a freelance journalist and script analyst. He can be found at www.lgma.co.uk
IF YOU ENJOYED THIS ARTICLE, PLEASE HELP SUPPORT OUR SITE, AT NO COST WITH ONE CLICK ON THE FACEBOOK 'LIKE' BUTTON BELOW:
If you're interested in writing for Shadowlocked (disc and screening reviews, etc, or just getting some extra coverage for your extraordinary writing talent, get in touch with us.