I’ve been going over these posts and trying to fill in some gaps, and I realize that I seem to be assuming that people reading these articles would be coming to these posts with some sense of what the Three-Act Structure is.
Not necessarily true, of course, unless you go to the theater, which I’m sad to have to admit is not the case for most people these days.
So here’s a little – very short! - practical history, that I hope will really drive home the concept of Act Climaxes that we’ve been talking about.
Three Act dramatic structure comes from theater, which was around WAAAAAY before novels, film, and television; the golden age of Greek theater was, oh, 500-300 B.C., and in this period was developed the dramatic structure on which plays, novels, film and television are based.
Dramatists would be the first to point out that three-act structure is really the natural structure of a story, period, and has been employed since cavemen came back from the hunt and insisted on recounting their huge life-threatening adventures out there to the cavewomen (who naturally had great adventures of their own during the day, but were wise enough to understand even back in those cave days that there are some things men just don’t need to know).
It is often said that the essence of dramatic structure is: “Get the hero up a tree. Throw rocks at him. Get him down.”
That’s three acts right there. A little simplistic for my taste, but it does give a basic rhythm: Introduce a main character and a problem, intensify the problem, then solve it.
Another bare-bones structure summation that you hear a lot is: someone wants something very badly and is having trouble getting it (but eventually does.) Again, three parts: a heroine with a desire, opposition to the desire, and eventual triumph (or failure).
Well, that basic three-part rhythm of storytelling was set into a standard form by the ancient Greeks and is still largely the same today, not just in plays, but in all dramatic media.
Now, wait a minute, you may be saying. Shakespeare’s plays have FIVE acts.
Well, yes. But if you look at Elizabethan plays, their Acts I and II constitute what we’ve been talking about as Act 1, their Acts III and IV comprise our Act II, and Act 5 is Act 3 (shorter than the others, remember?).
Plays were THE form of storytelling for thousands of years, because most of the populace of any country couldn’t read, and there was no television yet. So, until the invention of the Gutenberg press (1436, and yes, there was moveable type in China century in 1041, but it didn’t have the world impact that the Gutenberg press did), which made the printed word available cheaply, plays were THE entertainment (music and sports are different media). The novel wasn’t even invented until – well, that’s up for debate, but anywhere from 1007 to 1740: you decide:
Candidates for the world's first novel in English
The Tale of Genji
So because they were the reigning form of dramatic entertainment for thousands of years, plays have had an indelible influence on ALL of the dramatic media. And what’s important to understand about the structure of plays is that they’re based on how long human beings can reasonably sit in one place without getting bored, restless, hungry, thirsty, and just numb in the posterior - and walking out on the show.
Same with movies. Admit it – anything over two hours and you’re going to start looking at your watch.
So plays built in the concept of intermissions, so that people could have breaks and go out and – uh - refresh themselves, and sponsors could hawk their wares and make money off the show. Commercials have history, too.
But the trick about intermissions is that once people are out in the lobby drinking and flirting and smoking and doing what they do on a Saturday night, their natural tendency is to want to keep drinking and flirting and all those things that drinking and flirting hopefully lead to.
So it was absolutely crucial for the playwright to end that first act and second act, before the intermission, with something so great that the audience would come right back into the theater when the lobby lights blink, and not just go carousing into the night.
And that’s how the cliffhanger was born. The “curtain scene”, or just “curtain”, had to be so explosive – such a startling revelation or reversal, such a dramatic shift in the power dynamics of the characters, that the audience would want to come back in to the theater after intermission to find out what happens.
And that curtain scene is alive and well today as act climaxes. In movies it’s not quite so evident because the film doesn’t actually stop for a break at the act climax, but that rhythm is definitely there. In network television, you do actually have a curtain and an intermission, called a “commercial”, and woe betide you if you want to work for television and don’t understand the concept of a cliffhanger before the act break, or “act out”. (I am not a TV writer, and this is not a TV writing article, and I’m being horribly simplistic, but the actual timing of these breaks varies according to where the commercials are set, and internet delivery of shows is going to change that drastically. For further information, TVwriter.com is a great resource for aspiring TV writers.)
Now, when you’re reading a book, you can take your intermission any time, and you do. But as an author, you still have to lure your reader back to your book. My point here is – why not understand the concept of the curtain and possibly use the tricks that have kept audiences coming back into the theater, and back from commercial breaks, for thousands of years?
So I implore you – see a good play once in a while. No one does cliffhangers and reversals and revelations better than the great playwrights. Shakespeare, obviously, but any good playwright understands how to do this. For example, I find Lillian Hellman’s curtains just breathtaking – the whole power dynamics of a ruthless family can turn on a dime, and you can’t wait to get back into the theater to find out WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.
And that – is what we’re after, right?
Question for the day – can you give me examples of great curtains or cliffhangers – theatrical, filmic, or novelistic?
And if you'd like to to see more of these story elements in action, I strongly recommend that you watch at least one and much better, three of the films I break down in the workbooks, following along with my notes.
I do full breakdowns of Chinatown, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Romancing the Stone, and The Mist, and act breakdowns of You've Got Mail, Jaws, Silence of the Lambs, Raiders of the Lost Ark in Screenwriting Tricks For Authors.
I do full breakdowns of The Proposal, Groundhog Day, Sense and Sensibility, Romancing the Stone, Leap Year, Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Sea of Love, While You Were Sleeping and New in Town in Writing Love.
All the information on this blog and much more more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks. E format, just $3.99 and $2.99; print 14.99.
This new workbook updates all the text in the first Screenwriting Tricks for Authors ebook with all the many tricks I’ve learned over my last few years of writing and teaching—and doubles the material of the first book, as well as adding six more full story breakdowns.
STEALING HOLLYWOOD ebook $3.99
STEALING HOLLYWOOD US print $14.99
STEALING HOLLYWOOD print, all countries
STEALING HOLLYWOOD US print $14.99
STEALING HOLLYWOOD print, all countries
Writing Love is a shorter version of the workbook, using examples from love stories, romantic suspense, and romantic comedy - available in e formats for just $2.99.
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