Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Why the Three Act Structure?

So what is this Three Act Structure, anyway, and why should you care?

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, 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.

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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 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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Jake Nantz said...

Great info as always, Alex. Was just thinking of one film I still use in class. I hate showing movies (no offense) because that's something a sub can do, and if a sub can do even one day of my job, then I'm not doing my job correctly, but that's another matter. Anyway, I like to contrast the reading of PYGMALION with the film version of MY FAIR LADY, since Shaw was involved with both. And this is one film that has an intermission because of the length and the relationship to the play. Guess what happens right before....

Yep. Eliza has FINALLY gotten proper diction down pat, and has learned what NOT to say (after the disaster at the horse race), but they are about to head to the embassy ball. If she does well, then the professor has won, and all is right...supposedly. But if she makes another mistake, this time she will be imprisoned for impersonating a lady and possibly even executed. Then the break, as they are heading out to the ball with all of that still in play.

Kinda like what you mentioned, yeah?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Jake, I just love you - that is a stellar example of EXACTLY what I'm talking about. And you've perfectly laid out what the STAKES are, there, and the HOPE and FEAR.

Up to then we've seen plenty of examples of how Eliza has reverted to her guttersnipe roots under pressure or excitement before this crucial moment, so we know it's not a shoo-in, not by a long shot.

You better believe people are coming back into the theater to see how that plays out.

Jake Nantz said...

Thanks Alex. I'm blushing now. :D

Gayle Carline said...

The curtain scene - my personal bane. It's been the hardest thing for me to do, to end a chapter while leaving the reader up in the air. In my first (really horrid) book, I actually ended a chapter with the character going to bed. Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!

The Edgar Rice Burroughs' books define "cliffhanger" for me. A baby is crying in a makeshift cradle, his parents dead... the next scene is a depiction of life in a tribe of apes. But what happens to the baby? Read on, and you'll find out. In the Mars series, John Carter is nearly at death's door trying to save his beloved Dejah Thoris when... suddenly we're treated to a scene of two Martians who are scheming to kill Tars Tarkas, her father. WTF? Did John escape? Read on dear. Read on.

I love reading them - it's exciting. I hate reading them - if I have to put them down, the curiosity drives me mad.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Oh, now, that's interesting, Gayle, because I CAN'T STAND cliffhangers that cut away to a whole different set of characters. That's the kind of thing that can make me give up on a book entirely.

Maybe I'm an instant gratification kind of girl (hah, maybe!) but I want a cliffhanger to keep me waiting for the length of time it takes to turn the page. That's all. If I have to suffer through three chapters of something else... well, let's just say I don't suffer well.

That's not really what I'm talking about with a curtain, although you're right, that's often what happens in narratives.

Have you tried just cutting your chapters in different places so you give your reader that few seconds to think about it before you go right back to the SAME action line? More like what Jake was talking about with his example?

Because except in a climax, where I'm fine with a lot of cross-cutting, I really am not fond of the technique you're talking about, and you don't HAVE to do it that way.

Gayle Carline said...

Yes, Alex, I've had to make the conscious decision to end my chapters before that sigh of relief happens, split them differently. It's just been harder than I thought, since it's a structure I've lived with in practically every book/movie/TV show I've ever seen. You'd think it'd be ingrained in me.

As far as the scene-bouncing cliffhanger, I think there's a fine line as to how long you can wait for the resolution. Two chapters is too long. The books I'm talking about resolve themselves within the next chapter, but not right away. There's the new setup, the other angle at which danger or relief approaches. You're annoyed that you can't be immediately gratified, yet intrigued because you recognize the setup and are viewing the same scene from new eyes.

Bobby Mangahas said...

I think THE WIRE was pretty good with cliffhangers.

One episode I remember that was a pretty good cliffhanger was in the third season where Stringer Bell reveals to Avon Barksdale that he had Barksdale's nephew D'Angelo killed. The two begin to fight but it ends with them just staring at each other before the closing credits and you're left to wonder how or if this will change things between Stringer and Avon (particularly since Stringer is Avon's right hand man and they are trying to take over all the drug traffic in West Baltimore)

BT said...

This is getting sad. I write dark fiction and yet everytime you ask for examples, the first thing to pop into my head is a romance based story. I've tried writing romance, I'm no good at it.

The first thing which popped into the brain space this time round was Romeo and Juliet.

Pick a scene, any scene. They all leave the audience wanting to know how the next bit will turn out.

My favourite in this instance is the messengers. The priest's messenger on his way out, while Romeo has heard from another and is on the way back. Will he find out about the poison and his loves fake death. The fact that they just miss each other so we're left with the "Oh shit, now what is he going to do" feeling.

This is one part of the play I feel has transcribed to all the different versions. It is one that has been done really well in the modern DiCaprio version even though I wasn't a great fan of the overall concept (it has grown on me over time, but then so would fungus).

I swear I'll try and think up a non-romantic based example next time...

Kathryn Magendie said...

When you were teaching this kind of structure at the Pen to Press, something clicked - because I can't think of writing in terms of 'structure' - however, there is structure all the same - even if one goes at it by accident *laugh*

I'm following you now, Alex!

Anonymous said...

For cliffhangers, I have to say that the TV series LOST does it for me. When the show ends, I'm literally counting the days until the next episode airs so I can find out what happens. I feel that way at every commercial break, too.

Anonymous said...

RJ, THE WIRE did everything well. I miss that show like crazy.

And ROMEO AND JULIET... well, you don't have to sell me, BT.

I think you should just own your romantic side. You're using SOMEWHERE IN TIME as a touchstone, that pretty much says it.

Sex and death have been an unbeatable combination since the beginning of time! ;)

Anonymous said...

Happy New Year, Kat!!

You have structure all over the place in that novel - you just didn't know what to call it. It was a joy to see that click for you.

Anonymous said...

Kristine, yeah, there's a reason for LOST's longevity.

I'm looking forward to THE UNINVITED, coming out this month, adapted from the truly creepy Korean movie TALE OF TWO SISTERS by my friend Craig Rosenberg - a hugely talented suspense writer/director who also has written a lot of those ciffhangers for LOST.

Anonymous said...

I've seen previews for THE UNINVITED. Creepy! It's on my list to see, too.