Thursday, February 18, 2010

Three-Act Structure review and assignments

Okay, I’m sure by now some of you are champing at the bit wanting me to move off this idea stage. Yeah, well, those would be those of you who already HAVE an idea. But all right. If you are very sure that this is the book or script that you’re supposed to write, then let’s move on to how you go about writing it.

You should be armed now with:

- A master list of books and movies that are similar to your own idea/story. In your genre, and hopefully some that are structurally similar, too, but we’ll get to that.

- A great premise line that you have tried out on other people and you’ve seen their eyes light up. Meaning other people besides you will want to read this book or see this movie when you’ve finished it.

- A definite idea of your genre (and if it’s cross-genre, what genres you’re crossing)

- You have written out, specifically, what you want your reader or audience to FEEL and experience while they’re reading.

- You have a good idea of what themes you’re working with (and this can change during the course of the writing, you always discover new things about what you’re saying, but you should have a vague idea going in.)

And I’m not sure that I said this already, at least not recently, but I hope you have gotten yourself a great notebook and all the requisite colored dividers to put all these notes in. I mean, a GREAT notebook, meaning a trip to the art store or Office Max, where you have put some real thought into what colors and designs make you happy. As writers we need to be stimulating our senses all the time; it develops a deeper, more visceral writing style. Also you have to take your pleasure where you can get it. I particularly like sparkly colored pens for underlining and making notes.

So if you have your lists made, and your toys collected, it’s time to step back and talk about basic dramatic structure.

And more fun is coming: we get to watch some movies. And it’s work! Don’t you love this job?

What we’re going to do in the coming weeks, hopefully, is permanently burn the idea of the Three Act Structure, and after that, the Three-Act, Eight-Sequence structure, into your heads. So that for the rest of your lives, every time you see a movie or read a book, you will be automatically identifying the act breaks, sequence climaxes, and other essential story elements. You will become a walking repository of story structure. And this will translate into terrific books and scripts.

So first, I’d like you to pick three movies from your master list that you think are going to be useful to your own story. Those you’ll be seeing on your own and making your own notes, but I’m also taking suggestions of movies that I could break down here as examples for everyone.

And now, I want to review the Three Act Structure and why it exists to begin with.

(People who have been reading this blog for a while have already read the following, but that just means that you’ll have some great examples for those just joining us, right?)

Movies and novels generally follow a three-act structure. That means that a 110-page script (and that’s 110 minutes of screen time – a script page is equal to one minute of film time) – is broken into an Act One of roughly 30 pages, an Act Two of roughly 60 pages, and an Act Three of roughly 20 pages, because as everyone knows, the climax of a story speeds up and condenses action. If you’re structuring a book, then you basically triple or quadruple the page count, depending on how long you tend to write. So in a 400 page book, Act One is roughly 100 pages, Act Two, 200 pages, and Act Three, a little less than 100 pages.

Anyone who is familiar with theater will know this, but many beginning writers don't realize that the three-act structure is the classic structural format for fiction and screen and TV, as well, and the shape of your own three acts is one of the most important things you can know about your story before you actually start to write it.

So here’s a little – very short! - practical history of how the three-act structure developed, so you can start watching for that structural rhythm in the books you read and the films you watch and in your own stories.

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?

So when you're mapping out your own story, it's important to know - at least roughly - what your three acts are and what the climaxes of those acts are. Those are the tentpoles of your story (and by the way, Syd Field called these "plot points". It's all the same thing.)

In my next post I'll talk more about Act Climaxes and how to identify them in movies and books.

Question for the day – can you give me examples of great curtains or cliffhangers – theatrical, filmic, or novelistic?

And of course - what do you think your own Act Climaxes (act breaks, plot points, curtain scenes, revelations, cliffhangers) are? Do you know them?

And remember, I’m taking suggestions of movies for discussion examples.

- Alex


If you want to see the Three-Act Structure in action, check out the full breakdowns of five films in Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and ten films in Writing Love.

Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are now available in all e formats and as pdf files. Either book, any format, just $2.99.

- Smashwords (includes pdf and online viewing)

- Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)

- Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

- Amazon/Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amazon DE



Unknown said...

I'd like to suggest one of the Harry Potter films, and I'd be interested in noting how the structure of the film differs from the book. They had to cut a lot of subplots for the films in the interests of time, and I feel like it really changed the pacing of the stories.

Unknown said...

Sorry, I'm new here—didn't realize you'd already *done* Harry Potter! But I found it now. Thanks for that!

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

The way "Get Carter" director Mike Hodges breaks down the movie was fascinating. After I read your first post on 3-Acts, I watched GC and it fit the formula nicely. So did "Collateral" with Tom Cruise. I felt as if it was something I could do.

My 3rd choice for discussion is David Attwood's "Shot Through the Heart" because I was riveted to the screen, and impacted by the subject matter. But there are so many others.

Lawrence Sanders Deadly Sin series were fine examples of cliffhangers. I was a young woman when I first read his stuff, but I was hooked. And never disappointed. Same with Margaret Laurence, Marilyn French, and John Katzenbach.

Same with The Bourne movies. Again, I couldn't predict what would happen next. Hence the cliffhangers seemed to spring from out of nowhere to leave me stunned, and again hooked. When Anna is killed. When the agent in the field asked Bourne if he suffered from headaches. All these things added a dimension that I hope I'm able to put in my books.

Thanks for doing this, Alex. The changes of me attending one of your workshops is as likely to happen as me attending the Olympics.

question.authority said...

Hi. I frequently check your blog for some really great information, and this is my first time commenting so I just wanted to say I appreciate your website very much.

I am a fan of may genre's but I'm currently working on 2 screenplays that fall into the sci-fi/action mix and drama. Out of 3 sci-fi movies I am picking: The Matrix, Aliens and Terminator 2.

My second script is a drama inspired by the film Scarface (the De Palma one).

So in your opinion do these movies strictly follow your 3-act, 8-sequence structure?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Love your handle and avatar, QA!

I would be shocked into a heart attack if all four of those movies didn't fall pretty strictly into the 3/8 structure.

Haven't broken down any of them myself, but the writers and directors you're talking about are very classical that way. You might get an extra sequence thrown in if it's a longer movie, but it will be precise.

I might break down Matrix here, actually.

But what YOU need to do is follow the assignments in the posts I'm going to be putting up in the next week, starting with tomorrow's, and answer the question for yourself. You'll see!

Constance Burris said...

"And I’m not sure that I said this already, at least not recently, but I hope you have gotten yourself a great notebook and all the requisite colored dividers to put all these notes in."

I started putting everything in a binder last week. I feel so much better-less guilty- now that you've given me permission to do this. Thanks!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Lacy, enjoy Harry Potter! One of the best movies to study for structure, imo. So much in there, I love it.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Ooh, those are some edgy movies you're talking about there, Joylene. Interesting!

I haven't seen "Shot Through The Heart" but will make sure to, now.

Loved "Collateral", not just for the story, but some of the best cinematographic portrayal of LA I've ever seen.

I am unfortunately not a Bourne movie fan, so that's just - not going to happen.

We all have our tastes...

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Constance, glad to hear it.

You must GET RID OF GUILT, though.

The only rule of writing is - Whatever works.

We need our toys.

billyf27 said...

I suggest Shutter Island. That movie had many acts that ended in suspense, aith many twista along the way.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Billy, I was thinking of Shutter Island myself - it's easier to do with something you can stop and start, though, and it's not available yet.

Talk about psychological setpieces, though, that scene in the dark on those metal stairs?

Wonderful thematic representation of a deranged mind.

billyf27 said...


I am working on my first novel, after getting many short stories published. It is a whole different thing, and I am tempted to quit every day. It is scary to think of working so long on something that might not be any good.I am going to try the colored index cards within a large sketchbook.

Thank you so much for your blog. It helps me get through the doubts.

billyf27 said...

I do like the carboard ideal, and think the sketch book wouldn't be big enough. I will use that to write ideals down, and the cardboard for structure. Thank you very much.

billyf27 said...

I wonder if you ever did the three act structure on the Wizard of Oz. I love the dark twist that takes place, after Dorothy reaches Oz and all seems well. She is forced to face her greatest fear, and get the witches broom. It results in her being locked in prison in the witches castle awaiting her own death after losing her friends, her dog, and all hope.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Hi Billy, I'm sorry, I didn't see your posts until now. Sometimes comments go to spam and I don't find them until way later, if at all.

I've talked about the Wizard of Oz but haven't done a full breakdown of it, which I really should do, since there are so many breakdowns of it out there that I find appalling!