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, 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?
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.
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)
- Barnes & Noble/Nook
- Amazon UK
- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)
- Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)
- Barnes & Noble/Nook
- Amazon UK
- Amazon DE