Sunday, September 28, 2008

Loving and Hating Three Act Structure

In the Screenwriting One class I teach at Art Center College, much of the first class session is dedicated to three act structure. One semester one of my students informed me that he didn’t have to learn three act structure because he “preferred European films.” Guess what, kid, European films follow three act structure too.

But I understand his skepticism. If someone told me they had a formula for making a good story (and people actually say that with surprising frequency) I would also be skeptical. But if used properly, three act structure is not a formula at all. It’s a way to understand how stories work.

Let me get even more philosophical for a moment and pose the question: What is a story? I believe a story, by definition requires three things:

1) A character. Even if the character is a frog or a tree, we anthropomorphize them. If you try to write a story without a character, what you have is not a story. A travelogue or non-fiction essay maybe, but not a story.

2) A dilemma. The character must have a problem to solve. If you tell me about someone whose life is great and has no problems, well that’s nice but it’s not a story. I get it. He’s happy. Let’s move on. Whatever it is in humans that makes us want to hear made-up tales, it seems to have to do with the need to explore how people solve problems.

3) A resolution. If the dilemma isn’t resolved, the story doesn’t feel complete. That doesn’t mean the ending has to be happy, or that all the loose ends need to be tied up. But we listen to/watch/read a story to find out what happens. So it’s not a story unless we indeed find out what happens.

If you’ve got those three things you’ve got a story in my book. But I want to point out a couple other elements that you need for a good story: obstacles and stakes.

Obstacles: If your story is about a guy sitting in his living room and his dilemma is that he’s hungry and the resolution is that he goes to the kitchen and makes a sandwich, that’s a story but not a very good one. But if the same guy with the same dilemma is stranded on an island where there’s only one fruit tree and a tiger is sleeping below it, then I’m interested. That’s because you’ve given him obstacles. (Which isn’t to suggest the obstacles have to be physical. You could make a compelling story about a hungry guy in his apartment whose obstacle is he’s on a diet.) Generally, the more challenging the obstacles, the more dramatic the story.

Stakes: What is at stake for the character? What happens if he succeeds or fails? If the character doesn’t really care about the outcome of his dilemma, then why should I? The more he has at stake, the more interesting the story. Now, a lot of people who only partly understand structure make a common mistake (and many of those people work as development executives in Hollywood). They suggest a writer raise the stakes by increasing the size of what’s at stake. Rather than trying to get one million dollars the character should be trying to get 100 million dollars. But that’s the wrong approach.

Imagine a story where a terrorist has planted a bomb in a diner and our character must get across town in time to keep it from going off. “Why don’t you raise the stakes,” our clueless development executive says, “make it a football stadium instead of a diner.” Objectively that would seem to raise the stakes – more lives are in jeopardy. But it’s still a character trying to save the lives of a bunch of people. The number is not all that important to how much we care.

What would raise the stakes is if the character’s wife and child were having lunch in the diner. Stopping a bomb from killing his family is much more dramatic than stopping a bomb from killing a group of strangers in a football stadium (though hopefully we'd root for him to do either). Because the key to raising the dramatic stakes is to increase how much the character cares about the outcome of the situation. Don’t confuse objective stakes with dramatic stakes.

So what does this have to do with three act structure? Three act structure is simply a way to codify what a story is and how it works. In act one we meet a character, introduce a dilemma and establish the stakes. In act two the character tries to resolve the dilemma but has difficulty doing so due to the obstacles. In act three the dilemma is resolved either for or against the character.

That’s it. And that’s why even European films follow three act structure.

Where we get in trouble is when we try to create “rules” for this structure. I once had someone tell me the first act of my screenplay was too long. “What makes you say that,” I asked.

“It ends on page thirty-four,” they said.

Me: “Is it boring, slow, uninteresting?”

Them: “No, it’s actually really exciting. But act one is supposed to end on page twenty-eight.”

Well if it’s really exciting who the hell cares what page it ends on? Structure is supposed to serve story, not the other way around. If it ain’t broke, why are you trying to fix it?

The other problem is there are a bunch of books and one day seminars that purport to teach screenwriting but really teach three act structure. That’s great as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go all the way to good writing. Structure’s only the first piece of good writing. There are now tens of thousands of perfectly structured really bad spec scripts floating around out there. Many of the writers are saying, “I don’t understand why my script didn’t sell. My act breaks all fall on the right pages.”

Audiences go to see movies for a lot of reasons – compelling characters, exciting scenes, witty dialogue, spectacle, humor, reassurance, escapism, profound themes, even on occasion beautiful scenery. But not one person goes to a movie to see act breaks.

That said, once we understand three act structure we can extrapolate some guidelines that will help us write better stories.

Guidelines, not rules.

And that will be a topic for my next post.


pmottaz said...

Finally, a blog that saves me in tuition fees.

Just an uninformed quibble about all the page-number/act-break/hit-your-mark books out there (of which I've read some)... I don't think they're hard and fast rules to follow, and, yes, anyone who complains about their C+ script not getting higher marks for bringing in the B-plot on page 26 is a fool, but I do think the general idea behind these structures is a good one. For beginning at least.

As far as I'm concerned, reading these books and thinking about where the intro is, and how long it should be and so on helped/helps me to better understand story structure in general. It's just a guideline, not a rule.

That is all.

Doug Eboch said...

I don't disagree. But I do think new writers often get too bogged down in the page count stuff to the exclusion of the simple concept of "does the story work?" Probably because looking at page numbers and comparing them to some kind of graph is fairly easy and straightforward, while the rest of it is a murky bog!