Last week I discussed the conceptual underpinnings of Bridesmaids (written by Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumolo). This week, as part 2 of my in-depth analysis, I’m going to break down the three-act structure of the movie.
I look at story structure as the interplay between an internal and external journey for the main character (Annie in Bridesmaids). The internal journey is the character arc, how the character will change on a psychological level. The external journey is the plot, which is driven by the character’s goal. The three-act structure is based on the plot, so we must start with that goal.
Last week we identified Annie’s goal as “to succeed as Lillian’s Maid of Honor.” This is what’s driving her through the story. We can rephrase this into the Dramatic Question of “Can Annie succeed as Lillian’s Maid of Honor?” This question defines the story of the movie.
Now let’s identify the main beats of the three act structure:
Catalyst: The Catalyst is the point where the dramatic question is revealed to the audience. We need to know the character and their goal and have a hint at why that goal will be difficult. So it’s pretty easy to identify the catalyst in Bridesmaids: Lillian asks Annie to be her Maid of Honor. Why will this be difficult? Well, we’ve seen that Annie’s own life is a mess, and it’s apparent in this scene that, though she’s putting on a positive face for her friend, Annie is a little freaked out.
Act One Turning Point: There are many ways to define this beat, but I like to look at the Act One Turning Point as the point where the character makes a decision to pursue a certain path that will take them through Act Two. In Bridesmaids, this comes during the engagement party. After Annie makes a conventional toast, Helen gets up and makes a more heartfelt toast. Annie then decides to take the stage again and try to top Helen’s toast. The two characters go back and forth, attempting to outdo each other. What is Annie’s decision? She’s decided to compete against Helen to prove she is the better friend to Lillian. (You may recall that last week I identified Helen as the primary obstacle to Annie’s goal.)
Midpoint: For the midpoint we usually look for a moment of false victory - if the ending is going to be a victory for Annie (and it will be). In Bridesmaids, the midpoint of Act Two is when Annie has the speed gun date with Rhodes, the cop. Life seems to be looking up. She then begins planning the bachelorette party… which will quickly spiral out of control. Why do we want this moment? It gives us some rise-and-fall to the story so things don’t progress in too linear a fashion. Normally I like the midpoint to relate to the dramatic question, so I probably would have let Annie succeed at one of her Maid of Honor duties, but the movie works and I believe structure should serve story, not the other way around.
Act Two Turning Point: Since Annie’s going to succeed, the Act Two Turning Point should be where she’s farthest away from success. Shortly after the midpoint, when the bachelorette party spirals out of control, Lillian takes the Maid of Honor job from Annie and gives it to Helen, so that might be a candidate. But then things get even worse. Annie has a meltdown at the bridal shower and Lillian un-invites her to the wedding. Their friendship appears to be over. Annie can’t get much farther from success at her goal than that. That is the Act Two Turning Point.
Epiphany: This is the moment where the character figures out how to solve the problem after a period of aftermath from the Act Two Turning Point. This comes when Helen tells Annie that Lillian is missing on the morning of the wedding. Annie knows Lillian better than Helen. Only Annie can find her missing friend. It will be a challenge – she will have to make up with Rhodes to enlist his help, and then talk Lillian through her cold feet, but the path to success has just become apparent.
Resolution: The Resolution, of course, is that Lillian gets married with Annie standing by her side. Annie has succeeded at the most important job of Maid of Honor: getting the bride to the altar! The Dramatic Question has been answered.
An argument could be made for breaking down the three-act structure using the romance between Annie and Rhodes. The beats of the romance are in all the right places. But there are several reasons why this is not the structural underpinning of the movie. Look back at the six questions from last week. Clearly this is a story about Annie trying to be a good Maid of Honor for her friend. In terms of screen time, the bridesmaid storyline gets a lot more time than the romance. And if you’re still not convinced, just look at the title of the movie! The romance is a subplot with its own structure that serves to illustrate the progression of Annie’s character arc.
The purpose of three-act structure is to make sure the story is dramatic and logical, and that the plot flows from the concept. Bridesmaids is a good demonstration of how this works.
Want to read the Bridesmaids screenplay? It’s online here.