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3 Acts. Does it make sense?

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As usual, take what sticks, feels right, and helps you become a better writer, and leave the rest… pretend I didn’t even say it.

I have seen articles about 4 act stories, 5 acts, hell, 7 acts! What’s the poor viewer to do when talking about the movie with his friends?
Todd: “Remember that 6th murder? That was so cool.”
Evan: “The one in the third act?”
Todd: “After that, before the end… Act 6 I think.”

The only true part of that exchange is Todd, when he says “…before the end.”
Now granted, most typical movie viewers don’t look at it in terms of acts at all. That’s for the story tellers. Instead, they will relate to the beginning, the end, or something in between. Here’s a clue to that something in between. It’s the middle. Second act.

It’s where all hell breaks loose. We walked up the steep stairs, looked out over the roller coaster, and buckled ourselves into the seat. Now, it’s the ride, and it doesn’t stop until we get to the end. The journey is on and there’s no turning back. You talked us into taking this trip, and you promised a few basic things before we get to the end.

You can put twists and turns in the track, ups and downs, even total loop dee loos. Hell, we hope for it. You can make it slow or fast, run it through thick or thin, light or dark, funny or sad.

But… you do promise not to take the car off the track, and, in the end, to deliver us to the promised destination..

The 3 act structure wasn’t designed by man. It was observed by him.
Stories were the first real form of communication, and always have a beginning, a middle, and an end. This simple fact is recognized in screenwriting as the 3 Act Structure, and not only does the entire story fit within it, but in a good screenplay, every element will obey this common sense truth. Every scene starts, has something happen (the beat), and ends, pointing us forward to the next 3 act construct. Every act is built upon a number of smaller 3 act pieces.

Where is the confusion? Twists and turns. Plans and failures. Too many hard and fast untrue rules. Each act has its own 3 acts, and those are constructed from even smaller 3 acts. Every subplot, every character, every action paragraph can easily be thought of and constructed using the same structure. Setup, Act, End. Open, Tell, Close. Describe, Act, Complete. Beginning, Middle, and End. It’s natural.

A caveman and his woman that he found are in the entrance to a cave. There are beautiful flowers beside the entrance, side by side with aged and dying flowers. The caveman looks curiously at the flowers, picking a living one, and a dead one, compares them. He is enraptured by the beauty of the living rose, and devastated by the death of the other one. He wrestles with this newfound knowledge. He notices his cave-woman wife wiping something on her leg. It leaves a bright stain, the color of the flower.  He looks at the stain, the flower, the smooth stone of the cave entrance. He gets an idea, sees a possibility, evaluates his options. He sets a goal, makes a decision.

That’s act one within the context of this simple example.

But look at the action so far. It’s already done its own 3 acts. How so? First, the beginning. We set up what is. A cave. Flowers. Cave couple. Obviously he’s a thinking and compassionate man, contemplating life and death with the simple vision of flowers. Ok, what happens?

This changes his life, rocks his world. It can’t be that life is so brief, beauty so short lived, death so final. He is crushed and defeated by this realization, wrestles with it, denies it, but ultimately must deal with it. He can simply ignore it, or he can work and toil to somehow change it, or at the least improve upon the condition, overcoming obstacles along the way. He imagines a way to overcome this loss of beauty and make it last forever.

And how does it end? He makes a decision and sets a goal.Yeah, I know. I hear you. Isn’t that a basic component of the first act? Why yes, yes it is. So then how can it be the third act of this miniature 3 act sequence? Because this mini story was about an event (the epiphany of the flowers we’ll call it) that changes the caveman in a very deep way, and the payoff at the end, the part we are all waiting for, is what decision he will make. Making that decision, whatever it is, is the end of that story, but only a small thing in service to the larger story, in which this entire 3 act story is just one of many within the first act in the main story.

In Act 2 of the larger story–

He goes to his cave-woman wife, wipes the stain from her leg, puts his stained fingers in her face, and grunts, with a nod of the head, looking between his fingers and her eyes.

Maybe she doesn’t get it, looks at him stupidly, or more likely, as if he was stupid. What does he do? Maybe pulls her hair, slaps her around some, and tries the same approach. It will continue to fail no matter how many tries he makes, because nothing changed. She doesn’t get now what she didn’t get when previously given the same treatment. So, new plan, same goal.

He drags her to the wall, uses his fingers to wipe some of the stain onto the rock, draws an outline of her dull witted head and puts a question mark over it… 

No matter. He keeps on trying. Why? Not because it’s his goal. He’s a freakin caveman we made up. He keeps trying because we know what the goal is, and it’s now OUR goal. We want that damn flower drawn on the rock, where it won’t die. In the end, the caveman has to succeed.

Not only that, he has to finally succeed by his own change, brought about in his struggle. It is by overcoming his own weaknesses (in this case, communicating with his ditzy wife in order to find where the paint comes from) that WE feel satisfied.

* Yes, I know. He doesn’t have to succceed. He could be eaten by a freakin mammoth or something as his homemade brush takes its first dip into his hard won paint. But I like happy endings, ok?

So then, if everything works from this same basic 3 act structure, where do all these other ‘acts’ come from I keep hearing about? Mislabeling, or misunderstanding the full purpose and scope of each act.

For example, people will point to a movie that starts with a seemingly bizzarre or shocking scene before going to the traditional first act introduction, and consequently feel this must be somehow unrelated to the first act. Its not. The first act is ‘In the beginning’. If that’s how you begin, then by golly it’s in the first act. It is in this sense that I think certain ‘untrue rules’ cloud the issue. People think of the first act as setting up and showing us the ‘normal’ world, before anything happens to cause change. Introduce characters, circumstances, situations. And if this opening scene doesn’t ‘fit’ that rule, they mistakenly believe it can’t be a part of the first act. It is, because it’s how you chose to start, which is always in the first act by simple logic. Moreover, people often forget a major component of the first act, which is quite simply “Setting up expectations“. A huge burden of the fist act, introduction, if you prefer, is setting up the expectations of the audience, and frankly, unless that’s why you put the scene in the beginning, you screwed up.

Meeting the expectations set up at the start is critical for your script, and encompasses enough variants to demand its own blog. So let me just say briefly, that IMHO, if you fail to set expectations, establish your underlying theme, the genre, the tone, and the type of story you are telling, then you aren’t going to tell the story as effectively as you could.

What about twisted endings where we think the movie is over, but then goes on? Let’s assume you are not speaking of the typical denouement, which basically re-establishes the new world and is part and parcel of the third act, but rather a seeming answer to the question posed or goal set previously. In other words, you thought your expectations were reached, but damn, it keeps going. Isn’t this another act?

No, not if you think about it in terms of beginning, middle, and end. If it’s not at the end, it’s not in the third act, or is simply a false end that sets you up again. Or, the piece you thought at first was the ending, is just another sequence in the second act, and there remained something to be learned before the final victory. Regardless, the end is always at the end, and the end is act 3.

How many false endings, or miniature 3 act sequences or plans can there be? There is no set number, but more than a few ‘twists and turns’ that lead to false conclusions will invariably alienate your audience, who will feel trifled with and unsatisfied.

Think of the guy in American Werewolf in London. He wakes from a scary dream, in his hospital room. Holy shit. Suddenly the nurse is a monster and he wakes again! A dream within a dream. Pretty cool. It demonstrated a false ending to the 3 act structure of that specific scene, and it worked. But how many levels deep could it have gone? No more. If he had wakened from yet another dream, everything good about it would have been trashed. The first time, you got me. Do it again, and you’re just making fun of me.
 
That is not to limit the obstacles, raising the stakes, or building suspense and tension I’m talking about. Read it carefully. A failed attempt or a new obstacle does not give a sense of ending.

Indeed, each of these plans or attempts are inherently 3 act structures themselves, usually the end of one melding into the first act of another (much the same way a denouement does). .Each begins with a situation (perhaps the utter failure of the last attempt), demands a decision, takes action, and then is resolved, maybe successfully and finally, or in failure, maybe leading to another plan, serving to set the basis for the first act of the next attempt.

Carl enters a house, his eyes frantically scan. He spots a table, hurries to it, rifles through the drawers. He frowns, looks around the room, spots a knick knack shelf. He walks to it, takes a small piece of paper from beneath a bauble, reads it. He hurries to the door.

A 3 act structure? We establish Carl is looking for something, makes a decision, sets a goal. Act 1 over. Carl executes his plan. Act 2 done. Carl finds what he wanted. Success. The end.

Still not convinced? I see two 3 act structures there. In splitting this in two, act 3 is when Carl executes his plan and fails. He frowns, defeated. The end. Now Act 1 of the second 3 act structure. Starts the same. Carl’s situation, goal, and plan are made obvious. He executes the plan, finds success. The end. Situation, action, resolution. Bang bang bang. 3 acts.

What’s the point of all this? Simply this.
The 3 act structure wasn’t designed by man. It was observed by him.
Use the basic 3 act structure as your ‘atom’, regardless of what you are building or how incredibly complex you view your story overall.

As I often told students when teaching computer programming, “At its core, a computer only knows two states and is not to be feared. It is man that has shown the ability to resolve the most complex problems imaginable through a series of yes or no questions that make computers seem so smart.”

P.S. Yes, the caveman finally painted a flower on the cave wall. In the sequel, he discovered the rain washed it away. Stay tuned.

About the author: AgelessMan
I learned to write scripts and I loved it. Not just the writing. The learning. Now I try and help others.

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