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#1 David Sweetman

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Posted 07 January 2006 - 01:38 AM

I have just finished Syd Field's book, "Screenplay." Great book, and all throughout it nailed home the importance of three-act-structure. Every single chapter was filled with the three-act paradigm, and by far the majority of movies we see contain three definite acts.

My question is, does this often figure into cinematography? When preparing for a feature, do any of you consider the three acts in order to determine three basic visual themes? I often note visual changes, but have never taken the time to see if they fit any structure.
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#2 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 07 January 2006 - 02:22 AM

Having had my fill of the three-act structure over the decades, I'm less enthusiastic about it, but it is certainly one method of thinking about what might need fixing if a screenplay is not working. You can't START writing thinking about the three-act structure, unless you are making a fairly mechanical genre movie, but it's one method of structuring a story that you already have in mind.

Often you'll notice that each act has a major location or sequence, with the second act mainly dealing with the main subplot. "Star Wars" is a good example, which can be divided into the Tatooine desert scenes, the Death Star middle act (about freeing Princess Leia, the main subplot) and the Final Battle as the third act (the conflict that was introduced in Act One.)

So the cinematography will tend to support these location changes, plus the mood of the scenes, so the low point of the main character, when they seem to have failed, might have a more somber look, etc. I'm not saying anything particularly insightful here -- the cinematography supports the story, no matter how many acts it takes to tell.

One example of a movie in three acts with three photographic looks is "Three Kings", which starts out with skip-bleached negative, then switches to cross-processed reversal for the middle section when they arrive in the town, and then the third act is normal processing.
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#3 Michael Collier II

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Posted 07 January 2006 - 03:35 AM

watch requium for a dream. They make use of the seasonal changes to seqway sharply between looks. colors change and lighting changes.
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#4 David Sweetman

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Posted 07 January 2006 - 04:03 AM

Having had my fill of the three-act structure over the decades, I'm less enthusiastic about it, but it is certainly one method of thinking about what might need fixing if a screenplay is not working. You can't START writing thinking about the three-act structure, unless you are making a fairly mechanical genre movie, but it's one method of structuring a story that you already have in mind.


Having newly realized the clear function of the 3-act paradigm, I find it fascinating. Particularly the way Field illuminates it.

I don't see how you can finish a 120-page script unless you know the structure of it before you start writing. The best examples of three-act structure are certainly not mechanical genre movies, such as "Chinatown," which I'm sure went through extensive dramatic preparation. Certainly while you're writing, you can't be thinking of three-act structure, but you need to know what happens in your story and when in order to write toward those goals. Of course all rules of writing may be broken, which Field alludes to, but in order to defy the rules, you must have a thorough understanding of them.

Field proposes knowing four things before you start writing: The ending, the beginning, the plot point at the end of Act 1, which spins the story in a new direction, and the plot point at the end of Act 2. I cannot think of a movie I've seen that does not fit this model.

Of course, I've never written a feature-length script, so I can only agree with Field insofar as acknowledging that his ideas are viable theoretical procedures for writing a screenplay, but when I do attempt a feature, I will certainly not start writing without considering my three acts.
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#5 Brian Drysdale

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Posted 07 January 2006 - 07:03 AM

If you are writing a screenplay you should start with a treatment, this allows you to work out the pacing and structure in story terms without falling in love with the dialogue. Also, you shouldn't be mechanical about this by having on such and such a page must be happening.

There are a few theories out there, but the three act structure is the classical one, There are a lot of writing gurus out there telling writers how to do it. However, the first thing is to work out the story that you want to tell and telling it in a way that the audience wants to be involved with it.

"Chinatown" went through a lot of re-writing, it wasn't a case of just putting down a few structure points and filling in the spaces. It's great to look at the structure after the scripts completed, but things can change as you become involved with the characters and sometimes your original ending isn't going to work, so you have to adapt to where the characters taking you.

This is where the treatment comes in (some people don't like them), but more time often goes into that than writing the first draft script. You use the structure as a tool when you're reworking the material. I know some people prefer to just write a full draft screenplay first, but they'll also need to spend time re-writing a long form version of their story as they solve problems.

Unfortunately, there are too many films that just work to a formula.
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#6 Alex Ellerman

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Posted 07 January 2006 - 11:28 AM

there are other formulas, 8 act, 6 act, etc., but in my opinion they are really just an expanded explanation of the classic aristotle 3 act (beginning, middle, end) structure...

i love this quote, and thought it appropriate:

When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.

- T.S. Elliott


ae
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#7 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 07 January 2006 - 01:43 PM

You have to understand that over the years, the 3 Act Structure has been used by small-minded development people at the studios to beat writers over the heads with, because their understanding of screenwriting doesn't go any deeper than that. I've had to listen to more inane cell phone conversions over the years as some untalented script reader tries to explain to an experienced screenwriter how to use the three act structure. It's just like when a beginner script supervisor tries to enforce the most simplistic notion of screen direction on everyone because they don't really have a deeper understanding of it.

I'm tempted to recall Godard's answer to a journalist who said "Well, surely you must admit that at least a story needs a beginning, middle, and end?!?"

Godard replied "Yes... but not necessarily in that order."

Kubrick spent some time thinking about screenplay formatting and structure. He had this idea that the descriptions should be indented and the dialogue be full width to place emphasis on the non-verbal aspect of the script, not the talking. He also had this idea that a movie needed six key transitional scenes to structure the rest of the movie around, something like that.

I also recall Howard Hawks' comment that a good movie had three good scenes and no bad ones. Over the years, I've come to realize that it's the "no bad ones" that is the real challenge; most people can create three good scenes but few people can avoid screwing up somewhere.
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#8 Max Jacoby

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Posted 07 January 2006 - 02:18 PM

I believe Kubrick called those key scenes 'unsubmercible units'. Personally I am not a big fan of the three act structure either, I think films are much more complex than reducing it to: plot point one must be on page 27. It all comes down to what kind of movie you are making/writing. Some are more plotdriven, so the narration has to keep on progressing, which is where a sound structure helps. But plenty of films are more interested in creating a mood and might have a slower rhythm that doesn't require the audience to keep on asking: and what happens now?
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#9 Alex Ellerman

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Posted 07 January 2006 - 02:37 PM

i understand what you're saying... and pushing the 3 act structure to a formula, ie end act one on page 17, rather than a form (beginning middle end) is possibly where 3 act advocates go wrong. but in many ways, just as audiences have been programmed to accept a 24 fps aesthetic in the states, they have been programmed to expect a 3 act structure, eg if something big doesn't happen 20 min. into a movie, people start to feel anxious.

i think you can play with these conventions and thwart them, either way, it's good to know them.
best
ae
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#10 Rolfe Klement

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Posted 07 January 2006 - 03:43 PM

Someone said to me you have to complete 10 feature scripts before you can even begin to think about screenwriting. You also have to keep notes your whole life and be prepared to wake up at 3.14am to launch final draft and write down the ideas the story gods happened to give you at 3.12am - on a school night :)

apart from that and reducing every emotional event in your life to something you can use in a script - it is easy

thanks

Rolfe
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#11 Brian Drysdale

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Posted 08 January 2006 - 08:00 AM

I'm tempted to recall Godard's answer to a journalist who said "Well, surely you must admit that at least a story needs a beginning, middle, and end?!?"

Godard replied "Yes... but not necessarily in that order."

Kubrick spent some time thinking about screenplay formatting and structure. He had this idea that the descriptions should be indented and the dialogue be full width to place emphasis on the non-verbal aspect of the script, not the talking. He also had this idea that a movie needed six key transitional scenes to structure the rest of the movie around, something like that.


"2001" is the purest form of this idea. It has been suggested that the "unsubmercible units" in "2001" don't have strong connections is the reason that the film has this mysterious unknown quality that people love.

Some of his other films like "The Shining" may have the "unsubmercible units", but a 3 act structure lies beneath the surface. It's a matter of using structure in a creative way to tell the story. "Momento" is an example of how far things can be stretched.

Kubrick could get away with things that others can't. Unfortunately, you really need to use the standard script formats when dealing with funders, but fortunately good writers can use it to tell the story in a cinematic manner with both visual and audio elements.
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#12 Ken Zukin

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Posted 08 January 2006 - 12:25 PM

Check out Kubrick's "The Killing", a B&W Noir heist film released in the mid 50's. It's very similar to Huston's "The Asphalt Jungle", except for the way Kubrick shifts time around. The robbery is told through the eyes of the participants, through use of flashback, which is not uncommon. What IS uncommon is the way he does it. "Once a charachter is established, the film leaps backwards, and picks up another character until all the component parts come together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle." While it's a little hard to stay with now, it must have been totally bold and shocking 50 years ago.
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#13 Alex Ellerman

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Posted 08 January 2006 - 12:46 PM

"2001" is the purest form of this idea. It has been suggested that the "unsubmercible units" in "2001" don't have strong connections is the reason that the film has this mysterious unknown quality that people love.

Some of his other films like "The Shining" may have the "unsubmercible units", but a 3 act structure lies beneath the surface. It's a matter of using structure in a creative way to tell the story. "Momento" is an example of how far things can be stretched.

Kubrick could get away with things that others can't. Unfortunately, you really need to use the standard script formats when dealing with funders, but fortunately good writers can use it to tell the story in a cinematic manner with both visual and audio elements.

I found this in a faq on Kubrick and thought others may enjoy. Best, ae

Non-submersible units are fundamental story pieces, the irreducible core of a narrative when all the non essential "padding" has been stripped away. According to Brian Aldiss, Kubrick's collaborator on the scipt for AI, "One of the many sensible and perceptive comments he made over the years was that a movie consists of, at most, say 60 scenes, whereas a book can have countless scenes. So, he said, it's very difficult to boil down a novel to make a film, as he found with The Shining. Much easier to take a short story and turn that into a major movie. 'All you need is six non-submersible units. Forget about the connections for the moment [...] once you've heard this, you see how 2001 was constructed."


Following on from Aldiss' last remark, here is a breakdown of 2001 into its 7 non-submersible parts.
1/ The monolith visits humankind in its infancy

2/ An early man discovers technology (Moon Watcher smashes the bones)

3/ The monolith is excavated on the moon by astronauts and sends a message to Jupiter

4/ Humankind send a manned mission to Jupiter to investigate

5/ Advanced technology (Hal) endangers the mission crew

6/ Technology is defeated and the surviving cremember rendezvous with the aliens

7/ The Starchild is born
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#14 Brian Drysdale

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Posted 08 January 2006 - 01:10 PM

Check out Kubrick's "The Killing", a B&W Noir heist film released in the mid 50's. It's very similar to Huston's "The Asphalt Jungle", except for the way Kubrick shifts time around. The robbery is told through the eyes of the participants, through use of flashback, which is not uncommon. What IS uncommon is the way he does it. "Once a charachter is established, the film leaps backwards, and picks up another character until all the component parts come together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle." While it's a little hard to stay with now, it must have been totally bold and shocking 50 years ago.


One interesting take on flashbacks that I read in one screenplay book is not to regard them as "Flashbacks" but "Flashforwards". Regard them as devices to drive the story forward as if in present time - not to just give some background information. Basically, if they hold up the flow of the story don't use them.
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#15 Hal Smith

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Posted 08 January 2006 - 01:46 PM

Any comments from the "been there, done that" participants to this thread about the three act structure's relevance to short films?

When I go to a movie, I have a habit of noting the running time and dividing it by three. It is absolutely amazing how often I'll been watching a movie, sensed a plot shift, looked at the time, and it's right on a 1/3 - 2/3d's time seam. I figured out that movies were made in a rigid three act form long before I read anything formal about that stucture.

Edmond, OK
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#16 Jonathan Spear

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Posted 08 January 2006 - 02:30 PM

After reading 'Story', 'How NOT to write a screenplay', a few other screenwriting books, and more importantly, a boatload of made screenplays, it seems like the only "rule" you really need to follow is to have a good story to begin with.

The act-structure seems to balance itself out if the story is strong enough to hold interest until the ending credits roll. I tried using the three act structure when I edited my own screenplay for the third time rewrite, but no formula in the world can give a screenplay life unless the story itself is rock solid, somewhat universal and for lack of a better term -- not boring.

I read a screenplay a while back on scriptswap.com that was so well written (a fun, easy read) I couldn't put it down, but when I reached the ending the story just collapsed. Fell apart. The ending sucked so bad it instantly turned that wonderful prose and by-the-book formula into absolutely nothing. There was no way to save the story because none the events leading up to the "climax" (<_< ) made sense anymore.

I pity the studio reader who has to sit through something like that.

Edited by TSM, 08 January 2006 - 02:32 PM.

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#17 Max Jacoby

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Posted 08 January 2006 - 02:58 PM

I've never considered the 3 act structure for my short films. I think because since by their nature they are short, getting a good rhythm is less a question of structure and more about having 2 or 3 really good scenes that make your film.
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#18 Brian Drysdale

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Posted 08 January 2006 - 03:10 PM

After reading 'Story', 'How NOT to write a screenplay', a few other screenwriting books, and more importantly, a boatload of made screenplays, it seems like the only "rule" you really need to follow is to have a good story to begin with.

The act-structure seems to balance itself out if the story is strong enough to hold interest until the ending credits roll. I tried using the three act structure when I edited my own screenplay for the third time rewrite, but no formula in the world can give a screenplay life unless the story itself is rock solid, somewhat universal and for lack of a better term -- not boring.

I read a screenplay a while back on scriptswap.com that was so well written (a fun, easy read) I couldn't put it down, but when I reached the ending the story just collapsed. Fell apart. The ending sucked so bad it instantly turned that wonderful prose and by-the-book formula into absolutely nothing. There was no way to save the story because none the events leading up to the "climax" (<_< ) made sense anymore.

I pity the studio reader who has to sit through something like that.


You don't get anywhere without that story. The head of British Screen ( They used to be a script development funder in the UK) said that out of 200 well written scripts they usually only found one that was worth pursuing. Everyone is looking for that universal story, all the structures won't solve that.

"Story" is better as a tool to sort out why something isn't working in your script rather than coming up with the story itself. I know a film editor who uses the principles to sort out the problems that have arrived on his door because they haven't been fixed during the script writing or shooting stages.

An old Hollywood scriptwriter described the process as getting a man up into a tree, throwing rocks at the man and getting the man out of the tree. It can be applied to any length of conventional story. However, the acts are not equal of length the 2nd act is the longest and the 3rd act is the shortest. It's the basic stuff that screenwriters learn, but it doesn't give you the story that millions want to watch.
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#19 Jaan Shenberger

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Posted 08 January 2006 - 03:19 PM

Any comments from the "been there, done that" participants to this thread about the three act structure's relevance to short films?


generally, the "taught" method of writing a short is the same as the syd field three-act, except you merge acts two and three, meaning the protagonist goes from the end of act one to the end of act three without being interrupted by the "mini-defeat" of act two. though i've seen plenty of shorts that try to cram all three in.

imo, any aspiring filmmakers should read his book. and then read it again. then pee all over it and set it on fire. it's nothing but a huge, imposed limitation on narrative cinema. if you look at the greatest films ever made, you will see that a large percentage of them deviate if not ignore three act structure. but if you look at the crummiest, most forgettable contemporary hollywood studio films to ever be released, you will see that they almost always follow three act structure to a tee.
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#20 Robert Edge

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Posted 08 January 2006 - 09:53 PM

The most revelatory theatrical production that I have ever seen was Peter Hall's 42nd anniversary production of Waiting for Godot with Alan Howard and Ben Kingsley. Those who think that Beckett is hard should see this play live. It is very, very funny. More importantly, in the context of the current discussion, it does not run three acts. It runs, at two hours, two acts, and it is unquestionably a work of genius.

People who want to decide for themselves whether there are magic formulae for writing might consider reading a book by the American writer John Gardner called The Art of Fiction.

They might also consider reading an essay by John Updike, published some years ago in the New York Review of Books, in which he argued that modern literature owes a huge debt to Sterne's Tristram Shandy (a novel recently turned into a film by Michael Winterbottom and cinematographer Marcel Zyskind) and Diderot's Jacques the Fatalist.

Mordechai Richler once said that when he wrote a novel, he didn't have any idea, when he was finished with the first sentence, where the book was going. In other words, the first sentence helped him find the second sentence. If one writes from the language, and from character, this makes perfect sense. I believe that it is how many, although not all, great works of literature have been written.
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