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3 Act Structure


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#1 Aitor

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Posted 27 June 2006 - 03:54 AM

Hi all!

Do you know if Aronofsky's "Pi" complies with the 3 Act Structure?
Do you believe that 3 Act Structure is dead? Do you believe that a more free form of screenwriting is better?

I have a central idea, and want to write a 15min short script about it. How should I go about it? I have already made a 7min film with a good idea that didn't come good as a script and therefore does not make much sense on screen, so now I would like to put more attention to the script part. I don't want to just write what comes to mind. I think that a more structured approach might be better...

What is your opinion on the matter?

I thank you in advance...
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#2 Bob Hayes

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Posted 27 June 2006 - 10:29 AM

The three act structure is a really powerful tool. Many films today are drifting away from that concept and the result is a rather plodding film. Even huge nonstop action films with out those key plot driven changes are dull
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#3 Jason Debus

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Posted 27 June 2006 - 10:35 AM

Almost all narrative movies follow the 3-act structure (I'm pretty sure 'Pi' does as well, I just can't remember the 3rd act). 3-act is alive and well, you would be going against the grain if you didn't follow it.

It sounds like you should put together an outline for your script. Seeing the structure of your story in outline form will help you with the overall arc and pacing as well as story elements. There are 'free form' filmmakers (Wong Kar-Wai comes to mind) that don't pay too much attention to the script but even then they are still using a basic 3-act structure to give form to the film.

Another good example of 'free form' (still using 3-act structure) is Michael Leigh's Naked. From what I understand the dialouge from the main character (played by David Thewlis) is almost all improvised and not shot off of a script. The result is something you would never see with a scructured script (the story IS stuctured even if the dialouge is not).

Filmmaking is expensive so being prepared with story elements & script is pretty essential. The 'free form' examples I listed are definitely not the norm, results may vary!
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#4 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 27 June 2006 - 10:42 AM

A 15 minute film is borderline too short for a traditional 3-act structure since that involves developing a subplot for the 2nd Act -- there may not be enough time for something too complex. Short films (shorter than 15 mins.) are usually one-act in some ways.

But ultimately I think traditional 3-act structure is more of an editorial process -- i.e. you apply it as a story editor to a narrative when it's not working on its own. You have to have an interesting story to tell first before you start applying a traditional structure to it, otherwise it becomes too mechanical (like too many Hollywood scripts are.)

If it gets too obvious, without enough originality of character and incident, the problem with the 3-act structure is that the audience is always ahead of the narrative because they are so familiar with the structure.
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#5 Bill Totolo

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Posted 27 June 2006 - 01:13 PM

Know what your dramatic question is. Then try to answer that in the third act.

Can you reduce your story down to one sentance? Can you reduce it to one word?

Think about what the last impression you want the audience to leave with and shoot that.

How do you tell this story without words, metaphorically?

If this story came to you in a dream how would it play itself out? If it was a poem what would be the structure?

Things to think about.
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#6 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 27 June 2006 - 01:30 PM

Every film has a beginning, middle, and end. The 3-act structure tends to be more specifically about a main plot where a protagonist has a goal and a chief obstacle to that goal, or specifically an antagonist, is introduced by the end of the first act, then a subplot is developed and resolved mostly by the second act, at which point often the protagonist is the farthest from achieving the goal, at thier low point, and then for the third act, the main goal or plot comes back around, usually with a surprise twist to delay the resolution.

You'll often notice that there are major changes in story locations that correspond to the act changes.

One of the things that Lucas and Spielberg sort of shifted in their blockbusters was shortening the 2nd act and making the 3rd act as spectacular as possible.

But if you look at "Star Wars" you see a classic 3-act structure, with the main plot being the plans to destroy the Death Star, and the hero being introduced on Tatooine, and then the 2nd act being all about the subplot of rescuing the Princess and mostly taking place on the Death Star, ending with the low point of Obi Wan Kenobi getting killed, and then the 3rd act coming back to the problem of destroying the Death Star, with the surprise being that Luke has to use the Force to help him hit the target (and being helped by Han Solo at the last minute), the original attack not working as well as planned by the generals. So you constantly have characters setting goals and having them twarted and having to make adjustments to how they achieve their goals.

Even "2001" has a 3-act structure (they are even labelled), although it is not so character-driven, the "plot" really being about the evolution of man, and the subplot being the astronauts problems with HAL.

In some ways, "Jaws" feels more like a 2-act structure, or if you want to call the death of Quinn the end of the 2nd act, then it has a really short 3rd act. But to me, it really divides into two sections. I suppose you could call Brody trying to convince the mayor to hire Quinn a subplot that needs to happen before they go hunting for the shark, but then it means a big chunk of the movie is a 3rd act.

But to some degree, I think the 3-act structure was developed to handle longer narratives that could not be sustained in audience interest with only one plot and not subplots. Short films tend to only have time to develop and resolve one central theme, conflict, or plot.
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#7 Chris Burke

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Posted 27 June 2006 - 04:21 PM

What ever story you do tell, the most important thing you could do is have an ending. It is the last thing the audience will see and probably the thing they will remember most about your movie. A story is worth telling when it is finished, otherwise....????? All good story telling has a clear beginning, middle and end, it just seems that most people have the hardest time ending a story. If you can do that, your ahead of the game. With a short film, the cards are stacked against you even more, because you have less time to tell your story. Every frame is precious and that much more loaded. Traditional three act structure, as David so thoroughly described, would be tough to pull off within 15, but not impossible. I encourage you to bend the rules a bit, find a way to tell your story within fifteen minutes. I personally love self imposed parameters.


chris
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#8 George Lekovic

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Posted 27 June 2006 - 06:38 PM

well,

3 act structure is as old as storytelling, and in many ways is the mode in which humans (as we know them) tend to present narratives. whether second act has a subplot or not is not neceserally imortant for determining if the 3 act structure exist. every scene has a subplot, so does every piece of dialogue, and hopefully, every lighting setup has its own little sub-story to tell. on a large scale, you start your story with establishing what the status-quo is, then you question it, and try to overthrow it, and then at the end you establish it again so everybody can go home feeling happy and secure. if you have ever walked out of a movie in distress, it might have been that the status-quo was not put back in its place, or the boy didn't kiss a girl, or there wasn't any girls in the first place. if you know to what ends this structure works, then (theoretically) you should be at liberty to play with it to suit your own ends...
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#9 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 27 June 2006 - 07:11 PM

3 act structure is as old as storytelling, and in many ways is the mode in which humans (as we know them) tend to present narratives. whether second act has a subplot or not is not neceserally imortant for determining if the 3 act structure exist.


If "3-act structure" is too vaguely defined, then it's a useless concept since anything can be called a 3-act structure as long as it has a beginning, middle, and end. Same for the term "subplot" which is not the same thing as "subtext".
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#10 George Lekovic

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Posted 27 June 2006 - 07:25 PM

david,

my mistake on subtext/subplot confusion (although the two do correlate to a certain extent). as per vaguely describing the terms, i think i was fairly clear in saying that if you have a meaningful closure to a story that re-establishes the order of things as presented in the beginning, chances are yoo are dealing with a 3act structure.

it is often mentioned that "full metal jacket" 'does not work' because of its distinct 2act structure. they go to the boot camp, they go to war, end.

perhaps it is me using different ground to define the term -which does not mean that our oppinions/views are in conflict.

:)
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#11 Leo Anthony Vale

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Posted 28 June 2006 - 01:03 PM

Do you know if Aronofsky's "Pi" complies with the 3 Act Structure?
Do you believe that 3 Act Structure is dead? Do you believe that a more free form of screenwriting is better?


---From Michael Powell's 'Million Dollar Movie", page 32:

"A film-a good film-does not have the shape of a play nor of a book. It is more like a saga, a symphony or a poem. In the early days of silent films we felt this instinctively. Lenin and his film directors taught us the universal power of images."

This was in response to a film he had seen in 1988, which was good looking but wall to wall dialogue.
Leading him to ponder the dreary state of contemporary film.
The sentence preceding the above quote is: "I myself, all these years in movies, have been trying to get rid of words or at least reduce them to a manageable handful."

& The previous pages mentioned that many theater actors do not know the difference between stage acting
(outward appearencesand gestures) and film acting (internal shown through the actors eyes).
Too many directors let the actors get away with it either because they've forgtten the difference or never knew it.

---LV
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#12 Brian S. Miller

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Posted 13 August 2006 - 11:55 PM

According to Robert Evans, "The kid stays in the Picture" If it ain't on the page, it ain't on the screen. (he says, waiving a script)
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#13 maldo1

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Posted 14 August 2006 - 12:46 AM

According to Robert Evans, "The kid stays in the Picture" If it ain't on the page, it ain't on the screen. (he says, waiving a script)





It's a proven fact no expostition, conflict, climax...no real story. I don't believe it's dead I believe, emphasis is place on other disciplines, for effect and in the end the story itself suffers.
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#14 Jon-Hebert Barto

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Posted 06 September 2006 - 07:06 PM

I'd argue that "Full Metal Jacket" is a two act deal. The only real way to see it in three acts is if you take that last shot as the complete "3rd act", IMHO.

Of course this is Kubrick, not everyone can get away with it. :D

And this is the only good film I can think of with this structure.......Story telling in three acts is natural. You'd be surprised to look back on stuff you've written to see that it follows that form naturally. It's a bit like sentence structure...Noun, verb, noun, preposition....it just happens.

"..it just happens."-Please don't crucify me for this statement. I know it's not that easy. I'm just saying if you have a well rounded character and he/she is in a wellrounded story, 3 acts will show themselves when pen is put to paper, so to speak.

As one poster said, outline is key. Write down your ideas on 3x4 cards and see if you can divide them into acts. If you come up one act short, you probably don't have a legit end...
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#15 Leo Anthony Vale

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Posted 07 September 2006 - 04:54 PM

I'd argue that "Full Metal Jacket" is a two act deal. The only real way to see it in three acts is if you take that last shot as the complete "3rd act", IMHO.

I think Kubrick goes for 'about' seven big scenes.

Of course this is Kubrick, not everyone can get away with it. :D

Why not?
Not all symphonies have three movements.
Shakespeare's plays have five acts.
How many acts does 'The Odyssey' have?
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#16 Jon-Hebert Barto

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Posted 07 September 2006 - 09:47 PM

Why not?
Not all symphonies have three movements.
Shakespeare's plays have five acts.
How many acts does 'The Odyssey' have?



No, no....I was being facetious, and at the same time tipping my hat to Kubrick.

Point being, when you see a two acter it is usually bad because its by mistake(bad writing)...It is hard to structure the play this way without leaving the audience hungry for more information. Closure, if you will....That is why Kubricks two acter stands out...IMHO.

Interesting subject, we could go on and on.... :)

Edited by Jon-Hebert Barto, 07 September 2006 - 09:48 PM.

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#17 Mark Allen

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Posted 08 September 2006 - 04:46 AM

It's not as much that the 3 act structure has been overdone, it's more that it has been overemphasized. First of all, a tremendous number of movies area actually five act structures.

If you're really thinking about this subject I would very much encourage you to read the book "Stealing Fire From the Gods."

In this book former WGA president shares his 20 years of research in the form of a new model. His model is based on a circular pattern instead of a linear pattern and I've found it incredibly useful to start thinking of things in this circular pattern. Now, interestingly enough, you can find these patterns in very successful movies - so they can co-exist, it's just that the structure is coming out of the drama and not vice verse.

I found reading this book incredibly inspirational and useful as a tool.

One should also read "Story" by Robert McKee as it addresses many important aspects of story.

Also "On Directing Film" by David Mammet (a writer) is very good on the details level of where your mind should be at moment to moment - even when writing.
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#18 Mark Allen

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Posted 08 September 2006 - 04:56 AM

It's not as much that the 3 act structure has been overdone, it's more that it has been overemphasized. First of all, a tremendous number of movies area actually five act structures.

If you're really thinking about this subject I would very much encourage you to read the book "Stealing Fire From the Gods."

In this book former WGA president shares his 20 years of research in the form of a new model. His model is based on a circular pattern instead of a linear pattern and I've found it incredibly useful to start thinking of things in this circular pattern. Now, interestingly enough, you can find these patterns in very successful movies - so they can co-exist, it's just that the structure is coming out of the drama and not vice verse.

I found reading this book incredibly inspirational and useful as a tool.

One should also read "Story" by Robert McKee as it addresses many important aspects of story.

Also "On Directing Film" by David Mammet (a writer) is very good on the details level of where your mind should be at moment to moment - even when writing.
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#19 Jon-Hebert Barto

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Posted 08 September 2006 - 03:21 PM

The golden paradigm is a bit romantic for my taste....The whole hero theme has been covered by Joseph Cambell 60 years ago, and for my personal consumption he wins out in those regards.

His prose is rambling, yet insperational...I'd rate this book as "insperational" literature, not nuts and bolts stuff. I liked it well enough, but if you're already sufficiently inspired there are many other books, such as the ones you've listed below it.

I'd also say Egri's book serves both purposes......


There is a book out there for everyones taste, too many probably! :rolleyes: The screenplay books just plain suck, IMHO. People are better off sticking to the kinds of books you listed. :)
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#20 Craig Knowles

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Posted 08 September 2006 - 03:52 PM

I've always found that a lot of people I speak with, especially people like myself who complain about hum-drum Hollywood pictures, are afraid of the three-act structure because they fear that the end result will be a paint-by-numbers Hollywood cliché.

I certainly was when I started writing, but when you boil it down, all a three-act structure means is this:

Act I - Introduction - Something happens to someone.
Act II - Story - They are compelled to act or do something because of it.
Act III - Conclusion - They win/lose, are changed/not changed, die/live/endure, whatever. The story comes to an end somehow.

When you talk about adding more acts (like Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is considered to have 7 acts), you're basically sub-dividing Act II into more pieces. You're still going to have an introduction and a conclusion of some kind -- i.e. you're not going to simply end the film while the character is still fighting for something ? but your middle parts will be more complex and have more sub-plots.

When you talk about less than three official acts, you're still going to have roughly the same pieces:

1 - You're always going to have an introduction of some kind. Even if it's not implicitly defined as an act, the audience is still going to be introduced to your locations, actors, etc., the first time we set eyes on them.
2 - You'll have a story of some kind, where something happens on-screen that comprises the bulk of your story, and
3 - Most films have a conclusion of some kind, no matter how brief, abrupt or obtuse.

If you look at stage plays, which are considered to have two acts, you still have the basic structure of the introduction, the story, and the conclusion -- it's just that the introduction and some story are contained in Act I and the remainder of the story and the conclusion is in Act II.

So, in my view, the three act structure is not something to be feared, and it does not mean, by default, that you're going to end up with the latest Kate Hudson/Matthew McConaughey film.

Although the three-act structure is much more detailed than how I have boiled it down here (turning points, sub-plots, etc), essentially the three act structure is just a way of dividing up and disseminating a story to the audience in a way which holds their attention.

Edited by Craig Knowles, 08 September 2006 - 03:55 PM.

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