HEY EVERYONE! HULK HERE! PLEASE NOTE THAT THERE IS A FULLY RE-WRITTEN, UPDATED VERSION OF THIS COLUMN RIGHT HERE: http://badassdigest.com/2013/12/11/hulks-screenwriting-101-excerpt-the-myth-of-3-act-structure/
PLEASE CHECK IT OUT! HULK THANK!
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HULK HEAR IT ALL THE TIME: “PROBLEMS IN THE FILM’S SECOND ACT.”
ALL… THE FUCKING… TIME.
NOW HULK UNDERSTAND THE INTENTION OF THE STATEMENT, IT USUALLY IMPLY WHEN FILM TREADING WATER, OR LOSE TRACK CHARACTERS, OR RUNNING OUT OF STEAM, OR CRAMMING STUFF IN, OR WHATEVER. HULK GET HOW COMMENT INTENDED. THE PROBLEM WITH THIS GENERIC “SECOND ACT” DESIGNATION THAT REALLY IT CAN IMPLY A PROBLEM WITH ANYTHING IN THE “MIDDLE PART” OF STORYTELLING. IT BEYOND VAGUE. SO WHAT CREATE SUCH WISHY-WASHY STORYTELLING? AND THE EVEN WISHY-WASHY-IER WAY OF EXPLAINING IT?
IT BECAUSE EVER-POPULAR NOTION OF THE 3 ACT STRUCTURE = THE MOST ABOMINABLE WAY TO EXPLAIN STORYTELLING IMAGINABLE. EVEN IF SOMEONE WROTE A STORY USING THE MODEL AS GUIDE, IT STILL, ESSENTIALLY, A MYTH.
IN ORDER TO EVEN DISCUSS, HULK FIRST MUST DEFINE WHAT CONSTITUTE AN “ACT.” PEOPLE USE THE WORD ALL THE TIME WITH OUT REALLY BOTHERING THINK WHAT IT MEAN. IT SORT OF JUST GENERAL PLACEHOLDER FOR “BEGINNING, MIDDLE, AND END.” AND WELL… THAT MEAN NOTHING.
SO HULK, AS WELL AS MANY SCREENWRITERS, PROFESSORS, ACTUAL GOOD BOOKS ON SUBJECT, AND MANY OTHER SMARTER PEOPLE THAN HULK, DEFINE THE END OF AN ACT AS FOLLOWING: A POINT IN STORY WHERE CHARACTER(S) MAKE CHOICE AND CAN NO LONGER “GO BACK.”
THE “POINT” OF COURSE = PURPOSELY VAGUE. AFTER ALL, THERE MANY DIFFERENT KINDS STORIES, ALL WITH MANY DIFFERENT KINDS GOALS. BUT YOU MAY SAY “BUT HULK, COULDN’T THAT POINT REALLY BE ANYTHING? LIKE A CHARACTER JUST LEAVING HIS HOUSE AND GRABBING COFFEE OR SOMETHING?” OKAY IT HAVE BE SLIGHTLY MORE VALID THAN SIMPLE CHANGE IN ACTION OR ENVIRONMENT. THE ACT BREAK CAN BE NEW AND INTERESTING PLOT POINT, A POIGNANT CHARACTER DECISION, A PERSONALITY REVEAL, TWO PREVIOUSLY UN-MET CHARACTERS BECOMING FRIENDS, OR EVEN, IF HANDLED CORRECTLY, SOMETHING AS INSIPID AS “NO! THE BAD GUYS ARE HERE! RUN!” … IT CAN BE ANYTHING AS LONG AS IT HAVE CHANGING NARRATIVE VALUE. THE CHARACTERS ALWAYS HAVE MOVE FORWARD IN SOME NEW REALITY/SITUATION.
THE TRUE END OF ACT CREATE PROPULSION.
WITH THIS DEFINITION, IT MEAN FILM CAN HAVE ANY NUMBER OF ACTS DEPENDING ON WHAT TRYING TO SAY/DO. A MOVIE LIKE MALCOLM X HAVE ABOUT 9 DISTINGUISHABLE ACTS IN HULK’S ESTIMATION, EACH FOCUSING ON TIME IN HIS LIFE WHERE MALCOLM GO THROUGH PERIOD OF FOCUS AND COME TO NEW KIND OF ENLIGHTENMENT OR CHARACTER REALITY. IT TRULY EPIC FILM THAT TAKE THE STANDARD BIOPIC (WHICH TEND JUST JUMP FROM EVENT TO EVENT IN PERSONS LIFE) AND SEPARATE THEM INTO VERY OBVIOUS “SECTIONS” OF CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT. IT ONE OF HULK’S FAVORITE MOVIES TO POINT TO WHEN COMES TO MULTI-ACT-LABELING.
AND HECK, SOME MOVIES HAVE UPWARDS OF 20 ACTS. IT ALL A QUESTION OF WHAT STORY YOU WANTING TELL AND THE BETTER YOU UNDERSTAND THIS “MOVING FORWARD” MARKING OF ACT BREAKS, THE BETTER THE SCREENPLAY AT PROPELLING NARRATIVE IN MEANINGFUL WAY.(1)
IT STRANGE WHEN YOU LOOK AT CERTAIN-OH-SO-TERRIBLE MOVIES WITH THIS DEFINITION OF AN ACT-DEFINING AND REALIZE “HOLY CRAP, SOME OF THESE MOVIES DO NOTHING LIKE THAT!”
YUP. THIS TINY BIT OF ADVICE OF IGNORING 3 ACT STRUCTURE IN FAVOR OF CONSTANT CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT WOULD SAVE HUNDREDS OF MOVIES.
FOR EXAMPLE, THE RECENT-AND-UTTER-SHIT-FEST GREEN LANTERN HAVE ONE REAL GENUINE ACT BREAK. REPEAT. ONE. OH SURE, THERE STUFF THAT HAPPEN, BUT IN TERMS OF MAIN CHARACTER PROPULSION? NOPE. TO REITERATE THE PLOT: HAL JORDAN = A PISSY-ASS FIGHTER PILOT, HE GIVEN LANTERN RING, ZAPPED TO OA (NEITHER HIS DECISION), TRAIN FOR ALL OF TWO SECONDS AND QUIT TO GO BACK BEING PISSY-ASS NON-FIGHTER PILOT. IT NOT UNTIL 90 DIFFERENT SCENES OF RELATIVE MOPING, FUTZING AROUND IN SUIT, AND FUCKING REJECTING BLAKE LIVELY’S ADVANCES, THAT HE EMBRACE BEING LANTERN AND MAKE ACTUAL FUCKING DECISION TO CHANGE CHARACTER AND GO BACK TO OA. AND NO TELL HULK THAT HAL GETTING THE RING = AN “ACT BREAK” BECAUSE HE THEN SPENT THEN ENTIRE “MIDDLE” OF MOVIE GOING BACK ON THAT. REPEAT, THE FILM HAVE ONE ACT BREAK. THAT IT. EVERYTHING ELSE, OUTSIDE OF HECTOR HAMMOND WHO THE ONE AN ACTUAL STORY ARC, JUST = STUFF HAPPENING. THERE NO CLEAR CHARACTER MOTIVATION AT PLAY IN ANYONE ELSE. THE FILM, ALONG WITH HUNDREDS OTHER MOVIES, PLAIN NO REALIZE WHAT “ACTS” MEAN. THEY NO REALIZE THAT CHARACTERS HAVE MAKE DECISIONS.
AND HULK BLAME THIS STRINGENT BELIEF IN EXISTENCE OF “3 ACT STRUCTURE” FOR CRAP LIKE THIS. HULK REALLY DO.
FOR STARTERS, IT GO BACK TO THAT PROBLEM OF PEOPLE NOT EVEN TRYING DEFINE “ACT BREAKS” WHATSOEVER. THIS WHOLE BEGINNING, MIDDLE, AND END THING MAKES SOME BASIC SENSE IN TERMS OF “SUMMARIZING” A PLOT, BUT IT LITERALLY GIVE ZERO INDICATION OF HOW ACTUALLY WRITE THAT STORY. IF USING THE TRADITIONAL MODEL OF 3 ACT STRUCTURE THEN THE 1ST ACT ALL “INTRODUCTION/SET UP” AND THE 3RD ACT “THE CLIMAX!” WHICH BOTH VAGUE BUT PRETTY SELF-EXPLANATORY… BUT THEN THERE THAT SECOND ACT WHICH OFTEN JUST DEFINED AS “RISE IN CONFLICT”… SERIOUSLY WHAT THE FUCK THAT EVEN MEAN?
“YOU KNOW… THE CONFLICT! JUST, UM, RISE IT!”
WHATEVER IT MEAN, IT CERTAINLY NOT GOOD STORYTELLING. SURE, HULK GUESS IT AN INCREDIBLY VAGUE SUMMARY OF WHAT HAPPENING, BUT AGAIN, IT NOT INSTRUCTING HOW ACTUALLY DO THAT. NONE OF THE GOOD STUFF WHICH CRITICAL TO CHARACTER ARCS, MOTIVATION, RELATIONSHIPS, PROPULSION. NONE OF IT!
MOST OF TIME IT LEAD WRITERS TO JUST TRY MAKE CONNECTING POINTS BETWEEN THE BEGINNING AND ENDING. THAT ABOUT IT. WHICH MEAN CHARACTERS NOT MOVING FORWARD IN ANY DISCERNIBLE WAY. JUST WAITING AROUND FOR 80 MINUTE MARK SO THAT THEY CAN BEGIN THAT ENDING THINGY. IT A SHELL GAME OF UNMOTIVATED EVENTS ALL BECAUSE THE DEFINITION OF 3 ACT STRUCTURE = COMPLETE ASS.
AS RESULT, WE HEAR IT ALL THE TIME: “THE PROBLEMS IN THE FILM’S SECOND ACT.”
SO OKAY, LET’S GET SERIOUS. IF THE 3 ACT MODEL SUCKS AND ACTS MERELY JUST CAN-NO-GO-BACK, HOW ACTUALLY APPROACH STRUCTURE THEN? LET HULK COMPARE THE TRADITIONAL 3 ACT MODEL WITH THAT OTHER OH SO FAMOUS ACT MODEL CREATED BY THE GREATEST STORYTELLING GENIUS OF ALL TIME: WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE.
FACT: SHAKESPEARE’S PLAYS HAD 5 ACTS… REPEAT: 5… NOT 3.
AND FOR SAKE OF EXPLANATION, HULK WILL USE MOST SHAKESPEARE’S MOST POPULAR PLAY, ROMEO AND JULIET (2), TO HELP ILLUSTRATE HULK’S UPCOMING POINT ABOUT NATURE OF STORY STRUCTURE.
THE 1ST ACT COMPRISED OF INTRODUCTIONS AND ESTABLISHING OF PRE-EXISTING CENTRAL MAIN CONFLICT (I.E. TWO FAMILIES AT ODDS, ROMEO LOVESICK PUP OVER ROSALINE, JULIET NAIVE AND LOVELORN GIRL). NOW, THIS PRE-EXISTING CONFLICT IN BACKGROUND SORT OF IMPORTANT BECAUSE IT CREATE A CONDITION OF THE WORLD THE AUDIENCE ENTERING. IT CREATE SENSE OF SPACE, HISTORY, AND BELIEVABILITY. AND IT BIG SURPRISE TO HULK HOW OFTEN IT IGNORED IN TRADITION OF GRAND BLOCKBUSTER FILMMAKING THAT SO POPULAR NOWADAYS. AND HECK, EVEN IF IT SOME INTRICATE HUMAN DRAMA, THE PRE-EXISTING CONFLICT GIVE REASON FOR THE OCCURRENCE OF THE MAIN ACTION WHICH SPUR PLOT INTO EFFECT.
THE 2ND ACT USUALLY COMPRISED OF SOME KIND OF TURN OR REVERSAL WHICH CHALLENGE OR DEEPLY WORSEN THE MAIN CONFLICT, USUAL IN FORM OF RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT, REVEAL, OR SURPRISE (I.E. STAR-CROSSED TEENAGERS ROMEO AND JULIET MEET AND GO GA-GA OVER ONE ANOTHER, WHICH HUGE PROBLEM GIVEN THE NATURE OF THE PRE-EXISTING CONFLICT). BASICALLY THIS ACT FEATURE THE MAIN DEVELOPMENT OF THE STORY. MEANING IF HAD TO EXPLAIN WHAT THE MOVIE ABOUT, THE CONFLICT BEING DESCRIBED SHOULD BE THE THING HAPPENING SOMEWHERE IN HERE, REVEALED IN WHICHEVER WAY BENEFIT THE STORY MOST.(3)
THE 3RD ACT COMPRISE A TURNING POINT. NOW, HULK REMIND YOU THIS NEED NOT BE A “TWIST” BUT MORE A SPURRING ACTION THAT MAKE THE CONFLICT INFINITELY MORE COMPLICATED (I.E. MERCUTIO DYING, ROMEO THEN KILLING TYBALT). OFTEN THESE MOMENTS SURPRISING. THEY DEEPLY AFFECT NOT ONLY THE SERIOUSNESS OF MAIN CONFLICT, BUT EVEN ALTER THE ACTUAL DIRECTION OF IT. THIS THE SORT OF THING ALLUDED TO IN THE “RISE IN CONFLICT” STATEMENT, BUT YOU KNOW, WAY MORE SPECIFIC. THE 3RD ACT SUCH GREAT OPPORTUNITY IN STORYTELLING AND SHAKESPEARE’S 3RD ACTS OFTEN THINGS OF BEAUTY: GREAT INVERSIONS. BEST INTENTIONS GONE AWRY. DEATHS! LOSS! CONFUSION! SUDDEN CHAOS! THE MOST IMPORTANT THING THAT EVEN THOUGH THESE THIS 3RD ACTS DON’T FINISH THE ARC OF THE STORY, THEY STILL CLIMAX-WORTHY IN SCALE, AND NOT JUST “HEY, LET’S PUT AN ACTION SCENE HERE!
BUT THE REAL KEY WITH THE THIRD ACT TO MAKE THE “TURNING POINT” ONE THAT DEEPLY AFFECTING AND TO CHANGE THE ARC OF THE STORY. IT SOMETHING FAR MORE IMPORTANT THEN JUST “PUTTING THINGS IN PLACE FOR CLIMAX”. SPEAKING OF WHICH…
THE 4TH ACT THEN “THE SPIRAL” AND IT ACTUALLY FULL OF DECISIONS THAT CAUSE CHARACTERS SINK TOWARD THE REAL CLIMAX (I.E. ROMEO AND JULIET DECIDE GO ON THE LAMB, HATCH PLAN TO FAKE DEATHS, ETC). IN TRUTH THIS THE POINT WHERE YOU REALLY ARRANGING AND SETTING UP THE CLIMAX, BUT IN THAT GOAL IT IMPORTANT REMEMBER THAT STAYING TRUE TO CHARACTER ARCS. IT REALLY THE BEST PLACE TO EXPOSE THE DEEP CHARACTER FLAWS THAT WILL EITHER BRING DOWN HERO OR ALLOW THEM SUCCEED. (MEANWHILE, THE THIRD ACT TURNING POINT CAN SOMETIMES ALLOW FOR MAIN CHARACTER ACTING OUT OF CHARACTER. IT A NEAT LITTLE DISTINCTION). THE 4TH ACT ALSO GREAT OPPORTUNITY FOR QUIET MOMENTS OF REFLECTION BEFORE THE FINALE, BUT IT CAN NO JUST BE ALL REFLECTION AND PAUSING (COUGH COUGH GREEN LANTERN). AGAIN, THAT “FULL OF DECISIONS” ASPECT NEED BE THERE. THE PACE SHOULD QUICKEN. THINGS SHOULD FEEL LIKE THEY FALLING OUT OF CONTROL. IT THE SPIRAL.
AND THE 5TH ACT WHERE AUDIENCE GET THE CLIMAX/RESOLUTIONS/WEDDINGS/TRAGEDY/FALLOUT/ETC. (I.E. ROMEO AND JULIET KILL SELVES, FAMILY HEARTBROKEN AND DECLARE PEACE). (4) THE MOST IMPORTANT THING REMEMBER THAT IT NO JUST “WRAPPING THINGS UP” BUT THE ENCAPSULATION OF THE STORY AND SHOULD EXHIBIT ALL THE POINTS ONE TRYING MAKE IN MOVIE. THE CLIMAX AND RESOLUTION = THE GOAL OF YOUR MOVIE. IT SHOULD BE THE SUMMATION OF EVERYTHING YOU WRITTEN SO FAR. IT SHOULD NO BE FREAKIN’ AFTERTHOUGHT.
AGAIN, THIS 5 ACT STRUCTURE THING JUST AN EXAMPLE. CAN DO WHATEVER YOU THINK BEST. LIKE THE 9 ACTS IN MALCOLM X. BUT IF LOOKING FOR TOOL TO HELP STRUCTURE YOUR STORY THEN, WELL, ONE COULD DO A LOT WORSE THAN SHAKESPEARE. NO MATTER WHAT THE STORY: TRAGEDY, COMEDY, OR HISTORY, HE USED THIS SPECIFIC 5 ACT STRUCTURE EVERY TIME. THE INTRO, THE CONCEIT, THE TURN, THE SPIRAL, THE CLIMAX. HE GET HEAPED WITH PRAISE OVER MASTERY OF LANGUAGE AND THE DEEP RESONANCE OF THEMATICS, SOME EVEN CREDIT HIM AS THE FATHER OF PSYCHOLOGY, BUT HE JUST SO FUCKING BRILLIANT AT STORY STRUCTURE TO BOOT… IT SORT OF UNFAIR. AND HULK KNOW IT MAY SEEM LAME BRING UP SUCH AN OBVIOUS CHOICE AS “BEST WRITER EVER” BUT, WELL, HE WAS.
SO NOW THEN.
HULK WANT YOU GO BACK TO TRADITIONAL DEFINITION OF 3 ACT STRUCTURE FOR SECOND. YOU MAY NOTICE SOMETHING VERY IMPORTANT WHEN COMPARING IT TO SHAKESPEARE’S MODEL. THE WAY THE SECOND ACT DESCRIBED IN 3 ACT STRUCTURE = THE SAME WAY ACT 4 DEFINED IN SHAKESPEARE’S MODEL. HIS “SPIRAL” REALLY SIMILAR TO THE “RISE IN CONFLICT.”
HULK ARGUE THIS SO FUCKING TELLING IT NOT EVEN FUNNY.
IT MEAN THAT THIS LITTLE WAY SHAKESPEARE ESCALATING THE STAKES AND POSITIONING THE ENDGAME = THE SAME EXACT WAY HOLLYWOOD SCREENWRITERS HANDLE THE ENTIRE MIDDLE PARTS OF THEIR GODDAMN MOVIE.
NO WONDER THEY AIMLESS AND BORING.
FOR ONE, IT NO MISTAKE THAT SHAKESPEARE’S ACT 4 ALWAYS THE SHORTEST, LEAST INTERESTING, AND LEAST COMPELLING OF EVERY SINGLE ONE HIS PLAYS. SO IMAGINE TRYING FIT THAT SAME STORY TELLING LOGIC INTO THE 30-60 SUM ODD PAGES THAT MAKE UP SECOND ACTS? IT MEAN THEY CHARACTERS JUST WAITING AROUND. IT MEAN THE WRITERS JUST TRYING COME UP WITH DISTRACTIONS AND B.S. CONFLICTS THAT NO HAVE DO WITH THE POINT OR AFFECTING THE ARC OF STORY. IT MEAN THAT WRITERS END UP CRAMMING TOO MUCH GOOD STUFF IN “FIRST ACT” TO TRY AND ESTABLISH ALL NEEDED DETAILS WHEN REALLY THEY MISSING GREAT OPPORTUNITY FOR DEVELOPING A STORY AT ORGANIC PACE.(5)
SO MAYBE SHAKESPEARE NOT YOUR THING. YOU MAY ASK “HULK, HOW THIS 5 ACT WORK WITH POPULAR MOVIE GOING? I NO REMEMBER SEEING FIVE ACT MOVIE BE BIG HIT.”
THIS WHERE HULK POLITELY REQUEST YOU LOOK AT HOST OF EXAMPLES. HECK, LOOK HULK’S OLD BUDDY/GREAT MOVIE IRON MAN, WHICH HAVE EXCEPTIONAL STORY STRUCTURE. THE ONE THING EVERYONE SEEMED LOVE THAT IT SPENT SO LONG BEFORE TONY ACTUALLY BECOME “IRON MAN” SO THEY GET EXPERIENCE ALL THE GREAT CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT TO GET THERE. EVERYONE LAUDED THE FUN SENSE OF ADVENTURE THAT CAME FROM HIM ACTUALLY BUILDING THE SUIT. IT NEVER RUSHED GETTING TO “THE ACTION” THAT CAUSE THE STORYTELLING = THE ACTION. BUT THIS BIG BUDGET MOVIE!!! HOW THIS HAPPEN? GOOD STRUCTURE THAT’S HOW. GUESS HOW MANY ACTS THE MOVIE HAVE?
NO BELIEVE HULK?
ACT ONE – INTRO + STATE OF PRE-EXISTING CONFLICT – WE GET SEE TONY AS PLAYBOY AND THE EXTERNAL MORAL CONFLICT OF SUPPLYING WEAPONS.
TWO – THE CONCEIT AND PUTTING AT ODDS WITH PRE-EXISTING CONFLICT – TONY CAPTURED AND PUT IN TERRORIST CAMP. DISCOVERS REALITY ABOUT HIS WEAPONS BUILDING AND LIFE THREATENED. BUILDS PROTOTYPE SUIT AND ESCAPES.
THREE – THE TURNING POINT – TONY NOW BACK AT HOME, HE MAKES MORAL DECISION SHUTS DOWN WEAPONS OPS CHANGE DIRECTION OF HIS LIFE. TONY DECIDES TO CONTINUE ON PATH AND BUILD NEW SUIT. OBADIAH REVEALED AS BAD GUY BEHIND TONY’S KIDNAPPING. TONY GOES LIVE W/ SUIT.
FOUR – THE SPIRAL/ESCALATION OF CONFLICT – TONY CONTINUES USE THE SUIT OUT IN REAL WAR CONFLICT AND HAS “HERO TRIALS” SO TO SPEAK, ADMITS TRUTH TO RHODES, GETS SIDELINED BY OBIDIAH, NOW IN GRIM CIRCUMSTANCE. NOTICE THAT THESE DEVELOPMENTS FEEL MORE OF THE ACTION-Y WHEEL-SPINNING ACTIVITIES THAT REEK OF STANDARD ACT 2 DEVELOPMENTS ONE SEES IN 3 ACT STRUCTURE. BUT IN THIS MOVIE? BECAUSE IT COME AFTER THE AWESOME SUIT-BUILDING TURN OF ACT 3, IT FEEL FRESH AND EXCITING TO NOW SEE IRON MAN IN ACTION. AND IT GO ON FOR PERFECT SHORTER LENGTH OF TIME BEFORE MOVING TO INEVITABLE FINALE.
FIVE- = CLIMAX/CONCLUSION/RESOLUTION – TONY’S CONFLICT WITH OBIDIAH COMES TO CONCLUSION BOTH PERSONALLY AND AS, YOU KNOW, BIG IRON MEN FIGHTING IN DEATH SUITS. THE IMPORTANT PART THAT ALL THE PLOTS ALL COME TOGETHER EVEN THOUGH THE ACTION FELT UNDERWHELMING. HULK ACTUALLY FIND THAT PART KINDA NEAT AS IT MEANT “THE ACTION” = THE LEAST INTERESTING PART OF BIG SUMMER BLOCKBUSTER. THAT AN ACHIEVEMENT.
SOME OF YOU MAY ARGUE THERE LOTS OTHER POSSIBLE ACT BREAKS IN IRON MAN. THAT THAT ABSOLUTELY TRUE. GREAT WRITING FILLED WITH “MICRO-ACTS” WHICH HELP PROPEL EVERY SCENE FORWARD. THERE REALLY MANY DIFFERENT STORIES: TONY’S ARC WITH PEPPER HAVE IT OWN ACT BREAKS. TONY’S RELATIONSHIP WITH OBIDIAH HAVE ITS OWN BREAKS. IT WHAT MAKE A STORY FEEL PROPULSIVE + ORGANIC. AFTER ALL, EVERY SCENE SHOULD HAVE REAL GOAL AND OBJECTIVE TO IT. SO GOING BACK TO THE POINT AT HAND, LABELING ALL THAT GREAT CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT AND DECISION-MAKING IN THE MIDDLE OF MOVIE AS JUST “RISE IN CONFLICT” = FUCKING ASININE.
AND IT NOT JUST SHAKESPEARE AND IRON MAN FOLKS. HULK FIND MOST TRADITIONAL NARRATIVES (AT LEAST THE WELL TOLD ONES) HAVE ABOUT 5-6 ACTS. IT JUST A GREAT MODEL FOR TRADITIONAL STORYTELLING. NOTICE THAT ALL ONE HOUR TV DRAMAS ALL SEGMENTED INTO 5 ACTS? YES IT FOR COMMERCIAL BREAKS, BUT THIS MAGIC NUMBER NO REAL ACCIDENT AND IT REALLY HELP MAKE TV SHOWS PROPULSIVE. AGAIN, LIKE ANYTHING, YOU MORE THAN ALLOWED TO BREAK AWAY FROM THIS MODEL, BUT YOU BE SURPRISED HOW MANY NON-TRADITIONAL NARRATIVES UTILIZE 5-6 ACTS.
PEOPLE LOOOOOOOOVE TALK ABOUT QUENTIN TARANTINO’S NON-LINEAR STORYTELLING AS COUNTER EXAMPLE TO “ACT-BASED” STORYTELLING. PARTICULARLY WITH PULP FICTION. BUT GUESS WHAT? THAT MOVIE EXACTLY 5 ACTS (PLUS LITTLE VIGNETTES). RESERVOIR DOGS? 5 ACTS. BOTH KILL BILLS? EACH ONE HAS 5 ACTS. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS? 5 ACTS. YOU SENSE THEME?
HULK JUST CAN NO EMPHASIZE THIS ENOUGH.
A STORY A MULTIFACETED THING. IF YOU WANTING TO STRUCTURE YOUR STORY, REMEMBER TO HAVE BOTH ACT STRUCTURE FOR THE MAIN PLOT AND ACT STRUCTURE FOR THE EACH OF YOUR CHARACTERS PERSONALITY DEVELOPMENTS. BY HAVING ALL THESE VARYING STRUCTURES, EACH WITH THEIR OWN BEATS, IT CREATE A CONSTANT SENSE OF “MOVING FORWARD” FOR MOVIE. THAT WHY THEY CALL IT “DEVELOPMENT” AND IT THE KEY TO BRINGING YOUR AUDIENCE ALONG FOR JOURNEY.
PERHAPS YOU THINK HULK BEING TOO HARD ON 3 ACT STRUCTURE. THAT PERHAPS HULK SIMPLIFYING IT IN EFFORT TO TEAR IT DOWN.
READ THIS “SUMMARY” OF 3 ACT STRUCTURE AND ENJOY THE BIGGEST EXAMPLE OF MISSING THE FUCKING POINT IN HISTORY:
… WOW. HULK MEAN… WOW. THIS GIVEN AS ACTUAL ADVICE. AND WHAT ABOUT THAT AMAZING PART WHERE HE TAKE ACT 2-4 OF SHAKESPEARE’S WRITING AND ESTABLISH IT AS HIS “ACT 2” WHICH NOT ONLY HILARIOUS IN ITS OVER-SIMPLIFICATION BUT IT ACTUALLY IGNORE 3 ACT STRUCTURE RULES BECAUSE THE CONCEIT INTRODUCED IN SECOND ACT NOT END OF FIRST. THE WHOLE THING LAUGHABLE.
PLEASE. IF YOU WRITING SCREENPLAY. HULK TELLING YOU. THE 3 ACT STRUCTURE = GARBAGE.
STOP CITING IT IN ARTICLES.
STOP TALKING ABOUT IT WITH FRIENDS.
IT WILL NOT HELP YOU.
IT CAN ONLY HURT YOU.
STAY THE FUCK AWAY FROM ANYONE WHO EVEN CLAIM IT EXIST. IF THEY SAY IT DO. SAY “OR COURSE SHIT HAS BEGINNING, MIDDLE, AND ENDING YOU INSUFFERABLE TURD” THEN THROW A DRINK IN THEIR FACE AND RUN AWAY…
… OKAY, MAYBE HULK GETTING CARRIED AWAY. PERHAPS ALL THIS ADVICE USELESS.
AFTER ALL, IT PARTICULARLY TELLING OF HOLLYWOOD THAT THEY EVEN FAIL AT THE BASICS OF THIS SUPPOSED 3 ACT STRUCTURE. BECAUSE SO MANY MOVIES GREEN-LIT ON JUST A “PITCH” AND SOME STARS ATTACHED, YOU BASICALLY HAVE MOVIES BEING MADE THAT HAVE ONLY FIGURED OUT THE CONCEIT, MEANING THEY ONLY KNOW THE FIRST ACT… AND THAT FUCKING IT. THE ENDINGS OF THESE BARELY ESTABLISHED CONCEITS UNIFORMLY TEND BE TERRIBLE. IT BECAUSE THE WRITERS JUST KEEP WRITING IN STRAIGHT LINE FROM THEIR STARTING POINT, PURSUING THE FALLOUT TIL THEY JUST RUN OUT OF STEAM. YOU BE STUNNED BY AMOUNT WRITERS THAT NO PLAN OUT MOVIE AND JUST SORT OF WRITING STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS. AND YES, THERE SOME GENIUSES WHO GET AWAY WITH WRITING LIKE THAT BUT TRUTH IS, THOSE GENIUSES HAVE INHERENT UNDERSTANDING OF PACING, DEVELOPMENT, CHARACTERIZATION, AND PROPULSION SO IT FLOWING OUT NATURALLY TO THEM.
IT REALLY INCONCEIVABLE TO HULK THAT FOLKS CAN START MAKING MOVIE WITHOUT TRULY “KNOWING” THE ENDING. IF YOU WANT BE WRITER, ALWAYS KNOW YOUR ENDING. HECK, YOUR ENDING SHOULD BE IT THE MOST IMPORTANT THING YOU DOING. TO REITERATE, NO ONE EVER SEEM REALIZE THAT THE ENDING IS THE CONCEIT. IT LITERALLY THE COMPLETE SUMMATION OF WHAT YOU FUCKING TRYING TO SAY.
TO SUMMARIZE THIS INSANE RANT:
THE AMOUNT OF ACTS MOVIE SHOULD BE DEPENDENT ON STORY WANT TO TELL. EACH ACT SHOULD REACH THIS MOVING FORWARD POINT IN ORGANIC, EARNED WAY. AND TOTAL NUMBER DEPENDENT ON HOW MUCH TRYING ACCOMPLISH WITH STORY. MORE IMPORTANTLY, THEY SHOULD ALL TIE TOGETHER IN COHERENT WAY. AND THEN, ULTIMATELY, IT SHOULD TRY BE DONE WITH BEST ECONOMY POSSIBLE WITHOUT LOSING ANYTHING CRITICAL OR AFFECTING THE ORGANIC QUALITY.
HULK LOVE BRINGING UP THE ORIGINAL KUNG FU PANDA ALL THE TIME, NOT BECAUSE IT GREAT MOVIE, BUT BECAUSE IT KNOW PERFECTLY HOW TO INTEGRATE SIMPLE STORIES INTO COHERENT AND ECONOMIC NARRATIVE. IT SO TRUE TO THE BASICS AND YET COMPLETELY EFFECTIVE. IT STORYTELLING 101.(6)
HULK KNOW, HULK KNOW. HULK REFERENCE STORYTELLING 101 ALL FREAKING TIME. IT SORT OF BECOMING HULK’S MANTRA. BUT IT STUNNING HOW OFTEN PEOPLE FORGET THE MOST BASIC TENANTS.
AGAIN, HULK’S EMPHASIS ON STORYTELLING 101 NOT A HOW-TO-GUIDE OF STRINGENT RULES, IT MERELY A TOOL HELP MAKE WHAT YOU WANT DO MORE FOCUSED. BECAUSE IN ORDER INVERT RULES, ONE MUST UNDERSTAND THE RULES IN FIRST PLACE. HULK HEARD THIS ALL TIME IN WRITING CLASSES AND THE REBELLIOUS MINDED YOUTH TEND PAY IT NO HEED. BUT IT NOT UNTIL MUCH LATER IN LIFE, AFTER LOGGING ABOUT 1000-2000 HOURS OF SCREENWRITING THAT HULK REALLY “GOT IT” SO TO SPEAK.(7)
NO MATTER WHO YOU ARE, STORYTELLING LARGELY ABOUT PROBLEM SOLVING. ONE CAN ALWAYS COME UP WITH GREAT IDEAS THAT MOTIVATE AND EXCITE, BUT THE OTHER HALF THAT EQUATION FIGURING OUT HOW MAKE TRANSLATE TO FULLY FORMED REALITY. HOW MAKE A MOVIE THAT TRUE TO THAT CONCIET? ONE THAT WORK ON EVERY LEVEL? ULTIMATELY, THE WRITER ASK HOW MAKE THIS SCENE WORK? HOW ESTABLISH WHAT WANT SAY?
IT PROBLEM SOLVING.
AND TAKE HULK’S ADVICE. THE 3 ACT STRUCTURE NO HELP YOU PROBLEM SOLVE.
(1) YES, EVEN WITH “CHASE MOVIES” THE SIMPLE ACT OF “IT THE BAD GUYS! RUN!” WORK IN TERMS OF CHANGING THE SITUATION REALITY, BUT IT OFTEN BECOME SO DULL AND REPETITIVE THAT MORE INTERESTING THINGS HAVE BE GOING ON/DEFINING THE SITUATION. THIS THE CHIEF REASON MICHAL BAY MOVIES NO WORK. IT ONLY THE CHASE. SURE, HE SOMETIMES ABLE TO MASK THIS MACGUFFIN/SET-PIECE-JUMPING WITH DISTRACTING VISUALS OR ATTEMPTS AT QUASI-RACIST COMEDY, BUT THE CHASE ALWAYS BECOME BORING. THERE NO ACTUAL INTRIGUE.*
*OKAY MR. HULK THERE A CHASE MOVIE THAT JUST ALL PLOT BUT STILL WORK?” YES. IT CALLED THE FRENCH CONNECTION. THAT MOVIE KICKS 100% ASS BECAUSE IT WORK OFF PURE INTRIGUE AND TWO LIKABLE CHARACTERS/ACTORS YOU FOLLOW DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE. IT PERFECT. ALSO FX’S “THE SHIELD” KNEW HOW DEAL CREATE A STREAM OF SHIFTING NARRATIVE INTRIGUE ACROSS 6 SEASONS. IT CAN BE DONE.**
**MEANWHILE, JJ ABRAMS ONLY SEEM KNOW HOW PRESENT THE MOST APPETIZING INTRIGUE EVER, BUT THEN HE NOT KNOW HOW DELVE INTO IT… WHATSOEVER. EVERYONE ALWAYS DEMAND “ANSWERS” OF JJ’S WORK, BUT REALLY THEY JUST WANT CATHARSIS. OR HECK EVEN DEVELOPMENTS WILL DO… YOU KNOW WHAT? FUCK IF THEY DON’T JUST WANT STORYTELLING… THE MYSTERY ONLY GO SO FAR.
(2) SORRY FOLKS, IT NOT HULK’S FAVORITE PLAY, BUT IT BEST KNOWN. SO IT HELPS WHEN TRYING EXPLAIN.
(3) AND NOW, HULK HAVE A HELPFUL TOOL FOR YOU! SOMETIMES THERE EXPRESSION USED IN SCREENWRITING CALLED “PAGE 17” WHICH MEAN THAT BY PAGE 17 THE AUDIENCE SHOULD NOW HAVE IDEA WHERE THE FILM GOING. IT SOUND DUMB AND IT CERTAINLY NOT HARD OR FAST RULE, BUT YOU BE STUNNED BY NUMBER OF SCRIPTS THAT HIT THE CONCEIT OF THEIR MOVIE EXACTLY ON PAGE 17. IT JUST SORT OF GOOD PLACE TO AIM BECAUSE IT GIVE ENOUGH ROOM BOTH ESTABLISH THE WORLD AND THEN BE ON WAY. NOT ALWAYS, BUT GENERALLY IF YOU WAITING TIL PAGE 30 TO GET TO FREAKING CONCEIT YOU WAITED TO LONG. ANYCRAP. AIM FOR PAGE 17-ISH.
(4) HULK JUST WANT MENTION THAT ROMEO AND JULIET MIGHT BE MOST MISUNDERSTOOD PLAY IN HISTORY. YES, SHAKESPEARE CRITICIZING OVERZEALOUS AND DOMINEERING PARENTAGE (AND RACISM BY PROXY) AND EVEN THOUGH HE UNDERSTANDING OF YOUNG LOVE AND ALL THAT, SHAKESPEARE ALSO CLEARLY EXPRESSING THAT ROMEO AND JULIET WERE DUMBASS BRATS WHO TOOK THEMSELVES WAY, WAY, WAY TOO SERIOUSLY. THEY WEREN’T IN LOVE. THEY WERE INFATUATED. THE PLAY ABOUT THE PRATFALLS OF INFATUATION. THERE. HULK SAID IT*
*OOOOOH, AND RANDOM NOTE ON SHAKESPEARE: HULK TALKED ABOUT CHARACTERS HAVING MAKE DECISIONS. WELL HAMLET A PLAY THAT LITERALLY ABOUT INDECISIVE CHARACTER. THE KEY THAT IT STILL HAVE TONS NARRATIVE STEAM AS IT DEAL WITH OTHER ASPECTS OF HIS CHARACTER AND EXPLORE THE EFFECTS OF HIS MIS-STEPS ON ACCOUNT OF SAID INDECISIVENESS. AND IT MAYBE BEST PLAY EVER. MOVING ON!
(5) LET HULK EVEN THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX HERE. SO MANY MOVIES SO CAREFUL TO TELL EVERYTHING ABOUT CHARACTERS RIGHT UP FRONT SO YOU KNOW EVERYTHING RIGHT AWAY. HULK THINK THIS MISTAKE. THINK ABOUT IT. IF A CHARACTER REVEAL AND “TWIST” WORK SAME WAY IN TERMS OF PROVIDING NEW INFORMATION TO AUDIENCE, WHY NO TAKE LONGER REVEAL SOME GOOD INFORMATION AND MAKE SECOND ACTS MORE INTERESTING? ATTACK THE BLOCK GREAT EXAMPLE OF MOVIE THAT TAKE LONGER TIME REVEALING THE CHARACTERS AND PROVIDING INTRIGUE WHILE THE A PLOT DEVELOPED AROUND THEM. SO HULK ASK, WHY NOT INTRODUCE A CHARACTER OVER LONGER PERIOD OF TIME? HULK RECENTLY ESPOUSE THE INCREDIBLE MERITS OF HAPPY-GO-LUCKY BECAUSE IT GRADUALLY REVEAL THE MORE DIMENSIONS OF ITS MAIN CHARACTER OVER ENTIRE COURSE OF MOVIE. AND NOT TO BEAT DEAD HORSE, BUT GOING BACK TO GREEN LANTERN THAT MOVIE SO QUICK TO HURRY UP AND ESTABLISH ALL THE ASPECTS OF HAL JORDAN THAT PERTINENT BEFORE HE GET RING THAT THERE LITERALLY NOTHING TO SAY ABOUT HIM AFTER HE GET IT. AND HEY REMEMBER THE FAMILY THEY INTRODUCED AT THE BEGINNING THAT NEVER SHOW UP IN REST OF MOVIE? UGH.
(6) TO ILLUSTRATE FURTHER, HULK GOING COMPARE IT TO AVATAR, WHICH ALSO HIGHLY AWARE OF ALL IT’S STRUCTURAL BEATS. YET KUNG FU PANDA ACTUAL KNOW HOW INVEST SENSE OF EMOTION AND MAKE THE STORY FEEL BOTH REAL AND INTEGRATED TO ALL THE CHARACTERS AT HAND. YES, THEY BOTH SIMPLE APPROACHES TO STORY. BUT KUNG FU PANDA USED THAT SIMPLICITY TO ACHIEVE A COHESIVE NARRATIVE, WHILE AVATAR WAS PAINT-BY-NUMBERS. ANYCRAP…
(7) IT BRING UP INTERESTING DILEMMA WITH REGARD FILM CRITICS. THE SCREENWRITER SEEM LOVE LAMBAST THE CRITIC AS KNOW-NOTHING-WANNABE. THIS STRIKE HULK AS MISGUIDED AND GROSS MISUNDERSTANDING OF THE ROLE OF CRITICS. THEIR JOB, IN THIS ERA ESPECIALLY, TO FOSTER AND ENGAGE IN A DIALOGUE WITH CONSUMERS. AND TO DISMISS THE CRITIC’S REACTION = TO INDIRECTLY INSINUATE CONSUMER HAVE NO VALUE EITHER. WHICH A BIG, BIG PROBLEM. BUT, ON OTHER END OF SPECTRUM THEY DO HAVE POINT. WRITING A COHESIVE NARRATIVE AN EXTREMELY DIFFICULT TASK AND UNLESS HAVE REAL FAMILIARITY WITH THE PRACTICE ITSELF, NOT JUST THE END RESULTS, IT EASY TO NOT UNDERSTAND HOW THE PROBLEMS ONE ENCOUNTERS MANIFEST ON SCREEN. THERE A MILLION WAYS A GOOD SCRIPT CAN BE MASSACRED BY FINAL PRODUCT OR WAYS A CRAPPY SCRIPT CAN BE ELEVATED TO SOMETHING MORE FUNCTIONAL, BUT ALL OF THAT COMPLICATION CAN BE OBSCURED WHEN VIEWING THE FINAL PRODUCT. WHAT CRITICS MISS MOST OF ALL = THAT WRITERS OFTEN ACUTELY AWARE OF THEIR OWN WORK’S FAILINGS. BUT THEY WENT WITH THEIR CHOICE BECAUSE THEY FELT IT MAY HAVE ACHIEVED A LARGER GOAL, OR IT WOULD COME OFF DIFFERENTLY, OR SIMPLY BECAUSE SOMEONE ELSE DID SOMETHING DIFFERENT AND THEY HAD NO CHOICE. WRITING LARGELY A GAME OF “WHAT LOSES HERE?” IN ORDER CONCENTRATE ON A, B, AND C, SOMETIMES D FALLS BY WAYSIDE. AND THERE ALWAYS SOMEONE IN AUDIENCE WHO CARE ABOUT D. ULTIMATELY, THE BEST FILMS NAVIGATE THIS DIFFICULT PATH SEAMLESSLY. THEY PICK THE RIGHT THINGS FOCUS ON AND KEEP EVERYTHING BALANCED WITH TONE… AND IT ABSURDLY DIFFICULT.
182 thoughts on “HULK PRESENTS: THE MYTH OF 3 ACT STRUCTURE”
If you don’t mind me asking, what’s your background? Teaching? Screenwriting? This is really insightful, very informative stuff.
HULK MUST KEEP SECRET IDENTITY SECRET! BUT YES. SCREENWRITING WILL SUFFICE.
He’s the Hulk. His job is to smash.
He’s a Nuclear Physicist. Duh 😀
Hi, Hulk…great entry. Can you list some other movies you feel are exceptional 5+ act narratives? Really want to delve more into this.
Thanks! Keep up the great work.
HULK HAVE DOUBLE CHECK BUT OFF TOP HEAD: ALL THREE LORD OF RINGS, SPIDERMAN 1 + 2, LA CONFIDENTIAL, ONCE, MULHOLLAND DRIVE, THE WRESTLER, PAN’S LABRYINTH, HAPPY GO LUCY, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, ETERNAL SUNSHINE, Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN, THE THIN RED LINE, RUSHMORE (ALL WES ANDERSONS = 5 ACTS WITH THE TITLE CARDS ESPECIALLY), TOWELHEAD, INCEPTION, THE IRON GIANT, MAGNOLIA (THAT ONE 12), BOOGIE NIGHTS, THE NEW WORLD, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, BLADE 2
BASICALLY ALL HULK’S FAVORITE MOVIES
AND EVEN MOVIES WRITTEN WITH INTENTION OF 3 ACT STRUCTURE REALLY HAVE MORE IF WRITERS GOOD ENOUGH. THEY JUST NO REALIZE THE OTHER ACT BREAKS THERE
GAH. I love so many of these movies.
Amazing read, you’ve opened up a whole new world for me somehow. Thank you.
Whenever I hear someone critique a particular act of a movie, and I know for a fact they have no screenwriting experience, I assume they’re discussing a period of time in the film but feel the need to dress it up. It’s the difference between saying “the ending” vs “the third act”, which sounds a little more erudite.
As it relates to sequels, do you think an overarching act structure is important as it relates to the success of a particular franchise? At the moment I’m thinking about the Blade, Spiderman and Robocop franchises, all of which went off the rails in their third incarnation, departing sharply from the narrative of the first two that made them successful franchises to begin with.
THE ORIGINAL STAR WARS TRILOGY REALLY BECOME THE MODEL FOR BETTER/WORSE. BUT HULK FEEL IT WAY MORE IMPORTANT CREATE FULLY-REALIZED SELF-CONTAINED STORY. AS MUCH EMPIRE END ON CLIFFHANGERS, THOSE CLIFFHANGERS STILL RESOLVE THE FANTASTIC MOVIE AT HAND. MEANWHILE LOOKING AT ALL RECENT TRILOGIES THAT CONCEIVED PARTS 2 AND 3 AT SAME TIME (PIRATES/HARRY POTTER/GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE/ ETC) IT REALLY CAUSE THE PART 2 TO JUST FEEL LIKE HALF A MOVIE AND ALL SET UP TO THE THIRD. WHICH SO THE WRONG DIRECTION. IT HAVE BE ITS OWN MOVIE.
AND HULK THINK THE SPIDER-MAN FILMS HAD ADVANTAGE IN THAT THEY COULD REALLY BE MORE EPISODIC THAN OTHER PROPERTIES. HULK WILL THINK MORE ON THIS.
Exception: Back to the Future II and III, which were conceived together but stand alone very well (probably because of the wildly different settings).
Which I guess isn’t “recent”. Geez, I am old.
I wish I taught creative writing, so I could make college sophomores read this and then blow their minds.
WHAT FUNNY THIS ALL PART OF HULK’S FIRST SCREENPLAY INSTRUCTION WHEN HULK A COLLEGE SOPHOMORE. COMPLETELY REDIRECTED HULK’S WRITING LIFE AND HULK TRULY INDEBTED.
I’m writing this like a year and a half later (sorry for being late to the awesomeness party) but I graduated from fricking AFI with a screenwriting MFA, and they never taught this. I feel like you just gave me a pony. A five part pony. Tail, back legs, middle, front legs, and head with shaggy mane. BEST PONY EVER.
I really wish someone had beaten this into my skull with Hulk-power earlier in my efforts… Thank you and please write more intellectual, educational rants like this!
Gimmick personalities really get in the way of good advice and writing.
IT ALSO THE INITIAL DRAW. SO IT A TRADE-OFF.
Hulk say “tenants” when mean “tenets.” That funny.
Also, Shakespeare not create 5-act structure. Horace create it some 16 centuries before Shakespeare even born.
HULK KNOW HE NOT CREATE IT, HULK WANTED USE THE POPULAR EXAMPLE TO CLARIFY. HULK THANK!
Honestly, I think any (screen)writer worth their salt understands what you’re saying here implicitly, but it’s crucial that it’s said because it gives us an important framework to understand the plotting of our work. I think perhaps the “Three Act Structure” is an unfortunate holdover from academic writing where the “Acts” break into “Introduction, Main Ideas, Conclusion”. It works there because essays lack drama in general, but obviously we should demand far more of our stories, no matter what medium they are written for.
I’ve always favoured Kurt Vonnegut’s explanation as depicted here: http://sivers.org/drama interestingly, the two examples shown on that page are broken neatly into five segments. In reality, it’s pretty much the same thing, but a little more free-form rather than a rigid structure.
Anyway, now I’ll forever have you to thank for never being able to watch a film again without thinking about what decisions the characters are making and how they are driving the story forward.
HULK THANK! AND GOOD VONNEGUT LINK!
I don’t know a lot about other academic writing, but APA style (for psychology) actually has a 5-act structure: Introduction (present the basic idea and question you asked), Literature Review (describe what others have done in the past), Methods (describe what you did), Results (say what happened), and Discussion (blather about what it all means).
1. Call To Adventure
2. Supernatural Aid
3. The Road of Trials
4. The Ultimate Boon
5. Master of Two Worlds
You, Sir, write the most thoughtful rants on the whole World Wide Web!
I myself think it’s important to remember that the three act structure is the most ancient and therefore the most basic dramatic structure: if one were to analyze Greek tragedies such as, e.g., Sophocles’ Antigone, the 3 act structure would fit, wouldn’t it? It was introduced by Aristotle but later Horace, not unlike yourself, took issue with it and insisted that dramas should have a five act structure. The main reason was that as the plays were becoming more and more complex in terms of storytelling thus making the 5 act structure, as you yourself admit, much more appropriate. Finally, Freytag, who of all three gentlemen is probably the most topical, also advocated the five act structure, which makes me wonder how and when did the three act structure even become a thing? I imagine somebody must have mistaken Freytag’s pyramid for a triangle and the hell broke loose.
The thing is that movies are essentially narratives and not dramas and this is what causes most of the problems you name above. Films generally feature more more characters, subplots than plays, not to mention that there may be several (non-linear) storylines. This, I belief, is the reason why applying a dramatic structure to a film is almost always problematic. I would like to see Syd Field try and apply the three act structure to something like ‘The Social Network’.
Oh, and ‘climax’ is somehow often mistaken for a ‘culmination of events’ which it isn’t: it’s a ‘turning point’ (for a lack of a better word) which, in a way, seals the fate of the characters. For example in “Romeo and Julia” this would be the third act: Mercutio and Tybald die and even the inattentive readers/viewer who’ve missed the “star-crossed lovers” line now know that there probably won’t be a happy ending. Or at least this was the definition Horace and Freytag used.
THIS AN OUTSTANDING COMMENT. HULK SORT OF HAVE TO THINK ABOUT IT FOR A BIT. GREEK DRAMA INTERESTING BECAUSE HULK FEEL LIKE IT SORT OF DOING VERY DIFFERENT KIND OF THING… HMMMMM… THIS TRULY EXCELLENT. HULK GONNA PONDER MORE!
So, did Hulk ponder? Would really love to read any new insights you might’ve had on the topic!
I see where you’re coming from: if we consider three-act structure the way you’ve described it, it’s pretty pointless. However, there’s a much more useful (and not uncommon) way that structure is used that is actually pretty dang handy. See “Three Act Structure: Essential Framework or Load of Hooey?” at http://www.lucreid.com/?p=3190 .
Hey Hulk, not sure if you’re still browsing this particular article, but I’ve got a question. I’m currently working on writing my own novel, a debut piece. While I’ve always heard from people about how you should follow the 3-Act structure, you’ve brought up some amazing points here.
Do you think that this method of writing pertains solely to just screenplays and scripts, or can be methodically adopted into other forms of literature including fiction novels and such? I’m interested because the novel I am currently writing doesn’t fit into the 3-Act structure, but more into the 5-Act, give or take. Interested in your take on the idea.
HULK GETS NOTIFIED OF ALL COMMENTS SO NO WORRY.
1. HULK DOESN’T THINK 3 ACT STRUCTURE SHOULD APPLY TO ANYTHING.
2. ESPECIALLY NOVELS. NOVELS HAVE THE UNIQUE ABILITY TO, WELL IN A NARRATIVE SENSE, DO JUST ABOUT ANYTHING.
3. IF YOU ARE REALLY WANTING TO WRITE A TIGHT FOCUSED STORY, DON’T GO NEAR 3 ACT. JUST FIGURE OUT ALL YOUR PLOT LINES/ARCS. FIGURE OUT HOW TO TELL EACH ONE OF THOSE STORIES AS IF THEY WERE ON THERE OWN. FIGURE OUT HOW TO TELL THEM ALL AT ONCE AND INTERWEAVE THEM AND HAVE THEM COME TOGETHER SO THEY’RE AT CONFLICT WITH ONE ANOTHER. AND DO IT IN A STRAIGHT LINE.
FROM THERE YOU CAN EXTRAPOLATE AND GO ON TANGENTS AS DESIRED. REALLY, THAT SHOULD BE IT.
ANY MORE SPECIFIC QUESTIONS EMAIL FILMCRITHULK@GMAIL.COM
Thanks Hulk, was good to hear the take from the big and green. 🙂
I know Hulk doesn’t like screenwriting books, but I’m personally a fan of the late Blake Snyder’s story structure.
NO, THERE GOOD ONES AND THIS ONE VERY HELPFUL, AND IT JUST WE NEVER WANT BECOME RIGID TO ANYTHING SO LIMITING. THE PROBLEM THAT IT ONCE WRITER GET TO CERTAIN POINT IT SHOULD BE MULTIPLE WAVY LINES OF ARCS IN SINGLE MOVIE AND THAT SORT OF HARD TO EXPLAIN TO DEVELOPING WRITERS.
THE REAL PROBLEM IN HOLLYWOOD THAT WE HAVE BRILLIANT WRITERS, AND ONES WHO DON’T EVEN GET FURTHER THAN A CONCEIT WITHOUT JUST SLOGGING. AND HULK’S POINT THAT THE 3 ACT REALLY HURTS THOSE KINDA WRITERS. THAT MAKE SENSE? CHEERS.
Something that I don’t really like about Blake Snyder’s story structure is that I find it more specific than I prefer, and that it could easily be used as a blueprint for “Paint-by-numbers-Storytelling” like what you were talking about with the Monomyth essay. After reading “Save the Cat” I can definately say that I prefer your instruction to his.
I’m currently writing a prose story, action-scifi type, that I’ve developped using Snyder’s 14-point plan. I had a very vague idea beforehand – who the heroes would be, who they’d be up against, so on, going through my plans with the 14-point plan really helped me put meat on the bones of my plans.
I think that’s what needs to be kept in mind when looking at these kinds of guides – they can help flesh out vague ideas. Even the three-act structure, if the idea is INCREDIBLY vague, can be useful, for instance, when a young writer is starting out. Not sure if Hulk would agree with this?
I’d not heard of the 5-act structure though, it’s something I’ll definitely refer back to in the future. Thanks!
Hey Film Crit Hulk, you got me thinking about something last night while taking notes on your breakdown of Romeo & Juliet.
Is it possible that Blake Snyder’s helpful beat sheet is secretly a rigorous 5-Act structure? And that the secret to his genius in structuring the middle of movies is that he was secretly Shakespearean, while playing it modest?
The idea here of Act IV as “the spiral” is what made me think back to Snyder’s idea of “Bad Guys Close In.”
And uh, I guess this would mean that Act II, “The Conceit,” is analogous to the idea of Fun & Games: The reason you came to see the story. Romeo meeting the girl from the enemy family.
And Act III, “The Turn,” would be the Midpoint. I think???
People love ‘threes’ and simplicity! Hulk never defeat the tyranny of the three act myth!!! It would be like trying to defeat the idea of beginning, middle, and end!
But bless Hulk for trying.
Also, I’m friends with a screenwriting teacher who doesn’t brush off the ‘3 act structure’ but likes to break down the construction of a clear narrative like so:
1. Once upon a time…
2. And everyday…
3. Until one day…
4. And because of this…
5. And because of this…
6. Until finally…
7. And ever since that day…
Here is his website if you’re interested.
You mentioned in an earlier comment about Magnolia, one of my favorite movies too, having 12 acts. I was wondering if you would go into more detail about that and how it compares to the normal 5 acts that you mentioned in your article. Thank You.
HULK WOULD HAVE TO RESPOND TO THAT ONE BY WATCHING IT AGAIN (WHICH WILL DO SOMEDAY). BUT BASICALLY HERE’S A ROUGH BREAKDOWN: THE FILM IS BROKEN UP INTO 12 “CHAPTERS” MORE OR LESS (FOR INSTANCE IT’S 12 CHAPTERS OR SO ON THE DVD) AND EACH OF THOSE CHAPTERS HAS ONE OR TWO SCENES PER CHARACTER (THERE IS 9 MAIN CHARACTERS AFTER ALL) THAT HELPS MOVE THEIR PLOTS FORWARD. IT SPRAWLS IN TERMS OF THE OVER ALL FOCUS BUT IS VERY CONCENTRATED AND ECONOMICAL IN TERMS OF EACH CHARACTER: EVERY SCENE IS ONE ACT IN EACH CHARACTER’S 12 ACT JOURNEY.
What about A Clockwork Orange? That’s a classic movie with three pretty clear acts (Act I: Alex as an evil bastard, Act II: Alex in prison under treatment, Act III: Alex suffering under the treatment and its reversal). I guess you could divide Acts II and III into smaller acts but the segments flow as if they’re one act.
What about Wall-E? Another example of a great three act structure (Act I: silent comedy stuff on Earth, Act II: life on the spaceship, Act III: fight with the computer to return to Earth). I guess it could be argued that the scenes of Wall-E alone are a separate act from the romantic scenes on Earth and that the coda where they return to Earth would be another extra act but they’re such short acts that the movie reads as a three act structure.
THE RESPONSE TO THIS GONNA BE A LITTLE LONGER. GIVE HULK TIME.
How much more time needed?
But Wall-E’s second act is boring as shit, which proves the point. Really, the only good thing about that movie is it’s first act, which makes me believe that Pixar went ahead with that movie based on a great CONCEIT and not on a real STORY
You really thought so? Of course the first act is the strongest, but I really liked the whole movie, and the second act reveal of what’s become of the humans is amazingly dark, funny and scary, and the redemption of humanity is pretty beautifully done (especially the “define dancing” sequence where everyone finally experiences some happiness).
OKAY. HULK HERE. SORRY THINGS GOT MORE THAN CRAZY. A LONGER ANSWER NECESSARY FOR THIS BUT WILL KEEP SHORT. JUST BECAUSE SOMETHING CAN BREAK DOWN INTO 3 ACTS FROM THE OUTSIDE IN, DOESN’T MEAN THAT’S WHAT IS ACTUALLY HOW IT IS CONSTRUCTED. FOR EXAMPLE, WE TEND FALL FOR THE TRICK OF A CHANGE IN GEOGRAPHY BEING AN ACT BREAK (TO BE FAIR, WE DO THIS BECAUSE A LOT OF FILMS ACTUALLY USE THAT AS A DEVICE… LAZILY) BUT NOT BECAUSE THAT’S WHERE THE DECISIONS ARE. FOR EXAMPLE, THERE ARE FAR MORE CRITICAL DEVELOPMENTS IN THE MOVIE (WALLE FIRST MEETING EVE, HIS “REPROGRAMMING,” ETC) THAN THE BREAKS MENTIONED.
BUT HERE’S THE BIGGER REASON. IF YOU, AS A WRITER, SIT DOWN TO TRY AND WRITE WALLE AND THINK TO YOURSELF “OKAY THE MOVIE IS GOING TO HAVE 3 ACTS” FIRST ON EARTH THEN IN SPACE, THEN THE CLIMAX/RESOLUTION, THEN THE MOVIE THAT POPS OUT WILL BE NOTHING LIKE WALLE. IF YOU ARE WRITING FOR AN ORGANIC, CONSTANTLY DEVELOPING MOVIE (WHICH WALLE IS) THEN YOU WILL APPROACH MULITPLE ARCS WITH CONSTANT ACT BREAKS AND DECISIONS PROPELLING YOUR CHARACTERS THROUGH THE MOVIE. YES THE FILM WILL HAVE A BEGINNING MIDDLE AND END AS THE SAME, BUT WHAT MAKES WALLE WORK IS THAT IT HAS ALL SORTS OF ACTS OPERATING AT ONCE.
AND CLOCKWORK ORANGE IS A WAY, WAY, WAY DIFFERENT KIND OF MOVIE. YOU COULD EVEN MAKE AN ARGUMENT THAT EVERY 1-2 SCENES ARE THEIR OWN ACT. BUT THAT’S KUBRICK.
BUT AGAIN, HULK’S BIGGEST POINT THAT 3 ACT STRUCTURE WILL NOT HELP YOU BECOME A BETTER WRITER AND WILL HURT YOU MORE THAN THEN HELP. EVERY SINGLE SUCCESSFUL SCREENWRITER HULK KNOW/HEARD SPEAK/READ ABOUT DOESN’T USE IT.
Hulk, I’m a young screenwriter and I feel like this article just opened my eyes in huge ways, thank you. A question: in your mind, are each of the 5 acts of mostly equal lengths? Does it matter? Pacing is so incredibly important in the success or failure of a story (to me, at least) and I’m wondering your views on how these 5 acts pace out over the length of say a 100-page script
THERE NEVER ANY ONE WAY TO DO IT. AND IF YOU WANT TO ACCOMPLISH A LOT OF THINGS SAY IN YOUR ACT 3 IT WILL AFFECT THE OTHERS. PACING MATTERS IN TOTALITY, SO HOW YOU PLAY IT MATTERS TO EACH OTHER PART. THE ONLY BASIC ADVICE WOULD BE TO MAKE YOUR ACT 4’S AS ECONOMICAL AS POSSIBLE TO JUST GET TO THE FLESHED OUT END. PEOPLE TEND TO NOT LIKE WHEN THINGS STALL OUT BEFORE END. PEOPLE LIKE WHEN THINGS FEEL LIKE THEY ACCELERATING (KICK ASS DOES GOOD JOB OF THIS).
AND REMEMBER IT DOESN’T EVEN HAVE TO BE 5 ACTS, ANY NUMBER WILL DO AS LONG AS IT SERVES STORY CORRECTLY.
Have you ever read Kristin Thompson’s “Storytelling In the New Hollywood”? She gives arguments that Hollywood films are split into 4 acts, and usually your act 1 and act 2 are usually put into the first Act, as Act 1 usually have two major plot points: the inciding incident (or Call to adventure), which usually happens 10-15 minutes into the film (Tony Stark gets captured), and then you got the turning point of act 1. I guess they don’t call the Inciding Incident an act break as the main character can still reject it, and usually something like Luke’s family getting killed before their is no turning break. So the inciding incident seem to usually be a mini-act break, but it’s not usually “a point of no return”. The main character can still rejects it.
This is a good explanation of how this structure works in a Hollywood action film: http://www.davidbordwell.net/essays/anatomy.php
As I said in this struture your act 1 and act 2 is put together as one Act 1. In the end I don’t think it’s much different as does act are usually a combined 30 minutes in most Hollywood films (usually only 5 minutes more or less).
Also really like the Sequence Approach, where it divides the script into 8 sequence of usualy 10-15 pages.
Here is a good site of looking at structure of different films:
They use an combination of The Heroes (Writers) Journey and the Sequence Approach, but still divides it into 3 acts.
Great article Hulk, but i am a wannabe screenwriter (several classes, tons of how to books) and I’ve always thought the William Goldman 4-Act Structure was best.
Using you example of Iron Man:
Act-1: (0-42 mins) Introduce Tony Stark and his background, his personality and his job which leads to his kidnapping (the catalyst) After all, it wasn’t his decision to become kidnapped. Tony is forced to build his Jerciho missile but builds the Mark 1 prototype instead and uses it to bust out of the camp and onto freedom. (The Big Event)
Act-2, Part A: (42-72 mins) Tony returns home, announces that he’s a changed man and begins perfecting his suit in secret. Rhodes, Potts and Stane all remark on his outlook. Nearly killing himself several times testing the Mark 2, he completes the Mark 3 and attends a party. There he learns that his company is actively shipping weapons to America’s enemies, learns that Stane is responsible and thrashes his basement in anger. (Point of no return).
Act-2, Part B: (72-99 mins) Tony blasts off in the Mark 3 to destroy his weapons and stop the bad guys. Stane is revealed as the true villian as he obtains the Mark 1 and kills some terrorists. Tony enlists Pepper on a mission to obtain proof of Stane’s double-dealing and Stane counter-acts by building his own suit, paralyzing Tony, revealing his plans for Pepper and slowly killing him by removing his chest piece. (Crisis point).
Act-3: (99-117 mins) Tony obtains the Mark 1 chest piece, flies into action with the Mark 3 to save Pepper and stop Stane once and for all. Tony announces to the world that he is Iron Man. (Resolution).
Please compare and contrast this 4-Act structure to the 5-Act. How does combing the first 2 acts of the 5-Act structure into one change the overall story?
First, I’m not any amazing published screen writer so I could be wrong about this…. Moving on to my point.
Call me stupid but you can’t combine two acts from one line of thinking into one act from another line of thinking and then ask how it changes the story. The story has already been written and therefore it’s not going to change at all. Especially when you take into consideration that using this four act structure that you are talking about “The Big Event” in your first act can be argued. How? In the first act of your new structure two relatively big events happen. Both his kidnapping and him escaping can be considered “big events”
Thats why he said the movie had five acts. Not four.
Different act structures will make a difference in the story when you WRITE it. That being said, if you did it correctly I’m sure that you could write a good story with only four acts. You just have to make sure that you do it well and have clear act breaks. Having an arguable “big event” means that your act break isn’t clear. That doesn’t mean that your story isn’t well written, it just means you have more than four acts.
Stumbled on this purely by chance today and I simply must say: I love you! Thank you so much for taking the time to share this! I took an introductory screenwriting class last semester (mostly out of curiosity) at my local community college, and while it was certainly fascinating enough to make me look at movies in a different way, it was the first time the class was being offered – by an instructor who just “thought it would be different and fun”. As I’m sure you can imagine, there was a lot that still felt vague and fuzzy when the course ended… such as what Exactly an Act actually is. Here’s hoping if the school offers it again that they’ll put a bit more effort into it, rather than treating it like an odd experiment. Any suggestions on decent books (text-like) that I might peruse to further my understanding? 🙂
I found this all sorts of brilliant and useful. I’m really fuzzy on the whole “The ending is the conceit” concept though… can you recommend some good reading material that might help me understand it better? Or anything else really solid on the 5 act structure?
ODDLY ENOUGH, HULK NOT REALLY HAVE MUCH BECAUSE A LOT OF IT EMERGE FROM DIALOGUE WITH WRITERS / TEACHERS, ETC. “THE ENDING IS THE CONCEIT” SORT OF JUST A MANTRA OF HULK’S AND WHAT IT MEANS AT IT’S MOST BARE ESSENCE, IS THAT THE ENDING SHOULD CLARIFY AND DEFINE ALL THE MAIN THEMES PRESENT IN YOUR NARRATIVE. (HULK USE THE WORD CONCEIT, WHICH TYPICALLY USED TO MEAN EXTENDED METAPHOR, TO DRIVE THIS POINT HOME)
AS FOR 5 ACT ACADEMIC DIALOGUE IT KIND OF SAD BUT MOST OF IT RELEGATED TO SHAKESPEARE AND SHAKESPEARE ALONE. THERE SO MANY GREAT EXAMPLES ELSEWHERE.
BUT FEEL FREE ASK ANY QUESTIONS OR ISSUES OF CLARIFICATION! HULK HAPPY TO HELP.
Can you give a couple of good popular examples of films with endings that epitomize their conceit in such a way?
I’m trying to picture how this can be done in an organic way, as opposed to having one of the characters give an awkward, “so kids, the moral of this story is…” monologue.
EXAMPLES: THE GODFATHER, ROCKY, THERE WILL BE BLOOD, SAY ANYTHING, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, STRANGELOVE, THE GRADUATE BEING THERE, ANNIE HALL.
HULK HAPPY TO DISCUSS HOW ANY OF THESE WORK IN THOSE TERMS.
I’ve (shamefully) only seen a couple of these a very long time ago, so I’ll have to go catch up and then get back to you…
NEVER BE ASHAMED. EVEN THE BIGGEST FILM FANS HAVEN’T SEEN “CLASSICS.” JUST KEEP SEEING MORE MOVIES!
I wish they’d followed this advice for the last Hulk film. Hulk smash screenwriters of that film, please?
Definitely sharing this.
MANY MANY THANKS FOR THIS GREAT READ, I FRRRICKIN LOVE YOUU!! You’ve liberated my mind from the confusion that is the three-act structure.
HULK THANK! REMEMBER IT’S A OKAY WAY TO CLASSIFY WHAT HAPPENING ON THE WHOLE BUT IT WON’T HELP YOU WRITE ANYTHING.
ROMEO AND JULIET is misunderstood, the subject of the play is kids like Romeo et al, the play is FOR the parents of such kids: parents who leave their children to the nannies to bring up. The biggest giveaway about the subject of the play is the monk who marries the kids in secret and without their parents knowledge; of course we all know that monks were driven out of England just a generation before Shakespeare.
If you want to set up the play in modern times it would be something like this: two underage kids one from a Republican family and the other from a Democrat one getting married with the help of an Imam! Then show that play to an Evangelical crowed and ask them what they think about the marriage?
“HAMLET A PLAY THAT LITERALLY ABOUT INDECISIVE”
WRONG! Was Hamlet indecisive when he was told about his father’s ghost? when he talked to the ghost and then asked his companions to swear and oath? When he told Ophelia to leave? When he met the players? When he escaped? When he heard a noise behind the curtain? When he trained for dueling for some weeks?
The man was in a minefield intending on destroying the whole kingdom and you want him to rush in like a latter day action hero?
The MOST misunderstood play is, of course, The Merchant of Venice; if you want to understand it just get an e-text of the play and replace all ‘jew’ with ‘banker’.
The play could not have been about Jews because simply there was not a single Jew in the whole of England at that time, but usury had been legalized not thirty years before. The current financial situation of the world begs a modern retelling of this play.
My advice: forget everything you ever read about Shakespeare, read about the 16th century until you know it better than your name and then read his plays, you will discover another world.
HULK PRESENTS: THE MYTH OF 3 ACT STRUCTURE FILM CRIT HULK! HULK BLOG! I was recommended this website by my cousin. I am not sure whether this post is written by him as no one else know such detailed about my problem. You’re wonderful! Thanks! your article about HULK PRESENTS: THE MYTH OF 3 ACT STRUCTURE FILM CRIT HULK! HULK BLOG! Best Regards Cassetta Justin
I finally sat down last night and re-structured my screenplay (which I was already pretty happy with) as a 5 act, and WOW. This all made sense when I was reading your blog, but I had no idea just HOW right it all was until I actually sat down and used it on my own work. The muddled mess of a middle I had going on is now much more focused and propulsive. It’s like the difference between having all of your ideas in a pile in the middle of the floor and having them neatly presented in display cases. I am indebted to you, good sir.
THIS MAKES HULK HAPPIER THAN ANYTHING IN THE UNIVERSE. WELL DONE SIR.
Your deconstruction of the hero’s journey is also having a big influence on the development of this story… esp. the sequels.
I read the comments up until the point where you cite the Rings trilogy as favorite films and representative of proper 5 act construction.
Too much gamma radiation, jolly green giant! No offense to LOTR fans — but [the trilogy] was the most episodic, short-on-characterization, uninvolving, long-winded, false-climaxing fantasy that I ever lost to 9 hours of moviegoing. (At least Harryhausen had the good taste to jam it all into 90 minutes.)
Otherwise, your insights are spot on.
BTW, what do you make of Sayles’ Limbo? And when are you going to write the definitive Kubrick article?
Here are two of my own sacrosanct screenwriting rules:
NEVER write a scene wherein a “passive” TV/radio that happens to be on in the b.g. suddenly becomes the delivery system for vital plot points.
NEVER write a scene wherein the characters stop to have a meal just to recite “résumé dialogue,” i.e. that which only exists to illuminate a character’s backstory for the audience.
HULK LAUGH. HULK HAPPILY RECOGNIZE ANY POT-SHOTS AT LOTR. TO HULK THEY HAVE A MAJESTIC SENSE OF AWE AND GRAVITAS THAT MAY INDEED WORK WITH FANS WHO KNOW THE WORK SO DAMN WELL THAT THE “NARRATIVE” IS BASICALLY INVISIBLE.
HULK WILL GET TO KUBRICK AT SOME POINT, IT JUST QUESTION OF HOW .
I think it all comes down to how you define act. Technically each scene can be a mini-act with it’s own beginning middle and end. Your “5 act structure” can easily be sub acts(plot points) within the 3 act structure that every movie ever falls into. Just because there are 5 big plot points in a story that “propels it forward” does not mean those 5 points don’t represent a bigger whole of 3 acts. If the 3 act structure is a myth why is it EVERYWHERE AND IN EVERY MOVIE WORTH ANYTHING.
In your Iron Man Example. (I would move a few points into different acts but basically)
Your Act 1 = My Act 1 up until the INCITING INCIDENT – Your Act 2 = Rest of act 1.
Your Act 3 = THE BEGINNING OF MY ACT 2 up until the MIDPOINT (party scene false victory)
Your Act 4 = The rest of Act 2 up until ….
Your ACT 5 = My Act 3.
Sure, I’ll agree with you that a screenplay is WAY more multifaceted than JUST the 3 act structure, but completely discrediting three act structure is ridiculous. Whoever taught you that a 3 act paradigm consists of ONLY 2 plot points and a bunch of simple rising conflict in act 2 taught you wrong. Three act structure contains many plot points. But all the plot points STILL fit within three acts. Syd Field may have started it, but it’s been expanded on since then.
This isn’t a Shakespeare play… this is a movie. With 3 acts.
THERE’S NO DOUBT ABOUT THE ACCURACY OF WHAT YOU SAY, BUT HULK’S PROBLEM THAT IT STILL JUST ISN’T PRACTICAL. HULK HAS TAUGHT BOTH ON EVERY KIND LEVEL AND 3 ACT APPROACH JUST BREEDS A WORSE NARRATIVE PRODUCT EVERY TIME. AND IT GOES WAY FURTHER BACK THEN SYD FIELD, ALL THE WAY TO ARISTOTLE, BUT AGAIN ARISTOTLE’S INTENTION WASN’T HOW TO TELL A STORY, BUT HOW TO LOOK AT IT FOR MEANING. THAT’S WHAT HULK THINKS SYD FIELD MISUNDERSTANDS. THERE A WAY TO LOOK AT SO MANY OTHER KINDS OF STORYTELLING MODELS AND EXTRAPOLATE A BETTER PRACTICAL APPROACH. SURE, IT’S LESS THE MODEL ITSELF AND MORE THE FACT THAT IT HAS BECOME A CRUTCH, BUT THERE ARE STILL MUCH EFFECTIVE CRUTCHES IF THAT MAKES SENSE. HULK FINDS WHEN INTERMEDIATE WRITERS JUST NARROWLY APE THE SHAKESPEARE MODEL FOR EXAMPLE, THE STRUCTURE IS STILL SURPRISINGLY EFFECTIVE FOR THEIR OWN STORIES.
THE 3 ACT FORETHOUGHT HAS NEVER DONE WELL BY MOVIES. IF TV SITCOMS ARE 3 ACTS AND THEY’RE 22 MINUTES JUST THINK ABOUT THAT. IF 1 HOUR DRAMAS ARE 5-6 ACTS ON TV THINK ABOUT THAT TOO. HOW IS THIS ASSUMPTION OF AN ACT SUPPOSED TO SUSTAIN 90-120 MINUTES OF STORYTELLING? FILL IN THE ACTS WITH WHATEVER YOU SO WISH, BUT HULK FIND THAT IT JUST DOESN’T WORK THAT WELL.
IT’S MORE COMPARATIVE, THEN DISMISSIVE… EVEN IF HULK TOTALLY COP TO THE DISMISSIVE TONE OF THE ARTICLE.
I haven’t studied much into writing for TV, but I’d argue it doesn’t have anything to do with time. It may… Like I said, I agree with your plot points, I just don’t necessarily separate my acts based on them. I use other plot points within my structure, like the inciting incident and midpoint, to drive my story.
A movie resolves itself, same as most sitcoms. Thus the 3 acts. Hour long dramas tend to have more complex/multiple story lines than movies, and they usually end open-ended/with a twist. And then when you count in commercial breaks and having to keep the audience interested, I would think that is why there are 5 and 6 act breaks in hour long’s.
Then again, I haven’t really studied TV writing.
The whole trend in writing to reverse-engineer these analytical processes to write a story, I think, is a product of fear that your story will be insubstantial. By writing a story through the eyes of someone posthumously analysing it, you’re confirming to yourself that there is something to analyse, or that it has something in common with other works that had that.
And yes, it is ironic that, in search of substance, some people go straight to story templates that’re already massively stripped down.
UTTERLY FANTASTIC COMMENT. CHEERS!
I haven’t enjoyed a screenplay forum as much as this in quite a while! And I tend to agree with Hulk, in general. But all the carping boils down to two simple, yet diametrically opposed points.
1. a great story is a great story, period — and to break down its structure is strictly an academic exercise.
2. The studios have accepted the Campbell paradigm as gospel. It’s less a blueprint for a creative endeavor than the instruction sheet to an Aurora monster model. You can apply a different paint job but each version is gonna wind up being pretty much the same thing. (I’m dating myself here, but Hulk gets the point, right?)
I don’t think there will ever again exist a time where the studios took the same chances as they did in the 60s & 70s. Every blue moon a Nolan or (_____________ insert name) comes along, makes a successful indie and manages to convince the suits that filmmakers should just be left alone to their own devices. The strikes rule is endemic; Hollywood’s monotone thinking is the standard, and indies will always struggle. It’s the nature of the beast.
Still, I enjoy a well-employed arguement so carry on!
Just like a Picasso couldn’t have been Picasso without learning the fundamentals of classical art first, a Nolan can never “break out of the mold” without learning the how to tell a story correctly. You have to know the rules before you can break them.
A great story is a great story, but a movie is structure. Not in a purely academic sense, but in a very practical sense. A screenplay is a structured blueprint of a story for film. Just because the average movie goer doesn’t understand the structure in a movie, doesn’t mean it’s not important. People walk out of movie theaters all the time NOT knowing why they didn’t like a film, they just know something put them off. I’d argue the movie wasn’t structured right. When the audience knows somethings wrong, and they just don’t know how to say it. It usually boils down to structure. A great screenplay can make a bad movie, but a bad screenplay can NEVER make a good movie.
The studios believe in the 3 act structure because it makes money. It works. Audiences get it. It feels like a movie. This is a business. If studios only made movies for film connoisseurs like you and I, they would make no money. Sure, you can try to write and produce an Indie that doesn’t follow these structured guidelines, but you can’t expect to gain a wide audience.
Put Memento back in order and it’s still just mystery/revenge story.
P.S. – This isn’t an argument against HULK’s 5 act structure, cause I believe it still follows the guidelines of 3 act structure. This is just to show you that there NEEDS to be structure. That is if you’re trying to sell things and work in the actual business of movie making.
YOU REALLY NEED TO WAIT TIL HULK’S SCREENWRITING 101 COLUMN GOES UP SOON BEFORE YOU SAY THESE THINGS (NOT THAT YOU KNOW, JUST BECAUSE IT’S FUNNY… YOU’LL SEE). MOSTLY BECAUSE HULK SAY MOST OF THE THINGS YOU JUST SAID, BUT FURTHER EXPLAIN HOW HULK’S VIEW FIT INTO WHAT YOU SAY. THE WHOLE THING WILL COMMENT DIRECTLY TO YOUR COMMENT.
I know that this may be presumptuous and asinine of me to state, but I am a digital artist and a writer….there. No where at the levels as you, HULK, but aspiring here to do something great…or at least at a level that will attract enough attention to help in bettering my storytelling abilities and be useful to help maybe pay a bill or two. Would I love to be sitting on the throne as JKRowling or even Tolkien? That would be most awesome. Totally doubt it…not just coming from my wife, mother, sister, etc. Back to the point. I have been struggling with the writing duties. I usually write for writing sake and carry my tales to the point of no return. Trying to understand the structure has lead me to article upon article to books etc. And yes, I have even read the HERO with the yada yada faces. Can you believe after a matter of time, I gave myself to the Screenwriting demons and tried to follow this perceived structure, to no avail I may add? It makes sense. It was as if I was trying to run up a hill only to have boulder after boulder thrown back at me. It felt unnatural. And because of your little article, I now understand why. You are a great teacher, explaining things in a way that I can truly understand. If I could give you a hulksize hug I would. Thank you for taking your time to write and explain and talk to us puny mortals.
HULK THANK YOU KINDLY. A LOT OF IT COMES FROM TRYING TO ACTUALLY TEACH PEOPLE SCREENWRITING. THAT THE PROBLEM WITH SO MANY BOOKS AND THEIR IMPRACTICALITY IS THEY REALLY DON’T GET TO SEE THE RESULTS OF THEIR “LESSONS” … HULK MIGHT TWEET THAT. IN ORDER TO REALLY KNOW SOMETHING ABOUT TEACHING IT YOU HAVE TO SEE THE EFFECTS OF THAT WRITING IN OTHER PEOPLE WHO LEARNING. IT CHANGE EVERYTHING.
BUT REALLY HULK REALLY THANK FOR ALL THE KIND WORDS. KEEP WRITING. KEEP GETTING BETTER. FEEL FREE TO DROP A LINE ANYTIME!
Hulk smash 3-act structure. I get that, totally.
At the end of my academic career, my thesis/project professor/advisor was the co-writer of Syd’s book.
In the years since, I have forgotten exactly what the books said, or Syd’s precise intent for the work, but I do remember what my prof said — or perhaps, my take on what the prof said — and how he seemed to feel about the work.
In general, he seemed to have mixed feelings.
For one, he didn’t feel that he was given much credit, for whatever it was worth.
Two, he felt it was supposed to be more of a descriptive work, rather than a prescriptive work, which is how it was being taken. Which was something he regretted. In that, him like Hulk.
And finally, he had since added numerous elements to the original, simple 3-act version, which included the all-important mid-point of the movie, wherein the protagonist decides something and sets out to prove it, sending him unalterably toward their triumph or doom. This seemed like 4 acts to me, but again, since it was more descriptive of films (up to that point, which was not a high-point of film; I remember talking a lot about Rambo with him, and Terminator 2), I don’t recall any great feeling to correct the original description, which even then had gotten out of hand, since that’s all it was — a description.
I don’t know if the mid-point concept, or other issues he raised, ever caught on, as my career went off in other directions than screenwriting per se. Chemsem mentions Joseph Campbell’s work (who I did not personally study with, but did study a great deal) which again, I believe was intended more as academic description than a how-to manual. [In my career, I pursued what exactly the hero was (supposed to be) after on his journey, and I think I have nailed down some sound and illuminating principles that seem to apply to most stories (and happen to adhere more closely to actual popularity than the original concepts), but that’s another story.]
And while the original creators continued to add to their descriptions over time, their readers (including Hollywood in general) just stuck with the first draft, if you will. Which has been unfortunate for us all.
So, here’s hoping that Hulk get a better movie someday, based on something far beyond what was the first attempt at describing what the authors admitted (even if it wasn’t sufficiently clear in their original works) was merely a description of an organic process, a mirror of a portion of the endless expanse of life itself, interpreted, and then told — however well, or not.
In thinking further about the number of acts, the co-author taught me that there was the:
– the introduction of characters, their milieu, and their dilemmas, which (should) end around 10-pages in;
– the rest of act 1, which ends at the first plot point;
– the first part of act 2, which ends the midpoint event;
– the second part of act 2, which ends at the second plot point;
– the “third” act, which includes the climax and denouement.
To be clear, that’s **actually** five “acts,” not three.
(There may be a semantic issue over what constitutes an “act,” along with the misunderstandings that stem from such semantic issues.)
So, “Tell your sister; you were right.”
HULK raise some good points but many HULK 5-Act examples actually fit perfect 3-Act structure easy too if want make fit. Me think HULK make semantic argument for sake of some antic but 3, 5 or 40 it make no difference. If script have good story, compelling dialogue/direction and show good understanding of mechanics of film, it no matter. Good film is good film no matter what… Happy writing HULKster!
HULK AGREE THEY CAN BE BROKEN DOWN ANY WAY ONE LIKE, BUT THIS REALLY ABOUT TELLING PROPULSIVE STORIES THAT DEVELOP. TRUST HULK. WHEN IT COMES TO GETTING FOLKS TO WRITE STORIES 3 ACT TENDS TO CREATE A LOT OF LAZY, PLACID WRITING, BUT BUT OTHER MULTI-ACT MODELS TEND CREATE MORE FOCUSED STORIES. A LOT OF THIS AT THE LEARNING LEVEL THOUGH AND A BIG DEAL ABOUT THE COLUMN IS KNOCKING DOWN THE CONCEPT THAT 3 ACT IS KING.
HULK PRESENTS: THE MYTH OF 3 ACT STRUCTURE FILM CRIT HULK! HULK BLOG! I was suggested this blog by my cousin. I am not sure whether this post is written by him as nobody else know such detailed about my problem. You’re wonderful! Thanks! your article about HULK PRESENTS: THE MYTH OF 3 ACT STRUCTURE FILM CRIT HULK! HULK BLOG! Best Regards Andy Cindy
Thank you for the educational article Crit Hulk. I’m an aspiring writer and thought I was confined to the 3 act story so I struggled with getting events to fit what I wanted to tell. You have released me from a great burden.
On another note. You gave me an epiphany while explaining the 5 act system. I couldn’t help but compare it to the 5 stages of grief by complete impulse. (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. did I even get this order correct?) I don’t know if it’s an appropriate comparison but when I align one with the other and refer to 5 act movies you mentioned I can’t help but wonder if there is a crossover between storytelling and human psychology’s stages for dealing with the affects of a conflict.
I don’t even know if I’m wording this right. What do you think?
WOW, THAT A GREAT OBSERVATION RE: 5 STAGES WITH GRIEF. YOU ARE WORDING IT RIGHT. RUN WITH IT!
Hulk, I can’t tell you how glad I am I came across this post today. I’m working on a screenplay treatment, and, yes, there are “problems in the second act”. And I’ve *always* had problems with the whole idea of the second act, because it’s hard to get a clear idea of what the hell it is. So much can happen in that “second act” that I always wanted to break it down into shorter acts, with real narrative breaks; but I never articulated what I had in mind as well as you have.
And even though I’ve watched and read a lot of Shakespeare’s plays, somehow I never made the connection. (His prose is so fantastic and memorable, it really is easy to forget what a strong storyteller he is.)
Anyway, thanks. I feel like part of my brain was strapped down onto the rough wooden platform of the three-act structure, and now I might be able to make some damn progress on my damn screenplay. Yes, it’s got to have a beginning, middle, and end; but there’s no law of physics that says I have to consider the “middle” to be defined as a single act. Life is more complex than that, and so is good drama.
HULK THANK! AND CHECK OUT THE SCREENWRITING 101 POST IF YOU LIKED IT. IT’S LONG, BUT HULK HOPE IT CAN HELP TOO!
Besides scrounging your blog and The Art Of Dramatic Writing, can you recommend some other reading material?
Nick Soares would like to thank HULK for teaching this, so Nick Soares can stop getting back scripts in the mail! 🙂
wups, can you edit, “back” to “bad” 🙂
Hulk, I’m a huge STAR WARS fan. I’ve watched all of them, even the crappy prequels, hundreds of times.
Now I would have to say that TESB (my favorite) only has 3 acts. And those acts are divided almost evenly in 40 minute stretches.
However I always viewed Empire as existing only as a middle man in the trilogy. By saying this I mean that STAR WARS is effectively Empire’s 1st ACT and Jedi is it’s final 5th ACT.
Would you agree?
THE SIMPLE ANSWER IS NO. AND ONCE AGAIN IT COMES BACK TO HOW ONE APPROACHES WRITING. THE PROBLEM IS YOUR SORT OF JUST DIVIDING THINGS BY LOGIC AND LOCATION. WHICH IS A FINE WAY OF ORGANIZING THINGS, BUT THAT’S NOT HOW ONE BUILDS DRAMA IN WRITING. REMEMBER HOW HULK SAYS AN ACT BREAK PROPELS THINGS FORWARD WITH DECISIONS THAT YOU CAN’T TURN BACK FROM. THE KIND OF THINKING YOU’RE OUTLINING EXPLAINS WHY SO MANY SCRIPTS HAVE PEOPLE JUST JUMPING FROM PLACE TO PLACE WITHOUT CHARACTER AND MOTIVE DICTATING WHAT HAPPENS. WHAT MAKES THE ORIGINAL STAR WARS SO GOOD IS THAT IT’S NOT JUST ONE ACT. IT’S PROPULSIVE. EACH SCENE LEADS INTO THE NEXT. LUKE DENIES THE CALL BUT IS IMMEDIATELY GIVEN A REASON TO LEAVE. THEY KEEP BUILDING AND BUILDING SCENE AFTER SCENE AND THAT WAS DONE WITH A REAL UNDERSTANDING OF PLOTTING AND ORGANIZATION, FAR BEYOND EVEN 1 ACTS AND 5 ACTS. NOW THE THING ABOUT LUCAS IS THAT HIS MOVIES ARE ALWAYS DEVISED IN THIS REAL 3 ACT LOCATION THING, BUT HE REALLY DOES SO MUCH MORE THAN THAT.
AGAIN, THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH THE WAY YOU’RE ORGANIZING THE PLOT, BUT WHEN IT COMES TO WRITING THERE SO MUCH MORE TO ACT STRUCTURE AND THAT EXACTLY WHY HULK SO PICKY ABOUT THIS STUFF. REMEMBER, EVERY SCENE SHOULD WORK AS IT’S OWN MINI-ACT IN A WAY IF YOU WANT YOUR MOVIE TO BE PROPULSIVE. WHICH ALL THE STAR WARS TRILOGY FILMS MOST CERTAINLY ARE.
Hulk speaks the truth. I have looked all over and basically it comes down to writing being a passion rather than a learned skill via books and tutorials. Hulk opened my eyes and now I “see” what he is talking about. You learn by see the work of others and deciphering what is good and bad. Hulk’s essays are the only text you need for this type of stuff. 🙂
Just have to add, for Hulk and Chemsem’s comment: amen and amen.
Hulk, I am right now struggling, struggling with a screenplay and an advisor that keeps forcing me to hand in outline after outline in 3 act structure. Tomorrow I’m going to rip the whole thing apart and try just to figure out how many acts it actually needs to tell the damn story. Because I 100% agree: THE 3 ACT STRUCTURE NO HELP YOU PROBLEM SOLVE.
Thank you for this great article.
Hey Hulk, i’m a professional illustrator who’d like to learn good storytelling methods for whenever I get time to dabble in constructing solid comics. What are some good books to pick up that’ll help me better understand the 5-act structure and keep me away from making boneheaded mistakes from the 3-act one?
THERE REALLY ISN’T ONE. THE WHOLE KEY IS TO START SEEING MOVIES/PLAYS/BOOKS IN THAT NON-3-ACT CONTEXT AND FORMING YOUR OWN VIEW OF HOW STRUCTURE OPERATES WITH EACH OF THOSE EXAMPLES. IT WILL TEACH YOU WAY MORE THAN A BOOK EVER CAN!
Great Article Hulk. I’m tweeting and sharing it!
Sean Hood (veteran of bad sequels and remakes with poor three act structure.)
Great stuff, Hulk! Let’s get the MBA’s at the studios who are greenlighting movies like BATTLESHIP to give this a read. Oh wait, they can’t read.
Amazing insights! Er, INCREDIBLE insights.
Great article. Let’s get the MBA’s at the studios who are greenlighting movies like BATTLESHIP to give this a read.
AMAZING insights! Er, sorry… INCREDIBLE insights.
Fantastic article but one note to add, Shakespeare DIDN’T write in 5 acts, in fact he didn’t sub-divide his plays at all they were just a continuous stream of scenes. The 5 act structure of his plays were created for the first folio of his work, which was published after his death.
This sounds like a rant from a disgruntled film student, of course the 3 act structure exists, Aristotle proposed the idea. Does it explain everything in story, no, was it meant to, no! there is an equilibrium set, a reversal or destruction of equilibrium then a return to the original or new equilibrium. Not every story follows this structure, but most do except Memento and other experimental films.
YOUR POINTS ARE WHOLLY VALID, BUT DON’T FALL INTO THE TRAP OF MAKING COMMENTS LIKE “THIS SOUNDS LIKE A RANT FROM…” ETC. BECAUSE REALLY IT’S A RANT FROM A DECADE PLUS WORKING PROFESSIONAL WHO IS CONSTANTLY TOLD TO WRONGLY APPROACH THINGS IN THREE ACTS AND TO DO AWAY WITH “THE EXTRA STUFF.” AND IT’S MEANT TO HELP THE DISGRUNTLED STUDENTS WHO ARE ACTUALLY TAUGHT THAT IT DOES EXPLAIN EVERYTHING IN STORY. AND REALLY ARISTOTLE’S MODEL IS BEST MEANT FOR THE CONVENTIONS OF GREEK DRAMA (IN WHICH CHALLENGING THE FATES IS ALMOST ALWAYS THE CENTRAL PROBLEM). THERE VERY LITTLE OF MODERN STORYTELLING INVOLVED.
AND THE ENTIRE POINT IS JUST BECAUSE A STORY CAN “FOLLOW IT” DOESN’T MEAN IT’S THE BEST TOOL FOR CREATING THAT STORY. AGAIN, IT’S A TOOL OF ANALYSIS, NOT A HOW-TO-GUIDE AND THAT THE MAIN THING HULK WANTED TO INSTATE.
AND HULK WOULD SINCERELY ARGUE THAT MOST STORIES DON’T FOLLOW THAT STRUCTURE AT ALL.
Must eat, digest and hopefully not regurgitate (like some movies I’ve seen.)
Dear Mr. Hulk,
I recently was introduced to your blog, specifically your RANT against the 3 Act Structure, the single most commonly used plot structure in cinema. In my classes, I throw in a couple others, like the Hero’s Journey, just to keep the kids thinking. And while your diatribe was VERY ENTERTAINING, as is your blog, it was also NOT VERY ACCURATE. In fact, HULK ESSAY ON 3 ACT STRUCTURE TOTALLY NOT GET IT.
Let me explain, before you start SMASHING things.
First, Hollywood Studio Executives did not invent 3 Act Structure. They never invented anything, except perhaps the 3 Martini Lunch. Hollywood screenwriters didn’t invent 3 Act Structure either, and neither did Syd Field. I agree with Hulk, by the way, that SYD FIELD BAD. HE BORING, HIS WRITING PEDESTRIAN and HE MISS THE FUCKING POINT sometimes too. But he wasn’t totally off. Kind of like Newton wasn’t totally off about gravity.
Second, Shakespeare, who Hulk cite rightly as the greatest of the greatest, the capo di tutti scrittori, the Einstein of playwrights, as a few of your readers have correctly pointed out, didn’t write in 5 acts. The “acts” were added posthumously. You use Romeo & Juliet to illustrate your thesis, but I’m here to tell Hulk that that is not one of the Bard’s masterworks. It’s entertaining as hell, but it’s also full of plot holes and contrivances. Look to King Lear or Julius Caesar if you want to find perfection in his works.
Third, no screenwriter that I know (and that certainly doesn’t cover anything close to the majority of screenwriters, I gladly concede) uses a 5 Act Structure. Most, including the very best, like William Goldman, Ben Hecht, Billy Wilder, and Preston Sturges adhered to 3 Act Structure, and for good reason. Most houses have four walls and a roof, most cars have four wheels and an engine, most humans two arms, two legs, and a head. Five works for them. Three works for movies. Some things just naturally work better. Three Act Structure works for screenwriters and when used well, by good writers, it results in great stories. Not always, of course. That’s why writing is an art and not a science. I could list the great ones ad infinitum, but HULK WOULD (rightfully) SMASH ME and OFFER SOME COUNTER EXAMPLES, EXCEPTIONS TO RULE. But criticizing 3 Act Structure for producing dreck like the unfortunate Green Lantern, MISSES THE FUCKING POINT. It also perfectly illustrates what I and many other screenwriters, writing teaches, and carpenters all know. A good tool, used badly, will produce bad results. Sometimes egregiously bad ones.
I digress though.
Three Act Structure, which would be better called Three Act Plot Structure, “evolved” if such a word can be used in discussing writing, or any art-form for that matter, from Aristotle’s Poetics, as several of your readers have rightly pointed out. And as I’m sure HULK KNOW, plot (mythos) is only one part of writing. In Aristotle’s mind, it was the most important part, closely followed by character (ethos). These two elements when properly brought together, can lead to great stories. And while many a lazy teacher and writer, myself included, has sometimes told their students or drinking buddies, that what 3 Act Structure is, boiled down to the basics, is the BEGINNING, MIDDLE and END of a story, in actuality, 3 Act Structure is a bit more complex.
Here it is, as it is most often reflected, in screenwriting:
THE QUICKIE VERSION OF 3 ACT STRUCTURE
ACT I (20-30 pages, broken into 2 sequences)
Sequence 1 (about 10-15 pages)
Intro the Characters
Point of Attack (around page 10-15)
The Problem surfaces
Sequence 2 (about 10-15 pages)
Develop the Problem – What is at Stake?
End of Act I (about page 20-30)
The Hero reluctantly takes on the problem
Usually a twist that turns the story in
a new direction.
What do we hope? What do we fear?
ACT II (50-60 pages, the main story, broken into 4
Sequence 3 (12-15 pages)
The Logical Attempts to Solve the Problem
Ends in Failure
Sequence 4 (about 12-15 pages)
A Redoubling of the efforts to solve the
Usually met by increasing obstacles/confict,
the villain pushes back.
Midpoint (around page 50-60)
The “darkest cave”
The hero faces his deepest fear, and it leads to his
backsliding on the problem, reverting to his old self.
But he usually comes out of this with some piece
of information/knowledge/item that will eventually
help him solve the problem
Sequence 5 (about 12-15 pages)
Rising Action continues.
Increase the obstacles/conflict, sometimes resulting
in the false ending.
The Hero backslides.
Sequence 6 (about 12-15 pages)
Ends with the Low Point
The Emotional Bottom for the Hero.
He is not going to get what he wanted, his
failure to solve the problem is total. Things
ACT III (about 20-30 pages)
Sequence 7 (10-15 pages)
The Hero, now driven by desperation, takes
all he has learned up to now and uses it to
make one final attempt to solve the problem,
and succeeds. Usually he battles the Villain directly.
Sequence 8 (10-15 pages, or fewer, whatever is needed)
The problem is solved, and the solution leads to
all (or most) of the storylines being tied up.
I did not “invent” this version of 3 Act Structure, sometimes referred to as the Sequence paradigm. To give credit where credit is due, it was taught to me, by among others, the great Frank Daniel. If you or you’re readers don’t know of him, here’s a quick Wikipedia bio: “In 1969 he became the first dean of the American Film Institute. One of his proteges was future director David Lynch, who specifically mentions a special thank you in Eraserhead, 1977. Daniel left the Institute in 1976 to become the Luce Professor at Carleton College in Minnesota. In 1978, he moved to Columbia University, where he was reunited with Miloš Forman, his former student. When Robert Redford founded Sundance Institute in 1981, Daniel was appointed Artistic Director, a guiding post he held for over a decade. He taught at Columbia University until 1986. After Columbia he became the dean of USC School of Cinema-Television, a post he stepped down from in 1990, continuing to teach screenwriting in the Graduate Screenwriting Division. He continued to develop scripts until he died on March 29, 1996, at the age of 69 in Palm Springs, California, of a heart attack.”
Daniel was a big believer in structure. He would often cite William Goldman’s famous line: “Screenwriting is structure.” Daniel told us that this 8 sequence version of 3 Act Structure evolved in the movies because in the old days, movies were 8 reels long. So writers would breakdown three act structure into eight parts to fit the technology of the movies of the early days of cinema. If you watched TV in the recent past, you would see TV writers doing the same thing—modifying 3 act structure to fit the commercial breaks: Teaser, Act 1, Commercial, Act 2, part1, Commercial, Act 2, part 2, Commercial, Act 3, the End. Sitcoms would break the story at the midpoint, so part of Act 2 was in the first 10-11 minutes, and part in the second 10-11 minutes after the commercial break. Today, networks have tried to get wise with audiences, and shift the commercial breaks around to keep us from instinctively knowing when a commercial was coming. All that’s done is ruin TV watching. It hasn’t replaced 3 Act Structure.
I remember taking Daniel’s class back in the day, and we students would constantly try to stump him. What about this movie, Frank? What about that one? HULK SAY FRENCH CONNECTION NOT HAVE THREE ACTS. What about the French Connection? It’s a great movie. Does it have 3 Acts? I say it does. And so would Mr. Daniel. Just because it doesn’t have a happy resolution, doesn’t make the French Connection a great film, or nullify 3 act structure. It’s great for a whole lot of other reasons that Aristotle also discusses in his Poetics, but it works, on it’s most fundamental level, because the story has a very simple, very effective 3 act structure, right up until the end, when in classic 70’s style, it subverts the audiences expectations with it’s “unresolved” resolution. I heard David Freeman lecture on screenwriting once, and say that American Beauty didn’t adhere to three act structure. Maybe, but I wish Frank Daniel were alive to debate that point. It would have been fun to hear him dissect that terrific movie.
So what is my point then. TO DISS HULK? No. HULK HAS RIGHT TO OPINION. BUT HULK’S EVIDENCE for his opinion LEAVE SOMETHING TO BE DESIRED. Many factors go into the making of a great movie. HULK KNOW THIS. All of us who know and love the movies understand this. Writing is only one element, though I think Hulk might agree WRITING MOST IMPORTANT. If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage. Good movies may be hard to come by these days, but that doesn’t mean 3 Act Structure is dead or useless. Like a hammer and nails, it’s been around for a long long time, and the next great writer who comes along and writes a great screenplay that isn’t destroyed by the Hollywood Sausage Factory, will show us all once again, that a good tool, properly used, will produce a great work of art. May it be one of us who has the talent and the good fortune to be that writer…
It is kind of sad that the only example English speaking people seem to have refering to five acts writing of old times are English ones, especially when it comes to classic theater, and basically just one: Shakespeare. It makes sens as it is your language, but I have heard that comment about Shakespeare on other sites too, that the five act structure was added after his death. It doesn’t matter and here is why:
The thing is, he is not the only writer out there, as famous as he is in the English world. The French have tons of authors who wrote 5 acts plays that are famous to us but that are lost to others probably because the translation would not work (most are in verses that would lose their beauty – like Cyrano de Bergerac did centuries later).
Racine and Corneille (both from the XVII century) are examples of prolific authors who used the 5 acts structure to great ends. The French theater was made of exclusively 5 acts plays for a long time that follow exactly what The Hulk is talking about.
The debate on which structure is best is open to whomever wants to prefer a structure over the other, but Shakespeare is not the only authority in the matter. Go outside the English realm and see what is out there!
Well you probably won’t, as I am late in my comment, but it gets annoying that people only think in English terms when it comes to writing. Writing is done all over the planet and structure is something we all share.
HULK’S BEEN WELL OUTSIDE THE ENGLISH REALM MANY A TIME. THE REASON HULK USED SHAKESPEARE IS BECAUSE HULK WRITING AN ESSAY THAT TRYING TO SPEAK TO THE MOST PEOPLE AND GET THEM TO UNDERSTAND. WHICH ALSO THE REASON HULK USED ONE OF HIS MOST POPULAR PLAYS.
HULK KNOWS IT WASN’T YOUR INTENTION, BUT YOUR COMMENT STRIKES HULK AS KIND OF WEIRD TO BE HONEST. NOT ONLY IS IT ASSUMING SOME KIND OF SAD STATE OF READING ON HULK’S PART, BUT ALSO IMPLYING THAT POPULARITY OF WORKS CITED SOMEHOW RELEVANT TO THE VALIDITY OF ARGUMENT.
SOMETIMES COMMUNICATION DEPENDENT ON THE MOST POPULAR TOUCHSTONES.
There might have been a confusion here. I loved you article and yes, I may have come across wrongly. I was referring to the answer right above mine, (not your main text), and the idea that some people want to dismiss the 5 act structure because it was added posthumously in Shakespeare work. As if it meant it was not intended by Shakespeare, so not valid. I read that same line of thinking on other websites and decided to comment here to support your cause, but my zeal might have really not come across right.
I was just trying to say that this counter argument against the 5 act structure doesn’t hold because the 5 act structure existed elsewhere and whether Shakespeare used it himself or not is not enough to dismiss the whole idea as other writers used it too.
I can only hope I clarified my view. It is still a well learned lesson to make sure to express views more clearly! 🙂 Should have read the name of the poster above me too… might have helped! 😉
Cheers! as I really love your stuff and I praise your generosity in sharing so much with the world.
First of all, really insightful article; thank you for writing it! Now, you said that Pulp Fiction was “5 acts + vignettes.” That sentence seems to say “Pulp Fiction as a whole is 5 acts”, and not “each one of the three stories in Pulp Fiction is 5 acts long”. Seeing as the three stories in P.F. are basically unrelated, doesn’t that go against the South Park guys’ “there should either be a ‘therefore’ or a ‘but’ between all story beats” rule that you used in your Joeseph Cambell essay? So, I was hoping you could briefly summarize the acts, please? Semi-related: in an non-linear movie like P.F., would you say that the 5th act consists of The Bonnie Situation and/or The Diner, seeing as those are the last one of the 3 stories and the last vignette respectively, or would you say that the 5th act is the last story that takes place in the movie chonologically, The Golden Watch?
I love you, Mr. Hulk. You awesome.
Thank you Hulk. I know understand why whenever I tried to breakdown movies I watched to the 3 act structure, it doesn’t always work.
Would you ever do a 5 act analysis of other popular movies? I’m trying to find more examples online but the selection is small and most of the works I haven’t seen before.
Either way, really enjoyed the article and makes me think!
THIS MAY SEEM DUMB, BUT MAKE YOUR OWN! YOU WILL LEARN MORE!
I am doing that too, just finished watching Spiderman 2 but I learn better when I have other peoples examples too. I find that I have a very narrow view of things and seeing how other people work it out widens that view a bit.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KcmiqQ9NpPE&feature=relmfu is an example of a very similar structure. Towards the end it shows how to handle subplots well and some other useful things related to this.
hulk i wanted to ask you something, i am currently trying to write a story ( kind of my first one ) and im having a hard time writing it
any tips you could give me?
DID YOU READ HULK’S SCREENWRITING COLUMNS? ALL THE ANSWERS THERE! CHECK THE ARCHIVE.
i will now ! thanks hulk~!
Great argument, only problem is that EVERY movie exec in Hollywood will only touch the 3-act structure. I’m currently working on a way to disguise 5-act as 3-act.
NOT “EVERY” ONE. TRUST HULK. THERE PLENTY OF GOOD ONES.
I don’t think it’d be too tough to ‘disguise’ a well written 5-act story as 3-act – 3-act is basically Introduction; Building of Tension; Climax. Films structured in other ways should still have that going on, the problem (as HULK points out) is that 3-act is too basic and vague.
Well, if you’re just getting your foot in it’d be tough, I’d bet. But I think I might’ve cracked the code…
Just wanted to note: The fourth act doesn’t necessarily need to be a quickening downward spiral. It really depends on which way the third act ends.
If the third act ends on a down-note (ie, we have the big action climax, which the hero loses and gets his ass kicked) the fourth act can then be a spiral UPWARDS: the hero picking himself up by his boostraps, being nursed back to health, learning what he did wrong, push-up montage, swelling inspirational music, etc etc.
It serves the same function, it just goes in the opposite direction.
Hulk, I’m trying to break down Monster’s Ball for insight purposes, could you lend me your thoughts in it’s structuring?
SORRY HULK WOULD STRAIGHT UP HAVE TO WATCH THAT ONE AGAIN IN ORDER TO HELP AND THERE TOO MUCH ON THE DOCKET! BUT GO WITH YOUR INSTINCTS! REMEMBER IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE “RIGHT” IT JUST HAS TO BE MOST HELPFUL TO YOU! CHEERS AND BEST OF LUCK.
Been writing a plot outline for my novel and I wondered why my Act 2 was such a mess. Should’ve been obvious really, but reading this made me realise that it’s because my Act 2 is big enough to be two seperate acts! Now that I’ve read this I can finally sort it out so isn’t such a jumbled mess in the mid section with important plots overlapping too much and the pacing all over (which, admittedly, isn’t entirely the fault of just using acts). Shame on me for trying too hard to adhere to the three acts though, and thank you for opening my eyes! This’ll help loads when planning in the future.
REMEMBER, DON’T BE AFRAID TO HAVE A LOT OF THINGS HAPPEN AND CHANGE! KEEP THINGS MOVING FORWARD! BEST OF LUCK!
Has Hulk read David Mamet’s “3 Uses Of the Knife”? Refreshingly short (only 80 pages!) book on storytelling, mostly about plays. It talks quite intelligently (and positively) about the 3-act structure. I’d love to know if and how Hulk would smash it…
Can we get this, and all your genius rants, in a non-Hulk voice? It hurts my brain to even read, but I’m sure there is great information in here.
THIS JUST HOW HULKS TALK 😦 BUT HULK SUGGEST http://WWW.CONVERTCASE.NET FOR ANY CONVERSION NEEDS!
Great read, im a complete noob at writer but suspected the 3 act thing was poop-laden… (thats my word..lol)
You’ve gave me hope my fellow and i look forward to writing.
On another note, i dont care how angry you are, if you smash my car up again just because you stubbed your toe…. im not going to be happy….
all the best :- ) and regards from Scotland.
me like hulk. thank you for your insights ….
but i agree with mr banner
I’m so happy to finally find someone who does not support 3-act structure.
I’ve gotten into writing film through traditional prose writing, and they never talked about the 3-act structure in Creative Writing classes – though, Creative Writing classes lack any kind of structure in terms of how to compose narrative, so take that as you will as pro or con – and going into screenwriting, the 3 acts were all anyone would talk about.
It annoyed me at first, because it was just not how I wrote. But I humored them, took it as a way to potentially improve my writing, and looked into it.
Doing so I found that it was not simply annoying, but, as you say, fruitless.
However, I will have to say that I disagree with you in saying that it is a “myth”.
I think, simple, the idea that films have to be separated into three acts is a myth. That, or separating narratives into discrete acts of any kind is a myth.
I don’t think films can’t be legitimately separated into 3 acts. Iron Man, just as it could be separated into five acts, or potentially separated into more than 5 acts, could potentially be separated into 3 acts.
5 acts structure is just as much a “myth”, or “illusion”, a construct that we place upon narratives, post-construction.
Shakespeare didn’t actually write his plays in five acts. In their original form, there are no act breaks. Those were added later on, in later publications (they aren’t actually sure Shakespeare put the breaks in himself, as it might have just been the random editor who edited those specific publications), and they were added for the purpose of citation, so someone can say “that line in Act 4”, instead of saying “you know, that one line roughly a 4/5ths into the play”.
Not that the 5 act structure, as you break it down, is wrong. Simply that it too is a construct.
The problem I have with 3 act structure isn’t that it is “wrong”. It is that, for the purpose of writing a narrative, it does not help at all.
As you say, people tell you to always use a 3-act structure, yet when you press them on what specifically it is, all they can say is “beginning, middle, and end”. Or worse, “Act 1 is the intro, Act 3 is the climax, and Act 2 is everything that gets you from one to the other”.
It does nothing to provide you with any kind of meaningful structure in terms of how to construct narrative and create narrative propulsion.
Your preposed 5 act structure is much better, and as you say, works better at reducing the “wheel turning, getting all the pieces in position” feel that most “Act 2″‘s (blah) possess.
The (dumb – pardon my hostility) blogger you linked to who made the statement that “you HAVE to use 3 act structure” himself positioned the 3 act structure over the 5 act structure. He of course used it to push the skewed idea that “5 act structure is really just 3 act structure in disguise”. One could just as easily flip his logic, and say “3 act structure is simple 5 act structure in disguise”.
Neither is more right. All we can take away is the fact that the two line up with each other. 5 act is simply more structured, more detailed.
And a 9 act structure would be an even more structured, detailed reading.
Or 20 acts.
But then, if the problem with 3 acts is that it doesn’t give you enough to properly go on, 20 acts could potentially be too limiting.
As you said, someone with a well enough inherent understanding of narrative flow need not even use structure. Someone who doesn’t, however, and needs more structure, would benefit from use a more detailed act-structuring, separated into as many acts as would most benefit them.
At least that is what I think. I think 5 acts is a much better go to then 3. A much better “medium”, or compromise between structure and freedom.
Love this post
And now you have me thinking in Hulkese as if I don’t already have enough language issues.
“THE ENDING IS THE CONCEIT. IT LITERALLY THE COMPLETE SUMMATION OF WHAT YOU FUCKING TRYING TO SAY.”
This may be the problem. I am unsure that many in Hollywood are trying to say anything.
The hero ~always needs to follow the Wisdom Cycle to learn, believe, change, and commit. And what they learn, etc., is part of the message.
I think the root problem is that if people aren’t personally interested in learning, etc., in their own lives, then they can’t/won’t see any need for their heroes to either.
So their films have nothing really to say.
“But it’s a rollercoaster ride,” they say. Pro-tip: If people want a rollercoaster, they can go ride a rollercoaster.
This was one truly eye opening article. It’s all so clear now. This is a sincere statement.
But I have to ask, if the plot should flow organically, though as many acts as it needs, surely you can’t say you’ve NEVER seen any great 3 act movies? Can you not think of any that were three acts, that turned out well?
THERE SURE ARE, BUT WHAT HULK MOST WANTS TO CONVEY IS THAT THEIR “3 ACTNESS” IS NOT WHAT MAKES THEM GOOD AND INSTEAD IS DEPENDENT ON THE SCENE TO SCENE PROPULSION. AND SO WHAT HULK THINKS MATTERS WHEN YOU’RE ACTUALLY STRUCTURING A SCREENPLAY IS THE SCENE TO SCENE PROPULSION AND NOT HOWEVER MANY ACTS YOU HAVE AT THE END. DOES THAT MAKE SENSE?
THIS WILL ALL BE SO MUCH MORE CLEAR BY THE WAY WHEN HULK’S BOOK COMES OUT.
BUT SINCERE THANKS! YOUR WORDS REALLY MEAN A GREAT DEAL!
Book? Awesome! Can’t wait!
I think Aristotle would agree with you, Hulk. Events should arise from those previous. After all, understanding Cause-and-Effect is the ultimate goal of every hero. So that’s the most important thing.
I also think there are some major semantic issues with the word, “Act.” Which I hope you touch on in your book.
Where’s the book?
Love all your stuff. I’ve read a couple of books about writing and this is far more helpful.
Clarifying question: Does the irreversible decision happen at the beginning or end of the act?
Example: “STAR-CROSSED TEENAGERS ROMEO AND JULIET MEET AND GO GA-GA OVER ONE ANOTHER” does this happen as a culmination of everything that happened in Act 2 that then launches Act 3? Or does it launch Act 2? If it’s the former than what ends Act 1?
Greetings HULK! How can the five act structure be implemented best in a TV series? Meaning at a whole season/whole series level, if such an implementation even exists. Apologies for my foolishness. Thank you!
TWO WORDS – THANK YOU
What do you think of Blake Snyder’s break down of acts, ie his beat sheets? I feel his Mid-Point is a great place for a 4th act, and allows pages for it. I’m working on a script now and think 4 acts serves it well, just not 100% certain how 4 acts should flow just yet.
Hi i am kavin, its my first time to commenting anywhere, when i read this article i thought i could also make comment due to
this brilliant post.
Just read this article and all the comments, and the light shone through the window and fell all around me like a halo.
We are arguing apples and oranges here.
Most good movies have a 3 Part structure that relates to plot events, (i.e. Beginning, Middle, and End), and a 5 Act structure that pertains to character development, as detailed in the above essay.
Plot and character are two angry siblings that sometimes fight each other for attention from the writer like feral cats, but ultimately plot and character must work together.
The two should overlay each other in a perfectly crafted script, and never be mutually exclusive.
I understand and agree that tossing around the phrase ‘3 Acts’ is more detrimental than helpful. It really is 3 PARTS. Your character changes throughout your story in five stages, or 5 ACTS.
The version on BadAssDigest seems to be gone (I can’t connect to the site at all). Maybe you could re-publish that (and your other articles on that site?) here? I have the book, but I wanted to link the article to someone.