The Myth of The Three Act Structure

A story can fail in its begin­ning, its middle or its end, but knowing where you are will not neces­sarily help you fix the story. I believe that three act struc­ture is over­rated. The important thing is to tell a good story and deliver the goods on your hook”.

Alex Epstein, The Myth Of The Three Act Structure

When I first explain to students about the three-act format, there’s an under­standing that it’s some­thing that’s instantly recog­nis­able to them. It should be because it’s served up to them prac­tic­ally every time they watch a main­stream film, a tv drama or even a sitcom.

I tell the more ambi­tious amongst them that, if such a thing as a ‘formula’ exists, then this is it. This is as close as you come to a winning recipe in the field of scriptwriting and movie production.

I am not being entirely serious but never­the­less, there is a lot of truth in such a claim; even films like Pulp Fiction, that appear to have an uncon­ven­tional struc­ture, are still driven by the three act engine when you decon­struct them. It’s actu­ally quite hard to find any film that enjoys a measure of popular appeal and doesn’t have some­where within it (even if cunningly concealed at times) vestiges of the old ‘three card trick’ that the audi­ences like so much.

But, as Alex Epstein points out, just because it works doesn’t mean it’s the only way to make a good film. It doesn’t need to be a strait-jacket – in fact, the recog­nis­ab­ility of the struc­ture can be some­thing of a handicap when you’re trying to create some­thing fresh.

That doesn’t prevent studio exec­ut­ives, or the gradu­ates of those busi­ness courses they now run at film schools, trying to shoe-horn every story into the format; as though it were a busi­ness plan or some kind of marketing strategy. If you’re very unlucky, you might have to deal with one of this breed in the course of getting a film made; but you don’t have to think like that yourself.

If it was simply a case of perfecting a formula, they would have done it by now. So why isn’t every movie a big box-office success? And why do some scriptwriters have successful commer­cial hits without going to film school or ever reading books on film structure?



Blues Struc­ture

“Woke up this mornin’ and my agent was in my room …  ‘Said you better learn some blues, boy, cos there’s gonna be a boom”

The Liver­pool Scene, ‘I got The Fleetwood-Mac-Chicken-Shack-John-Mayall-Cant-Fail Blues’

Cerebral film directors like Ingmar Bergman and Peter Green­away often talked about their films in terms of a musical struc­ture. The analogy is quite apt because music, as well as film, organ­ises and uses time in a specific way and this is how film directors think. The struc­tural models that these directors used were, of course, clas­sical and quite intricate in their nature – think of Bach or Mozart – but the prin­ciple can be applied to other structures.

MissJohnIn popular culture, you don’t have to go too far to find a musical equi­valent for a popcorn movie, some­thing with mass appeal. Popular music genres such as jazz, rock and soul; and even their successors such as hip-hop, rap, R’n’B; originate with the Blues. The Blues is a fusion of English and Appalachian folk music, brought to America by the settlers, and the call-and-response work songs of black slaves imported from West Africa.

Struc­tur­ally it couldn’t be simpler. There is a three-chord pattern that moves up and down the scale (tonic, sub-dominant and dominant) in an endless rolling loop of sound. It is prim­itive but it also has a feeling of ‘right­ness’ about it, a dramatic shape that rever­ber­ates across cultural barriers and upon which commer­cial empires have been built.

This simple struc­ture is what under­pins most of the popular music you hear. If you have listened to any form of popular music from this century or the latter part of the last one, then you have exper­i­enced this struc­ture first-hand whether you real­ised it or not.

Is any of this sounding familiar yet?

The point about the Blues (and really the point I’m trying to make here) is that it’s not about intel­lec­tual analysis. This is music created by illit­erate share-croppers and what it most requires is feeling. The struc­ture is inter­n­al­ised, it’s become instinctive – we know it because we’ve heard it a million times before.

This seems to me to be the ideal way to approach your writing, using your gut and your instinct before your intel­lect. You know this stuff already, you just need to trust in your feeling for what is right and what isn’t  – and not kid your­self other­wise. This is the way those Holly­wood veterans operate; over the years, they’ve developed a feel for what works.

The other great benefit to this approach is that, just like the Blues, once the feeling is right, a little bit of impro­visa­tion is permitted.  Eight bars or twelve bars can both work in the right situ­ation. Hey, John Lee Hooker, when he got himself warmed up, would often stretch things out to nine­teen or twenty-two bars if the mood grabbed him.

The final connec­tion between the Blues and film struc­ture is about what Alex Epstein calls The Hook. This applies to all forms of pop music as well as most movies you see. With pop-tunes, ‘a Hook’ is music biz parlance for the catchy riff or chorus that turns a number into a hit.

In movies, it refers to the ‘offer’ you make to an audi­ence to enter­tain and engage them. In struc­tural terms, you usually make this offer at the begin­ning of the film during the first act and you deliver at the end. As Epstein puts it:

“Worry about whether your story is taking too long to get off the ground, or if you’re intro­du­cing new char­ac­ters so fast we don’t get to know them well enough. Worry about whether your middle drags, or gets too complic­ated, or if you are running out of complic­a­tions and your hero is going to defeat his enemy too quickly and easily. Worry about whether your ending feels rushed, or if you’ve got more than one scene that feels like an ending. But don’t worry about having three distinct acts. Just tell a good story that keeps people interested”.

Epstein goes on to add:

Note, however, that if you are turning in an outline to a producer, he will prob­ably want to know where the act breaks are. Pick some plaus­ible page numbers or events and humour him. (From The Myth Of The Three Act Struc­ture)

Quite. Often the only reason to know this stuff is to keep the suits and film gradu­ates happy.

David Clough © 2013

Orson Welles talks about musical struc­ture and editing. He was well known for trav­el­ling with a port­able Movieola editing machine when he was directing a film and spending his nights closeted with it in his hotel suite.

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