Screenwriting: Three-Act Structure

Ok, the last few posts have been extremely technical, so it’s time to get back to the basics; story structure. When D.W. Griffith invented the feature-length film, it took eight separate reels to hold the entire movie. In order to keep audiences seated while the reels were changed, he and his peers created a cliffhanger moment at the end of each reel, and found that they could best divide the film into two reels for the first act, four for the second, and then two for the third act climax. Even today, three-act features often aim for eight strong climactic moments distributed roughly evenly throughout the film.

In the 1970s, scriptwriter Syd Field was asked to teach a course on scriptwriting in Los Angeles. He began analyzing great scripts to see if there were any recurrent forms and noticed a consistent organization similar to the three-act structure of plays. In 1979 he published his findings in a book, which explained how to use this structure as an organizational tool to build stronger films. It cuts a long script into small, manageable chunks: beginning, middle and end. The most basic organizational concept delegates roughly 30 pages to Act I, 60 pages to Act II, and 30 pages to Act III, as you can see in the following diagram. A good writer will also use acts to manage his plot points, the story arc, and his characters’ growth.


On this graph, the dotted line charts the arc of an anti-hero. Not necessarily a villain, but a protagonist who is simply not heroic. This is called out-of-balance structure, and many films today try to use this to create “realistic” stories of ineffectual characters. The plot meanders along with the protagonist’s circumstances and then in Act III he winds up lower than before. This is depressing and boring. However, the solid line represents a strong character arc. The first act is exposition, not much conflict. Then in Act II the fight begins, and our hero is up and down, taking the audience on a roller coaster ride of success and defeats, until the third act, where he recovers from some crushing blow and rises to victory.

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Sundance 2006 Wrap-Up

Well, the 2006 Sundance festival is now over, and it marked the 25th anniversary of the Sundance Institute, and the 10th anniversary of the Sundance Channel. Unfortunately, I’m too busy to do much of a real write-up on Sundance itself, but this year it played 120 features, 84 of which were world premieres, and 48 of which were the work of first time filmmakers (although I’m not sure exactly how this is designated). 102 of the films were presented using digital projection, but only 41 films were actually shot on digital formats. There were also 46 documentaries, and lots of shorts.

From what I’ve read of this year’s coverage, the festival itself hasn’t changed much, apart from a put-on, somewhat forced “edginess” to prove that it hasn’t sold out or become too commercial or Hollywoodized. Which is silly, because the world’s largest and most commercially successful indie festival attracts so many big-name celebrities, high-profile reporters, and fashion parties that it is basically a snowbound, less-restrained, mini-Hollywood all on it’s own.

This year, however, the films seemed to have a slightly different flavor. In the past, post-modern indie films could separate themselves from the mainstream simply by leaving off the happy ending, or by not hiring a professional camera operator. These days, though, plenty of studio films are depressing and shaky. So now, in order to be more obviously non-mainstream, indies need to be vehemently anti-mainstream. Which is why most of them seem to focus on negative, sarcastic, and anti-traditional themes, structures, and styles.

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