Friday, April 25, 2008

It's Academic

"What need is there to think of these events as having three acts? None."
-James Bonnet

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Why the 'three-act' structure? Why not the 'three-part' structure? The 'five-act plan' or the 'ten-sequence' tale?

It's purely academic.

First there were stories. People studied them and found similarities in those that worked, elements that seemed to lack in those stories that didn't. To be able to talk about it, they gave those elements names.

It's that simple.

Aristotle talked about 'beginning, middle, end', or rather: beginning, complications and denouement. Theater has continued using this rough three-act structure.

In the late seventies, Syd Field built further on this and he designed 'the paradigm', a 'three-act structure' specific for movies.

Since then, many have studied the structure of films and refined that crude framework into something far more practical and sophisticated. Beyond Aristotle, but firmly grounded in the foundations he built.

The motivation to study the components of story - for me and many others - has always been partially a scientific curiosity into 'how stuff works'. The three-act structure has proven to be a handy tool.

But the other motivation has always been: money. A better understanding of how audience perception works, may result in a more successful approach to screenwriting. Good business for screenwriters and producers.

Plus: with hundreds of thousands of aspiring screenwriters around the world, there is business potential in selling your ideas to this group. Syd Field soon found out after the release of his book SCREENPLAY.

Those that came after him learned that merely re-hashing old models won't work; you will need to come up with an improvement of the existing theories. That's one reason why authors keep putting their own spin on the material.

On the other hand, we have to constantly update our understanding of story structure for the screen as audience expectation changes. Cinema goers and television viewers become more and more demanding.

Still, the whole damn thing is entirely conventional.

The only purpose is for you to find a way to improve your story. And by 'improve', we mean: increase the chances of reaching a wider audience, according to principles that can be learned.

McKee says something like: these principles don't say "You MUST do this." They say "IF you do this, then...". In other words, these principles have been empirically deducted from studying stories that work.

Scientific? Oh yes.

No-one cares whether you have three acts, eight sequences, twelve or one hundred and eighty-eight journey stages, as long as it works.

Why to speak of three acts? Because if you don't, and you still want to talk story, you'll have to come up with an entirely new system. And convince the rest of the world to use it.

If, like James Bonnet, you don't want to use the three-act structure, go for your life. You may well achieve the same - or even better - results. But when it comes to discussing your work with others, you may find yourself in a foreign country. And no-one speaks your language.

You may find it's a pretty lonely world out there.

3 comments:

Susan Plunkett said...

My greater experience is in marking student work - whether this be undergrad or PhD. One of the greatest problems in undergrad essay structure is the lack of 3 general parts (or 'acts') and quite often with the ending. The art of wrapping up arguments and points of issue successfully and gracefully and - not rushing it! - is very difficult for some students to comprehend. In essay writing the bulk of the discourse is in the centre but you must lead the reader into that and help them leave. I guess this is transferable to script writing.

In PhD work where there are many chapters you STILL have the basic 3 act principle however there are more sections within each act.

Do you obtain full story sequences within each PhD act? Hmmm..I have to ruminate on this. Yes and no. Certainly each section has a sense of closure but each must propel into the other. To me its that propelling that I find the most difficult to deal with as I move into script writing. I'm finding it hard to see mini-stories within the greater whole as we covered in the course I did with you Karel.

I CAN see the mini-stories but I'm not sure whether I feel they complete because of my propelling. Does this matter entirely? I'm too inexperienced to know but it's a question I am considering. I could see the mini-stories in Ratatouille as we watched but I can't see them as easily in my own synopsis development. I now wonder whether this will be an ultimate flaw even while considering that that continual movement forward is so important.

Karel said...

In order to have a strong 3rd Act (or 'conclusion' in a scientific work) the author needs to have a strong point, or vision. IMHO, most young people lack the life experience to express this convincingly.

Susan, it will always be hard identifying the structure (whether it be the overall structure or the sequential structure) in YOUR OWN work. That's why people work with editors and consultants, even if they have sold their scripts for millions of dollars.

Susan Plunkett said...

I absolutely agree. I actually feel very relieved to work with you because whilst I must apply myself 100% its great to have a critical eye so I can continually adjust.

This is off topic here but I am realising that the time one needs to take on research may not be considered by some. I spent almost 3 hours today looking through names, maps, national park images and worked it all out - so I thought - only to double check through a different map system and find I will need to do much of that work again.

I see some writers reluctant to do that and working then to twist and turn their plot to try and match the research, rather than simply deciding to go back and do it again.

In my case it was a lack of understanding about a highway network and where exactly in a state a particular city was situated. Is this central to my story per se? Not really, however it would be critiqued very quickly by an observant and knowledgable audience who would then find the story frail against the problems.

So far I've spent around 6 hours just choosing a group to match a geographical area and a very basic travel issue. I'm not making anything of this but rather pointing out to readers to ensure they allow good time for research.