Thursday, February 12, 2015

You Lost Me when you wrote... "The End of the Three Act Structure"


The End of the Three Act Structure????




I was trying to finish my work on two projects when I came across an email with the headline -- The End of the Three-Act Structure

I couldn’t resist following the link where I discovered the article was posted on a website run by Write Brothers Inc, a company that specializes in selling software products to screenwriters. I applaud WBI for supporting their sales effort by featuring posts written about different subjects related to the craft of screenwriting. 

With that said, the content of this particular post was so objectionable I decided to break away from what I should be doing and write a response. 

The End of the Three-Act Structure, was written by James Hull and can be found hereHull modestly describes himself as “an animator by trade.” Actually he has many impressive credits as an animator including the big studio movies, "The Crood" and "How to Train a Dragon." Unfortunately, the subject of his post is not on the craft of an animator.  He chose to write about an important, fundamental area in the craft of screenwriting.

The main point of his argument is –

“The time has come to obliterate Aristotle's stranglehold on narrative fiction. With the amount of information and different perspectives available to Audiences today, a simplified beginning-middle-end approach simply doesn't cut it anymore. Complete stories consist of four major movements, not three.” 


A few sentences later, he attempts to support his opening statement – 


“The standard in modern screenwriting paradigm calls for splitting up the Second Act into two halves, labeling them 2A and 2B. For all intents and purposes, as long as everyone on the production agrees with this naming convention, there isn't anything about this approach that could prevent the successful conclusion of a film. The question becomes if the final product finishes with a glorious and well-celebrated run or peters out over the first weekend, adding weight to the already great discarded landfill of pointless stories.”


Perhaps Hull’s motives in writing his post was to be provocative and/or to come off as creatively progressive. Regardless of his motivation, his words, (not only the ones I’ve included, but other passages throughout his post) and ideas are flat out wrong. For starters, what he specifically perceives as the three-act structure seems to be written in almost complete ignorance to the way professional screenwriters use the three-act structure in approaching their craft. 
For example, I have no idea where he gets the notion, “the standard in modern screenwriting paradigm calls for splitting up the Second Act into two halves.” 
I am a professional screenwriter, and I have worked with dozens of professional screenwriters on studio projects as well as independent movies. I’ve also been involved with over fifty different film projects as a producer, working to develop the screenplay with the writers. And with all that experience, not once have I ever come across any professional screenwriter or any industry professional who believes “the standard in modern screenwriting is to split the second act into two halves.” 

There are several different approaches to the three act structure, but anyone who has experience in professional writing is aware that the second act, like the first act has different creative markers along the way that are used to signify creative shifts in the storyline or plot. These markers are usually perceived as guides to the screenwriter as he makes his creative choices. I use such terms as “First Act Spin” and “Second Act Tent Pole” to define these creative markers or guideposts. And nothing I’ve come across creatively resembles “splitting the second act into halves.” 

In his post, Hull goes on to write –

“Don't assume that both halves are dealing with the same thematic stuff. Don't assume that this "Special World” somehow carries with it some intrinsic meaning because of its position between the beginning and the end.”

His reference to thematic stuff and a special world clearly reveals that Hull has completely mixed up story structure with other aspects of storytelling. Both creative areas he cites have almost no meaningful bearing on the rhyme or reason associated with the approach to story structure. 

As well as being an animator by trade, Hull apparently also teaches classes on "story" at Calfornia Institute of the Arts (CalArts). So I presume his writing on this subject is being taught to fledging or beginning writers who are attempting to take up the craft of professional screenwriting. Despite what Hull writes online, the three-act structure in writing professional screenplays has not been retired. In fact the creative standard for a storyline/plot continues to be the three-act structure. 

Even when one examines screenwriting rebels who have been produced, and whose work has been celebrated as ground breaking in the area of storyline/plot structure, close scrutiny reveals a rebel with a deep understanding of the traditional three-act structure, not a rebellion borne from ignorance.



One example of truly a different approach to the three-act structure would be Stanley Kubrick, and the film “Full Metal Jacket.” Kubrick was one of the screenwriters, as well as the director of “Full Metal Jacket,” (the other screenwriter was Michael Herr; and the screenplay was  based on the book, “The Short Timers,” authored by Gustav Hasford). 

I can’t comment on the structure of the screenplay developed prior to production, but the final version of the movie released to audiences has a storyline/plot which unfolds in a way that is very much a different, atypical approach to the traditional three-act structure of modern professional screenwriting. 

That’s not to say that “Full Metal Jacket” can be used by Hull as an example of a movie with “Four Acts.” In fact, the uncommon approach on display in “Full Metal Jacket” is a storyline that still falls under the traditional three-act structure, but is creatively distinctive by the elongated duration and creative conclusiveness to the film’s first act. It was Kubrick’s unique approach to unfolding the storyline in “Full Metal Jacket” that was at least partially responsible for the lukewarm, critical response to the film upon its initial release in 1987. Of course, the critical standing of the film has risen in ensuing years, which has been the typical pattern of almost all of Kubrick’s films. 

Professional Screenwriting continues to push the boundaries of narrative structure and there is no reason to believe the three-act structure is on the endangered species list. Nor should the three-act approach be threatened out of existence by the notion that it is out of date or no longer is the best approach to constructing a screenplay for a commercial audience. What Hull apparently is not aware of is that the three-act structure embraces many creative elements that push a storyline forward, not just what he sums up as the “beginning, middle, and end.” 

****For the record, I would have responded to Hull’s post on the site of his posting, but it did not allow comments.****