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The Importance of Three Act Storytelling

Contributed By Charles Deemer

Very early in one's screenwriting studies, the beginner will learn how important screenplay structure is. "Screenplays are structure," William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride, Absolute Power, etc.) writes over and over again in his wonderful book, Adventures in the Screen Trade. The way a story is put together, its dramatic structure, is one of the very important skills a beginning screenwriter must master.

Act One, Act Two, Act Three

Okay, structure is important. But what does this mean exactly? As the beginning screenwriter studies more, he or she soon will encounter something called "three-act structure." A screenplay has an Act One, Act Two and Act Three, each in which certain story elements are developed (set up, conflict, and resolution, in broad terms). Fine.

But then the student is likely to learn things that begin a cycle of increased confusion: no, a self-appointed screenwriting guru will insist, a screenplay doesn't have three acts, it has four acts. No, argues another, it has seven acts. No, says still another, there are twelve steps that are necessary to build solid screenplay structure. Soon, everywhere the student turns reveals a new theory about what screenplay structure means. What is going on?

What is going on is competition for your attention -- and business. Screenwriting education is a hot new cottage industry because "the Great American Screenplay" (not the "Great American Novel," as in my generation) is what more and more young writers aspire to write. In this competitive environment, "new takes" on screenplay structure become koans for the new gurus who appear to meet increased demand for information on how to write for the screen. If the beginner isn't confused by this barrage of information, he or she hasn't been paying attention.

What is important to understand is that these many theories are not in competition with one another at all; they complement one another. First, they all -- without exception! -- are rooted in three-act dramatic structure as first set down by Aristotle in his Poetics. This simply is the way stories are told in our culture. Second, they each focus on a particular aspect of this theory or recast the theory into new terminology.

Dramatic Movement

Aristotle's theory, which is at the very root of storytelling craft in western culture, is that we tell stories that have a beginning (Act One), a middle (Act Two), and an end (Act Three). In other words, our stories have dramatic movement -- THINGS HAPPEN. One of the wisest things ever written about structure comes from Richard Toscan (author of The Playwriting Seminars on the Internet): "American movies are about what happens next." When properly understood, this is a profound statement about how we tell stories.

Movement. Change.

What causes movement and change in a story? Conflict. Screenplay structure, then, is rooted in conflict, story movement, change, so we are always asking ourselves: What happens next? And who is involved in conflict? People. Our characters. In particular, our main character, called the protagonist, because Hollywood stories are almost always star-centered, main-character-centered, hero-centered, protagonist-centered. When a protagonist wants something (goal) and faces someone or something that prevents him or her from getting it (obstacle or antagonist), you have conflict.

HERO'S GOAL + OBSTACLE = CONFLICT.

This simple rule is the basis of good filmic storytelling. Conflict, conflict, and more conflict. The skill is to keep focus on the protagonist and to build conflict so the journey of the protagonist moves into more dangerous and challenging territory, leading to the final confrontation and resolution. Three-act structure is a tool for doing exactly this.

Telling a story without three-act structure (no matter what you call it) is like building a house without a foundation. Without foundation, the walls are going to sag -- and eventually the house will self-destruct. Three-act structure is the very foundation of filmic storytelling, and without it your screenplay will self-destruct.

The opposite of wanting to know what happens next is boredom, which is the worst thing that can be said about a story. Three-act screenplay structure precludes boredom by arranging story events in such an order that conflict causes change, which in turn causes new conflict, building and building until the story's final confrontation and resolution. Set up, Conflict (and more conflict, and more), Resolution. Beginning, Middle, End.

Act One, Act Two, Act Three -- no matter what you call it. Future columns will look at each act in detail.

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