Monday, August 1, 2011

Attack of the Three-Act Structure: Run for Your Lives!

As writers we have all been bamboozled! We have done the one thing we, as writers, should never do—assume. We have assumed that because someone writes a bloody book and gives advice about writing that: 1) they know what the hell they’re talking about, 2) they are right, 3) because they wrote a book they have something original to say.

All of these assumptions are dead wrong. And you can extrapolate all this to writer-bloggers (including me!). Like I always say, my mantra if you will: listen to everyone, follow no one. So listen up—

One of the great lies we have all swallowed, only because the source of the lie spoke with some authority or sold books or screenplays, is the lie of the three-act structure. The idea that a story is told in three acts is about as true and real as Area 51, or the Legion of Doom, or Elvis still being alive (sorry, he’s really dead). Three acts have NOTHING to do with storytelling. However, three acts have a great deal to do with physical stage production. Let me explain.

Way back in the days of the Greeks, we’re talking pre-default days—circa 500–300 B.C.—drama was king. Theater, in the form of epic poetry, was the Comic-Con of the age. Physical plays performed by human beings on a stage that required moving sets and technical setups (some amazingly elaborate) were an unavoidable part of physical production of a play. Even then it was not thought smart to have the audience sit and watch the sausage being made, so some enterprising Greek came up with the idea of curtains or screens that could be put into place to shield the audience from the gross happenings between transitions. Curtains were one way to not break the mood, to not lose the tempo, etc.

Thus, acts were born. Writers started writing to accommodate these changes in the physical requirements in their plays. Acts were sometimes three, sometimes two, and sometimes ten! Even 2500 years ago there was no hard and fast rule about the number three. So, the idea of acts is not an idea related to telling a story, it is an idea related to a specific form of delivering a story: i.e., a stage play. Acts are about the constraints of physical production, not writing or storytelling. 

Commercial television is another place where acts make sense, because of commercials.  Every 17 or 20 minuets you have to break the story to sell soap—thus an act.  TV shows have anywhere from 4–6 acts due to commercial breaks.  Again, not a part of storytelling; a part of selling soap, i.e., how the story is delivered due to the constraints of the storytelling environment! (Remember, TV is not an entertainment medium, it is a sales medium—TV shows exist so you'll watch the commercials, not the other way around.)

So, where the hell did we get this cockamamie idea that screenplays or novels should be told in three acts (or four or six)? “Oh,” replies the literary critic, "it comes from Aristotle. In his foundational work
Poetics he laid out the necessity of three acts in drama and comedy.”


Aristotle (384–322 B.C.) never talked about acts. He talked about a beginning, middle, and end in any drama or comedy, but he laid down no such rule about acts. So, don’t blame him.

Not to point fingers, because I think the actual origin of this in modern times is impossible to “finger,” but one influential source for this monstrosity of an idea is Syd Field. We all have a debt of gratitude to this man for trailblazing the field of screenwriting for popular audiences. He is a great man and he deserves his place in the pantheon of marketing mavericks. Yeah, I know … here comes the “but.”

But—Syd, more than anyone, popularized the idea of three acts through his “Paradigm” theory; the idea that stories are told in three acts, but that the second act should be broken up into parts A and B. And because he was "the first," and because he was articulate and made sense, people assumed this must be true; this must be the way of things. In Hollywood this notion of three acts took hold like a pernicious weed. To this day, at the highest levels of creative power, creative executives all talk about three acts. Agents, managers, all manner of industry blowhard talk about three acts. Even, sadly, we screenwriters smoke this nasty weed. In the publishing world, the problem is less pronounced, but it is still an issue. Literary novels, especially, are less prone to this infestation, but commercial, genre fiction is more likely to succumb.

Run, run, run—for your creative lives! Three acts have nothing to do with storytelling. Shake loose this idea and free yourself. Three acts will not serve you or your story, unless you’re a playwright. So, what should you do instead? How should you structure your story?

What story development tool is best for you is a highly personal and complicated issue. There are some good story structure teachers out there (“story gurus”—see my post who have alternative approaches to the three-act structure. Many of them do some modified version of the three or four act structure, but some like the fabulous John Truby (The Anatomy of Story) have created real solutions to the problem. Chris Vogler (The Hero’s Journey) is another. I can’t recommend John Truby highly enough, though. His work is truly seminal in the field. My own methodology is also good (Enneagram-Story Bridge), but my approach is better suited for building a development foundation that can then be ported over to a more determined system, like Truby's or Vogler's. For now, I will just leave it at that, as this topic of story-structure methodology deserves a more detailed examination all its own—at a later time.

Just know that there are useful alternatives out there and that you will be hugely benefited in your creative process if you just walk away (nay, run) from the model of three acts, and look instead for an approach that focuses on classic story development and not the same ol’ same ol’, story-structure straightjacket.

Now, go be brilliant!

1 comment:

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