How many acts?

This was posted today on Shooting People:

“The so-called 3-act structure is the biggest, most destructive myth ever foisted on writers. I would like to call it obsolete. But that implies that it worked in the first place. It didn’t.”  

The quote is attributed to John Truby. It then goes on to say:

“John Truby is a writer/director who has taught his 22-Step Great Screenwriting and Genre classes to over 20,000 students worldwide. He has also worked as a story consultant and script doctor for Disney Studios, Sony Pictures, FOX, HBO, Alliance Atlantis, and Cannell Studios. In Europe, Truby has consulted for the BBC, RAI, LUX, TV4 and MTV Sweden. His students include the writer/director/or producer for the following films:

  • Shrek
  • Pirates of the Caribbean
  • The Mask of Zorro
  • Nightmare on Elm Street
  • Outbreak
  • Scream
  • Sleepless in Seattle
  • Back to School
  • The Addams Family
  • Kiss of the Spider Woman
  • Beetlejuice
  • Valley Girl
  • The Negotiator
  • Star Wars”

That’s an impressive list of … hang on, all of those films have three acts. They may have 22 plot points (or beats, or story fundamentals or whatever you want to call them) but they still fit inside the classic three act structure.

On a similar theme, Gordon Robertson drew my attention to this site:

The Nine Act Structure

Nine acts? Nine! What?

Closer examination shows some of these acts are single scenes, the first one is a crane shot behind the opening credits. Can a single shot be described as an act?

I think what we’re dealing with here is a difference of opinion on what constitutes an act, not how to write a screenplay. From my, fairly ignorant, point of view the 22 steps and the 9 acts are pretty much the same, they just use different terminology.

I think of an act as the point at which you could have an intermission and people would still want to come back afterwards.

But then, that could apply to the end of every scene in a really good film.

So maybe a better definition is: the end of each act signifies a change in pace/tone of the story.

But then, that doesn’t seem to cut it either.

I don’t really know how best to define an act; but, from the look of it, neither does anyone else.

Or do they?

A more cynical opinion might be that people argue about the number of acts in a film purely because it generates more money. If you have ‘the one true formula’ for making a hit movie, then you can charge a shit load of cash for seminars and make a fortune from book sales.

But why are people so keen to kick over the three act structure? Why is it always perceived as wrong by creative types? I think they are a couple of reasons here:

1) Some creative people hate to think the universe runs on rules. Being creative makes them special and if you can spot the rules which underlie it, somehow people think that makes them less special.

2) People, especially in Britain, hate what they perceive as wisdom received from an established authority figure. The establishment is always wrong. Always. Doctors? What the fuck do they know? They are confined by established thinking. Whereas a homeopath (someone who sells water) is much more likely to know what’s going on.

(The irony here being doctors’ opinions on things constantly change as new procedures are tried and new knowledge is gained. Homeopaths rarely change their views because someone a couple of hundred years ago said it was true, so there.)

The three act structure is the establishment. You can’t railroad my creativity into such confined system. This guys offering 22 steps, he’s a rebel, he must know what he’s talking about.

Personally, I think each film has four acts. The mid-point seems to be the end of an act to me, but what the fuck do I know? I’m certainly not going to go around talking about the break into the fourth act.


Because no one else will know what I’m talking about. Rightly or wrongly, the three act structure has become a useful piece of language for describing what’s going on in your film. If a director thinks your third act is weak, it’s probably because the end of the movie is weak, not the moment when you first meet the hero.

I think people should use whatever system makes sense to them (and pay whichever barely-produced writer they like, exorbitant fees for the privilege) because they all seem to have nuggets of truth in them.

As for the people who are adamant that true creativity can’t be bound by any rules …

Great! Go for it guys, it’s all less competition for me.

Categories: Industry Musings | 9 Comments

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9 thoughts on “How many acts?

  1. Syd Field goes as far as telling you on what page your inciting incident should happen (page 17, if I remember correctly). It will surprise you exactly none that I don’t much rate Syd Field.

    I think a lot of people are attracted to these gurus, be they the 9-act ones or the 22-beat ones or the 5-acts-and-a-flying-camel ones, because they’re afraid to be creative. They want to know exactly how to do this screenwriting thing, exactly what words to put on each page, exactly how many pages there should be, etc. Because let’s face it, being creative is scary. Not having rules and procedures is scary. And also, the American educational system (of which I’m a product) seems to put a lot of faith in rules and procedures. When I was taught how to write an essay as a child, I was given a very specific formula about how my introduction should go, how my various arguments should be linked together, and how my conclusion should, er, conclude. Deviation from the formula was pretty much not tolerated. So I wonder if a lot of (American) screenwriters crave formulas because they’ve been conditioned to do so.

    All that said, I’ve been to the Robert McKee seminar and he spends most of day one describing all sorts of different ways that stories can be put together. He then goes on to concentrate on the traditional three-act structure because it’s the most common one. He also makes a point of saying things like, “Don’t ask me, can I do such-and-such. Of course you can. You can do anything you want. What I’m giving you are tools here, not rules.”

    I think the measure of a screenwriting teacher is, do they help you tell the stories you want to tell? For me, explaining act structures (and some instances of subversion thereof) is helping people tell the stories they want to tell. Decreeing that the inciting incident must occur on page 17 is not.

  2. I don’t think the 9 act guy sees himself as a guru (I read the site a while back, it may have changed since) I think he was voicing a theory he works to. I just wanted to mention that because I don’t think I was clear in the original post.

    Rules wise, I’m all for them. Maybe rules is the wrong word, maybe guidelines is better. However, page 17 for an inciting incident? I feel that’s too late. I’d be trying to get that somewhere around page 10 in my script; but I use that only as a guideline.

    Saying the first act should end on page xx feels too prescriptive. Saying it should end somewhere around quarter of the way in, seems reasonable.

    I read this awful script once about a group of Londoners who went on a night out in Brighton and had all sorts of misadventures. From that brief description, I expected the characters to reach Brighton by at least the end of the first act. They set off and arrived on page 90-odd of a 120 page script.

    The way the story developed, the first act was in London, the second was in Brighton and the third the next morning in the aftermath.

    In my opinion the writers should have got the characters to Brighton much, much earlier. If they’d followed a three act structure, knowing the first act should be around a quarter of the film it might have been a lot better. The way it read, the writers had no idea what story they were trying to tell and no clue about structure.

    They used the ‘creativity should be free of rules’ card; but they were still using a three act structure, they just didn’t understand it. This seems to be true of every script I’ve read by unproduced writers who deny the three acts, they still use them, just badly.

    I agree with your last statement there, Christine. An act structure should help you understand your story, but hitting a certain point on a certain page seems far too prescriptive.

  3. PS I’m impressed you read all the way through my original post, it’s far too long. I got bored and gave up trying to proof read it.

  4. I have a rom com script in which act 1 ends on page 1. This worried me when I originally wrote the script, and it often raises eyebrows in pitching sessions, but nobody who’s read the full script has complained about it. (They’ve complained at length about other things, but I digress.)

    So there are exceptions — I think beginnings in particular can defy the usual conventions and still work.

    But obviously a story about Brighton that takes place almost wholly in London is not one of those exceptions.

  5. I think that’s great. If you can get to the point of the story that quickly without sacrificing anything, go for it.

    Similarly, rom-com’s tend to have a very short act three, it rarely hurts them.

    Different things work for different people, but the 3 act structure is almost always there.

    Except ‘Mr & Mrs Smith’ which only has acts 1 and 2; and ‘Bubba Ho-tep’ which only has acts 1 & 3. Any others?

  6. Leaving Las Vegas (which I hated, by the way) doesn’t really have an act 2. There’s a clear act break when Nicolas Cage announces he’s going to drink himself to death, but then, well, he just does it. And takes an hour of screen time to do it. And bores me to tears.

    McKee, by the way, describes Leaving Las Vegas as a film with an act 1 and then an hour of climax action. Or anti-climax action, depending on your point of view. (McKee also describes Bond films as an act 1 followed immediately by climax action, which I’m not sure I agree with.)

  7. No, I wouldn’t agree with that either. James Bond films usually have a very clear break just before the final showdown.

    I think.

    Just goes to show though, the whole industry’s just a matter of opinion.

  8. I vote for twelve acts. That way, if the need arises, you could have three acts just by joining together the first three, middle six, and last three. Or, if you wanted, you could have three, four, or six acts of roughly equal length. Nine would be a problem.

  9. I’m going to start a new system. 110 acts, one for each page.

    Any of you who want to learn my system have to sell me your first born child.

    Discounts for students.

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