This week I’ve been listening to/reading about writers who rail against a three act structure – it doesn’t apply to my art, it’s constrictive, it’s prescriptive, it’s just plain bollocks …
I’ve never quite understood the problem. To me the three acts are BEGINNING, MIDDLE and END … don’t all stories have those?
Except Mr and Mrs Smith, which I seem to remember just stops at the end of the middle.*
But generally, all stories have a beginning, middle and end, don’t they? They might not follow chronologically, but all three bits should be there.
“Aha!” people exclaim, righteously pleased with themselves for having out-thunk me ” MOMENTO doesn’t follow the three act structure and that’s a great film!”
Well, yes it is … but it still has a beginning, a middle and an end. The beginning is a murder, the middle is a ‘why did/will he do it’? and the end is when the story concludes and we understand what did/will happen.
Still three bits to my brain.
Generally the beginning and the end are shorter than the middle, that makes sense to me.
Beginning: this is a story about someone who wants something but can’t get it because of reasons.
Middle: this is all the things they go through trying to get the thing they want.
End: they get it. Or don’t, in a way which is fairly permanent.
That’s it, three acts.
Oh fuck, it’s him again.
“Shakespeare wrote in five acts and Shakespeare is awesome so therefore the three act structure is wrong!”
Well … maybe. I don’t have any Shakespeare to hand (at the time of writing this) but I’m fairly certain those five acts will divide up into beginning, middle and end.
Maybe acts one and two are the beginning, three and four are the middle and five is the end? Or some other combination, but I’m fairly certain there’ll always be three bits.
Every time I read someone who propounds a five act structure, on closer examination there turns out to be three acts broken into smaller bits. People break the beginning into two bits: before and after some kind of inciting incident (which seems to be what Shakespeare does, if memory serves). Then they break the middle into two bits and call them different things. Five act people rarely seem to divide up the end, but sometimes they do.
The other advice which comes with the three act structure is exactly that: chuck in an inciting incident halfway through the first act – in other words, introduce us to the main character before you start changing things for them. After the inciting incident, maybe have them worried about accepting that change before taking the plunge?
In the middle, maybe consider changing something around halfway through? It’s a fuck-long way from the beginning to the end, so maybe get to halfway and pull the rug out from under them? Or in someway alter the story to stop it being monotonous?
At the end of the middle, it’s dramatically satisfying to make the audience thing everyone is fucked. Then they win. Maybe.
That’s all the three act structure is … but still people rail against it and I think the problem is the word ‘act’ – it’s either misleading or completely the wrong word.
What is an act?
To me, it’s a place where you could cut to an ad break or close the curtains for an interval or otherwise just pause for a da-da-daaaaaaa! moment.
And that’s it.
I guess we should feel free to divide it up anyway we like to help us write it … but when we’re discussing it with anyone, it helps to think in three acts because the three act structure is just a codified way of talking about the components of a film. It’s the beginning, the middle and the end … with a few handy signposts along the way which *most* satisfying stories hit.
Most. Not all, just most.
So why is the idea of a beginning a middle and an end so offensive to some writers?