Here’s a reprint of a link about 3-part vs. 5-part story structure I have found useful (here and in sidebar, Screenwriting 101 by Film Crit Hulk) without the aggravating all-caps format. I wasn’t able to figure out how to change the case of the actual online text so I copied it into a word document, changed the case and pasted it here. Please note that I am not trying to plagiarize: the ideas here are Film Crit Hulk’s and not mine (SEE LINK!) Now they’re just easier to read.
Hello friends! So hulk wanted to share a few excerpts from the book over the next couple of weeks in case you were curious and unsure about it. The tricky thing about deciding what to share is that it has to be for 1) people who have no idea what to expect. 2) people who have read old hulk columns and are curious how they’ve been updated. And 3) people who are curious what kind of ideas take hold at the center of the book’s ideology. So in order to please all of these groups, hulk thought it would be a good idea to put up the book’s take on “the myth of 3 act structure,” which is an update of an oldie but a goody. After all, there is nothing more commonly used (and more commonly destructive) than 3 act structure. And please understand that hulk’s use of the word “myth” is more figurative here, as that intention always seems to get lost in translation.
The book is available on amazon right now. You get both hulk and banner versions and here are some instructions if you don’t have a kindle.
Sincerest of thanks and here you go!
Chapter 25 – the myth of the 3 act structure
Hulk hears it all the time when people complain about movies: “it’s the problems in the film’s second act!”
All… the fucking… time.
Now, hulk understands what the complainers mean by the statement. It is usually used to imply when a film is treading water, or losing track of characters, or running out of steam, or cramming stuff in, or whatever story-fault you can think of. Oh, hulk gets how the comment is intended. But the problem with this generic “second act” designation is that it can imply a problem with virtually anything in the middle part of storytelling. Meaning it is a beyond vague way to talk about story structure.
So what creates such wishy-washy storytelling? And the even wishy-washier way of explaining it?
It is because of the ever-popular notion of the 3 act structure, which hulk personally finds to be the most abominable way to both explain and instruct storytelling. So false in what it describes, so false in what it achieves, that even though the phrase is used to near ubiquity, and even though there are thousands of writers using the 3 act model as their guide at this very moment…
Hulk argues it is still, essentially, a myth.
* * *
Question: what is an act?
People use the word all the time without really bothering to think about what it actually means. Isn’t that a little fucking weird? Any time hulk hears people complaining about problems in a film’s act structure or talking about their own, hulk will just ask them that same question: what is an act? Hulk will ask young students, film journalists, even working writers and most don’t have an answer. Sometimes they’ll fall over their words. Sometimes they’ll be hit by a bolt of speechlessness. But their answers basically amount to an act being a term that’s a general placeholder for chunks of story that usually separate “beginning, middle, and end.” and well… that doesn’t actually mean anything, does it?
No. No, it doesn’t.
So hulk’s got another of hulk’s famous working definitions for you. And it’s not out of hulk’s butt here. It’s one used by many great screenwriters, professors, and other way-smart people. And the best way to put it is to define an act by its point of separation from the next. Thus:
the end of an act is a point in the story where a character(s) makes a choice and can no longer “go back.”
The first thing to understand is that the use of the word “point” is purposely vague. After all, there are many different kinds of stories, all with many different kinds goals, and that means it can sort of be any kind of moment.
“but hulk! Couldn’t that point really be anything? Like a character just leaving his house and grabbing coffee or something?!?!”
Okay it has to be slightly more valid than a simple change in action or the environment. The act break can be a new and interesting plot development, a poignant character realization, a personality reveal, two previously un-met characters becoming friends, or even, if handled correctly, something as insipid as “no! The bad guys are here! Run!” … an act break can be anything as long as it has a significant changing effect on the narrative resulting in the character choosing an action defined by that change; one that causes them to move forward in this new reality with understanding.
More importantly, an act break creates propulsion.
What has hulk said about character and empathy and all this good amazing stuff so far? How much has hulk talked about characters being our gateways into experience? The more we ground the story changes into those reasons for connecting, the more we involve the audience. It’s not just killing the cat, it’s bringing the audience into a character, which brings them into the story. It’s giving the audience the stakes and meaning. It’s not just “stuff happening.” it is storytelling with purpose.
Better yet, with this working definition, it means a film can have any number of acts depending on what it’s trying to say and do. Hulk talked about it before, but a movie like malcolm x has about 9 distinguishable acts in hulk’s estimation, each focusing on a time in his life where malcolm could go through periods of focus and come to a new kind of enlightenment or character reality. It is a truly epic film that takes the standard biopic and separates those events into very obvious “sections” of character development. And at the end of each of those acts he makes a choice and goes forth into a vastly different situation, full of change and new conflicts. Hulk seriously cannot advise you enough to go back and watch this and sort out all the act breaks. Write down the choices being made and how it helps the character grow and go on their journey. It will be such a useful learning tool in understanding the mechanism of acts and act breaks. Plus, it’s just an amazing film!
Heck, some movies have upwards of 20 acts. It‘s all a question of what story you want to tell and the better you understand this definition of propulsive, character decision-centric act breaks, the better your screenplay will be at propelling the narrative in meaningful ways.
Look. It’s not like the action movie staple of “oh no, it’s the bad guys! Run!” can’t work in terms of changing the situation and making things interesting for a moment. After all, raymond chandler had the funniest quote ever when he said: “in writing a novel, when in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns,” but that statement was purposefully a little bit flip. He’s literally talking about a quick story inversion that gives energy when you’ve got nothing else going on. And the real reason you have to be careful with that stuff is that it becomes so dull and repetitive that we get tired of the chase after only two instances or so.
That’s why character is the fundamental and ideal driving force of act breaks. You need more interesting things to be going on than surface-level conflicts and external threats. By the way, this is probably the chief reason michael bay movies don’t actually work. He fills them with all this hooplah and mayhem, but he’s only interested in the chase. Sure, he’ll sometimes be able to mask this macguffin / set-piece-jumping with distracting visuals (or attempts at quasi-racist comedy), but the chase is always his focus and it will always become boring without actual character propulsion. In promoting transformers 2 he touted the epicness of the 45 minute end battle, but it might have been one of the most boring things hulk has ever seen because it so lacked in purpose and character decision. It was chaos. Meanwhile go back and look at the hour-long battle of helms deep in the lord of the rings: the two towers and count how many choices were character-centric. Look how the moments of the battle were given pauses and consideration, punctuation marks in the longer rhythms of story and character. It was anything but “the chase.”
It’s strange when you look at certain not-so-good movies with this definition of an act and you realize how many of our big summer tent-poles just do nothing like that. And hulk honestly feels like this tiny bit of advice, this tiny rethinking of a popular convention, this way of finally ignoring 3 act structure in favor of constant character development, could save hundreds of movies. Hulk really does.
For example, the recent debacle with the green lantern was entirely due to the fact that the film has one real, genuine act break. Repeat. One.
Oh sure, there’s lots of stuff that happens, but in terms of main character propulsion and decision-making? Nope. The main character makes one decision in the entire film. In fact, no other film quite highlights the failure to create purposeful story changes quite like this one. And no other film quite highlights how our traditional, purposeless understanding of three act structure results in a story that is. So. Damn. Boring.
But let hulk reiterate the film’s plot for you in an effort to make it clear: hal jordan starts as a pissy-ass fighter pilot who is then given a lantern ring by a dying alien cause, like, destinyorwhatever, and is then zapped to planet oa (neither of which is his decision). He then trains for all of two seconds only to then quit and not embrace his new situation (with no discernible consequences and gets to keep his ring) wherein he goes back to being a pissy-ass fighter pilot who doesn’t even fly planes anymore and instead needs about 10 pep talks in his apartment. And it is not until 90 different scenes of relative moping, futzing around in his suit, and fucking rejecting blake lively’s advances that he finally embraces being a lantern or whatever and makes an actual fucking decision to change things and go back to oa. Then he just fights a giant face-cloud in the entire third act. A few times. Repetitively.
Now… hulk brought this “one act break” thing up to everyone in a group after we saw the movie and they said “no, the second act starts when he gets the ring and goes to oa!” … but after everything hulk has just told you, do not tell hulk that hal jordan getting the ring is equal to an act break. Even though it’s the shift that comes one-third of the way into the movie and thus feels like an act break, there’s no real point to it, nor character urgency of change. There definitely should be in that moment, but there isn’t. And that’s because the filmmakers defined an act break as lazily as this group that was evaluating it. They just figured a change in environment and some obligatory hero journey nonsense would do all the story work. And that’s why the filmmakers let their main character spend literally the entire middle of the movie going back on that action. They never understood what the act transition meant in the first place.
Hulk can’t remember the last time a film had one real act break. Everything else, outside of hector hammond (who was lucky enough to get an actual mini-story arc), is just stuff happening. There is no clear character motivation at play in any one other character. Meaning the film, along with hundreds of other movies like it, simply does not realize what an act actually requires. They don’t realize that characters have to make decisions.
And hulk blames this stringent, ubiquitous hollywood belief in the existence of the 3 act structure for crap like this. Hulk really does. By indoctrinating what might seem logical, we have endorsed that which makes for terrible movies.
And it’s not just the fact that they can’t define what act breaks mean whatsoever. It’s actually the entire array of language we use in talking about story structure. It’s this whole dull focus on beginning, middle, and end, which makes some basic sense in terms of “summarizing” a plot, but it gives zero indication of how to actually write that story.
And shouldn’t that be the most important part?
Think about it. Think about hulk’s example from the beginning, the complaint about second acts being purposeless. If we were using the traditional model of 3 act structure, then the first act is all introduction and set up and the third act is the climax. These terms are both vague but still self-explanatory, and when you look at that pesky second act, which is often just defined as “rising action” or “a rise in conflict,” you begin to see why so much “middle” storytelling has a lack of real purpose… seriously, what the fuck does “rise” even mean on an instructional level?
“you know… the conflict! Just, um, rise it!”
Whatever it means, it’s certainly not good storytelling. Sure, it can be an accurate summary of what’s happening onscreen (or at least how it feels). But in terms of the actual mechanism it is still incredibly vague on the broadest of levels. Worse, it is not instructing you how to actually write. It provides none of the good stuff that is critical to understanding narrative. Stuff like character arcs, personal motivation, relationships, conflicts, turns, reveals, and propulsion. None of it is in there!
“but, hulk doesn’t that exist separately from structure? Can’t you just do all that stuff within the 3 act guide?”
No! You can’t!
Because that’s exactly what structure secretly is. Story structure is inherently dependent on understanding purpose and all that good narrative stuff listed above. Good structure is about taking those qualities and applying them in the most economical, functional, and dramatic way possible. And for that you need real specificity when it comes to understanding the purpose.
90% of 3 act models lack that specificity. And every single other highly-detailed 3 act model automatically creates so much dead air and purposeless space-filling that it makes for terrible propulsion. Those models focus on page counts and tricks and things that are supposedly universal applications of “what should be happening to a character” that may have absolutely nothing to do with how to make a movie. Hulk can always tell when hulk is reading a syd field devotee screenplay and they all fail in the exact same ways.
And that’s because a 3 act structure leads writers to just try to make connecting points between the beginning and ending of their story. That’s really about all it does. Which means your characters are not moving forward in any discernible way. They’re just waiting around for the 80 minute mark so that they can begin that whole ending thingy. It descends into a shell game of unmotivated events and it’s all because the definition of the 3 act structure is complete ass.
As a result, we hear it all the time: “the problems in the film’s second act.”
Sorry if hulk has been coming off as too smashy here. It’s just such a personal issue. Hulk has never seen something so unhelpful become so widely accepted. Sure, it makes sense and is a simple way to see stories from afar, but it’s also so simple that it’s taught to elementary school kids when they’re first grasping the concept of narrative. And while hulk argues that the simple truths are oft times the most important ones, the expression of those truths should be far more complicated. And the 3 act structure is not even “a truth.” it’s a writing model attempting to help you get at one. So hulk thinks that hollywood could maybe stand to do a little better than a third grade grasp of story.
So let’s get serious.
If 1) the 3 act model sucks. 2) we define acts as something where the characters can’t go back. And 3) a film can have any number of acts it wants – how do we actually approach structure? Well, hulk’s gonna tell you for the whole rest of part five!
But the first step in doing so is comparing the traditional 3 act model with the storytelling model that erupted out of the legacy of the greatest storytelling genius of all time…
Fact: while shakespeare’s plays were not officially written with act designations, he did talk a great deal about his view of essential storytelling. And when his works were later preserved they were all broken up into 5 acts and studied extensively as to the purpose of how his stories worked. And in doing that, we identified all the brilliant ways that shakespeare (again, the greatest storytelling genius of all time) used structure to make it work.
For sake of explanation, hulk will use most shakespeare’s most popular play, romeo and juliet as an example-
Hey, it’s a sneaky good play that’s way more satirical than people realize! And far more importantly, it is his best known play so it helps vastly when trying to explain something.
So shakespeare’s 1st acts were always comprised of introductions and the establishing of a preexisting central main conflict (i.e. two families are at odds, romeo is a lovesick pup over rosaline, juliet is a naive and lovelorn girl). Now, hulk talked about it before, but this preexisting conflict in the background is so important because it creates a conditional world for the audience who is entering it. Shakespeare didn’t have cinema’s neat tricks of landscape shots and voiceover prologues. So he started us immediately in the story and it was an amazing way of creating a sense of space, history, and believability. And it’s a big surprise to hulk how often this practice is ignored in blockbuster filmmaking. And heck, even if it is some intricate human drama or something, a preexisting conflict could do so much. Mostly because it gives you a great situation to spur the main conflict into effect!
And that’s because the 2nd act is usually comprised of some kind of central event that challenges or deeply worsens the main conflict. It’s usually in the form of relationship development, a fight, a reveal, or a surprise (i.e. star-crossed teenagers romeo and juliet meet and go ga-ga over one another, which is a huge problem given the nature of the preexisting conflict of their families’ feud). Basically this act features the main surface plot of the story coming into effect. Meaning if you had to explain what the movie was about, the conflict being created in the 2nd act could easily describe the main conflict of the entire film, i.e. “two star crossed lovers fall in love while their families are at war with each other.” and however this conflict is revealed, it should be done in whichever way would benefit the story most.
Then the 3rd act comprises a turning point. Now, hulk reminds you that this need not be a “twist” per se, but more of a spurring incident or action that makes the conflict infinitely more complicated (i.e. mercutio getting killed by tybalt then romeo killing tybalt). Often these moments are surprising. They deeply affect not only the level of seriousness of main conflict, but dramatically alter the actual direction of it. This is the sort of thing alluded to in the “rise in conflict” statement, but you know, way more specific. It requires that you think intensely about the nature of your conflict: why does it exist? What is perpetrating it? What would make it worse? And have the story respond accordingly. And the shakespearean 3rd act is such a great opportunity in storytelling because:
It’s a way to hit the audience with climax-like drama before they’re ready for it. Before they expect it. And it’s not mere “gotcha” tactics. If done right, you can create the kind of emotion to carry you right through to the end.
Shakespeare’s 3rd acts were often filled them with such moments of storytelling beauty: great inversions of fortune. Best intentions gone awry. Deaths! Loss! Confusion! Sudden chaos! Even though these 3rd acts don’t finish the arc of the whole story, they are often the most resonant moments and they are still climax-worthy in scale.
What does hollywood tend to do in their big adventures? They have “2nd act problems,” that’s what they do. They say “hey, let’s put an action scene here!” or spin their wheels and lose all sense of purpose, often saving what could happen now for some inevitable 3rd act obligatory conclusion. They fuck up the middle of their storytelling. Meanwhile the shakespearean 3rd act is perfect. It makes for a “turning point” that is both deeply affecting and provides change to the arc of the entire story. And it is something far more important than what 3-act-structure argues is just putting things in place for climax. Speaking of which…
The 4th act of shakespeare’s model was known as “the spiral” and it is actually full of character decisions that cause characters to sink toward the real climax (i.e. romeo and juliet decide go on the lam, hatch a plan to fake their deaths, etc). These decisions are rapid. Fast-paced. Poorly conceived. And hugely dramatic. In truth, this is the point where you are really arranging and setting up the climax.
But in that goal it is equally important to remember that you have to stay true to the character arcs and flaws, otherwise it will feel like things are flying off the rails instead of simply getting more intense. And this feverish, intense climate is the best place to expose the deep character flaws that will either bring down our heroes or allow them to succeed. (meanwhile, the shakespearean 3rd act turning point can sometimes allow for a main character acting out of character. It’s a neat little distinction to keep in mind when you are trying to decide what a character would do in a situation versus what they didn’t do).
The shakespearean 4th act also provides a great opportunity for a quiet moment of reflection before the finale, before they make the kinds of grave decisions that seal their fate. But it can’t just be all reflection and pausing (cough cough green lantern). Again, it should really feel full of decisions. The pace should quicken. Things should feel like they are falling out of control for our character. It is “the spiral,” after all. And it should feel like it’s all happening in a very short amount of time before we get to…
The 5th act is where the audience gets the climax / resolutions / weddings / tragedy / fallout/ etc. (i.e. romeo and juliet have a fatal miscommunication, kill themselves, and leave their families to be heartbroken and declare peace). The most important thing to remember is that this last act is not just wrapping things up, but is the encapsulation of the story and should exhibit all the points one is trying make in your movie. As hulk said earlier, the ending is the conceit so the climax and resolution are the very goal of your movie. While shakespeare would have a character talk directly to the audience and sum up the lessons they should take away from the story, hulk gets why that same methodology might not fly in screenplay form. But screw it, modern writers are so dreadfully afraid to be didactic that they forget to incorporate their purpose and intent in their endings. They opt for alleviation or obfuscation. Most of them could do with a fair bit of direct moralizing. Heck, no country for old men ends with the shakespearean soliloquy to the audience, so you should be less afraid of it too. No matter what, your ending should be the summation of everything you have written so far. It should not be a freakin’ afterthought.
No matter what the story – tragedy, comedy, or history – shakespeare’s plays were imbued with this specific 5 act structure every time. The intro, the establishing of the conceit, the turn, the spiral, and the climax (which hammers home the conceit). Sure, he gets heaped with praise over his mastery of language and the deep resonance of themes, some justifiably credit him as the father of psychology, but hulk wants to make it clear to you that he was just so fucking brilliant at story structure to boot… it’s sort of unfair. And hulk knows it may seem lame bring up such an obvious choice as “best writer ever” but, well, he was.
But while hulk clearly adores the way that shakespeare’s 5 act structure can help you unlearn 3 act structure, chiefly in how it gives import and meaning to “the middle” of storytelling, it is important to remember that this shakespearean 5 act model is just another possible example and not the rule. You can honestly do whatever you think best in terms of number of act breaks. It’s whatever works for your story, like the use of 9 acts in malcolm x. But hey, if you’re looking for a tool to help better structure your story, or if you are a student looking to get better and learn how to write with purpose and intent… well… one could do a lot worse than that shakespeare guy.
So now then.
After reviewing all this, hulk wants you to go back to the traditional 3 act structure model for a second. You may notice something very important when comparing it to shakespeare’s model. You may notice the way the second act described in the 3 act structure is the exact same way act 4 is defined in shakespeare’s model, minus the whole important “decisions” part. Shakespeare’s “spiral” with its increasing of intensity and positioning of details before the climax is really similar to the 2nd act’s rise in conflict.
Hulk argues that this is so telling that it’s not even funny. It means that this little, short moment that shakespeare used for escalating the final stakes and positioning the endgame is the same exact way hollywood screenwriters handle the entire central section of their goddamn movies. No wonder so many are aimless and boring.
After all, it’s no accident that’s shakespeare’s 4th acts are always the shortest, least interesting, and least compelling part of every single one of his plays. Name a memorable moment from any of them! Hulk’s sure there’s something, but hulk can tell you the major event of every act 3 in every single one of his plays. He kept this 4th act stuff short for a reason.
So imagine a whole hollywood full of writers trying to expand that same tiny amount of story and purpose into the 30-60 sum odd pages that make up entire second acts… how terrible is that? It means that characters can’t help but just wait around. It means the writers are simply trying come up with distractions and b.s. conflicts that don’t have anything to do with the point or truly affect or alter the arc of the story. It means that writers end up cramming too much good stuff in the first act to try and establish all needed details when really they are missing great opportunity for developing a story at an organic pace.
The lessons of shakespeare can translate to anything. You may ask: “hulk! How does this 5 act thing work with popular movie-going? Big budget movies aren’t exactly shakespeare!”
First off, shakespeare would totally write the best summer blockbusters ever and that’s actually sort of what he was doing for his time and age!
Second off, while there are a host of great examples, let’s look at hulk’s old buddy / great movie: iron man, which has an exceptional story structure. It may not have been written with this five act shakespearean intent, but hulk swears to you it fits and is worth talking about. After all, the one thing everyone seemed to love about that film is that it spent so long before tony actually became iron man, and thus the audience got to experience all the great character development along the way. More telling, everyone lauded the fun sense of adventure that came from out of the conflicts of his trying to build the suit. It avoided so many modern pratfalls. It never rushed getting to “the action” that so many big budget movies require, because the film instinctively knew that it could take a movie about the process of invention and make it work great. The storytelling was the action. And guess how many acts the movie has, in hulk’s humble estimation?
Act one – intro + state of preexisting conflict – we get to know tony as a playboy and even see him deal with the external moral conflict of supplying weapons and brush off the concerns of the fact that his weapons are falling into the wrong hands.
Act two – the conceit and being at odds with the preexisting conflict – tony is captured and put to work in the terrorist camp. He discovers the reality about his weapons going to the bad guys and he is already at his lowest point and on the brink of survival. He decides to build the prototype suit and escape. He becomes iron man; conceit established!
Act three – the turning point – tony is now back at home, and he makes a moral decision, shuts down weapons ops, and changes the direction of his life. Tony decides to continue on this path and starts building a new suit (which has a hilarious set of trials). Obadiah is revealed as the bad guy behind tony’s kidnapping. Tony goes live with his suit and helps others, not just himself.
Act four – the spiral/escalation of conflict – tony continues to use the suit out in real war conflict, admits the truth to rhodes, gets sidelined by obadiah, and now faces a grim circumstance. Notice that these developments feel more of the action-y wheel-spinning activities that reek of standard act 2 developments that one sees in typical 3 act structure. But in this movie? Because it all comes after the awesome suit-building transformation of act 3? It feels so fresh and exciting to the viewer who has had to wait. The movie held out beautifully before tipping its hand. And it all goes on for a perfectly shorter length of time, before moving to the inevitable finale…
Act five – climax/conclusion/resolution – tony’s conflict with obadiah comes to a conclusion both personally and as big-ass iron men fighting in death suits. The important part of this act is how all the plots come together (even though the action felt a little underwhelming). Hulk actually finds that detail to be neat, to be honest. It meant that the action was the least interesting part of a big summer blockbuster for once. And that’s a serious achievement. Score one for charisma and characterization!
But hulk understands that some of you may argue there lots other possible act breaks in iron man. Some of you may contend that the film was not written with five acts in mind.
Both are absolutely true.
For one, writing is filled with “micro-acts” which help propel every scene forward and have different acts for all the different stories and characters (we’ll get into this later), but tony’s arc with pepper has its own act breaks. Tony’s relationship with obadiah has its own breaks. It all comes together to make the story feel propulsive + organic. After all, every scene should have a real goal and objective to it. And going back to the point at hand, labeling all that great character development and decision-making in the middle of the movie as just the rise in conflict is just downright asinine.
For two, hulk keeps saying it, but you can decide the act breaks are wherever you want and you’d be right. It’s just about what seems the most reasonable and makes the most sense. Better yet, it is about what makes the most sense for giving your act breaks purpose and meaning. And call it a naturally occurring number, but hulk sees movies with the 5 act structure turn up in good stories again and again. And it’s not just shakespeare and iron man, folks.
Ever notice that all one hour tv dramas are all segmented into 5 acts? Yes, it’s done for commercial breaks, but that magic number is no accident. It’s a tried and true system that helps make those tv shows propulsive instead of languishing. Again, like anything, you are more than allowed to break away from this model and make good television, but you’d be surprised how many non-traditional narratives utilize 5-6 acts too.
People loooooooove to talk about quentin tarantino’s non-linear storytelling as a counter example to traditional “act-based” storytelling, particularly with pulp fiction. But guess what everyone? That movie has exactly 5 acts, which are all distinctly separated with title cards. Oh, and reservoir dogs? 5 acts separated with title cards. Both kill bills? Each one has 5 acts separated with title cards. Inglourious basterds? 5 acts separated with title cards. Django unchained? 5 acts with super-imposed signifiers. You sense a theme here?
Hulk just cannot emphasize this enough.
A story is a multifaceted thing. If you want to structure your story, remember to have both act structure for the main plot and act structure for each of your characters’ personality developments. By having all these varying structures, each with their own beats, with each character making active decisions, it creates a constant sense of moving forward for your movie. That’s why they call it “development,” as it is the key to bringing your audience along for the journey.
But perhaps you think hulk is being too hard on the 3 act structure. Perhaps you think hulk is simplifying it in an effort to tear it down.
But hulk would argue that the heavy advocates of 3 act structure do a good enough job of that on their own. In researching this topic hulk came across so many websites that… hulk just can’t even quote them… It’s too soul-crushing. It’s just full of blind reductions and over-simplifications and gross amounts of lying. Entire charts where they say “no, shakespeare was totally writing in the 3 act structure!” and then they reduce act 2-4 of his plays and just slap the “act 2″ designation on it, which is not only hilarious in its over-simplification but it actually ignores 3 act structure rules because he introduced his main conceits in the second act, not the first. The whole thing is basically laughable. They’ll toss out entire act structures of 4 act modern dramas, because they think it is only there to account for set changes. They’ll look at entire acts that last half the running time and say “well, you probably shouldn’t do that.” it’s upholding a model that is not only wrong, but deeply uninformative.
Seriously, does the following image make you feel confident about your writing?
Hulk sees models like this shown to young writers all the time. So if you are writing a screenplay. Hulk is telling you. The 3 act structure is garbage.
Stop citing it in articles.
Stop talking about it with friends.
It will not help you.
It can only hurt you.
Start the dialogue. Insist that it is a myth propagated by a need for simplicity. Say “of course stories have a beginning, middle, and end, you insufferable turd!” then throw a drink in their face and run away… okay, maybe hulk is getting carried away here. But hulk seriously worries that unless we really, truly change the culture of how we talk about the 3 act structure and act breaks, then all this advice may be useless.
Chances are you will find yourself in a hollywood meeting someday, and they’ll start talking about 3 acts and to try and argue with them would be fruitless. Say what you need to, hulk guess, but stick to a more propulsive method of narrative in your own work. Tell ‘em it’s 3, but really make it 5. Do everything you can, because in this hulk’s opinion the strict adherence to 3 act structure is killing hollywood.
Heck, if this book were to have any sort of real-life, substantial change, hulk would adore if it got studios to start thinking outside of the 3 act box. It’s certainly something hulk has tried to share every place hulk has worked… but who knows if getting the message across is possible given its level of acceptance.
And the very worst thing is that this same hollywood often fails at the 3 act structure they’re trying to uphold. And that’s because so many movies are green-lit on just a pitch and possibly having stars attached, so you basically have movies being made that have only figured out the conceit so far. Meaning they only know the first act or so… and that’s fucking it. The endings of these films are so barely established and uniformly tend be terrible. So many scripts seem to start with a straight line from their starting point and pursue the fallout until they just run out of steam. It really is inconceivable to hulk that folks can start making a movie without truly knowing the ending. So if you want be a writer, always know your ending. Always uphold your purpose.
So, to summarize this rant of unlearning:
The amount of acts in a movie should be dependent on the story you want to tell. Each act should reach this moving forward point in an organic, earned way. And the total number of acts you use is dependent on how much you are trying to accomplish with the story. More importantly, they should all tie together in a coherent way. And then, it should ultimately be done with the best possible economy without losing anything critical or affecting the organic quality of the telling. It’s a lot to handle, but that’s the ideal. And if you’re starting out, try shakespeare’s 5 act on for size. Hulk thinks it’s a wonderful learning structure.
After all, no matter who you are, storytelling is largely about problem solving. One can always come up with great ideas that motivate and excite them, but the other half of that equation is figuring out how to make it translate to a fully-formed reality on the page. How do we make this scene entertaining and yet propulsive? How do we make a movie that is true to our conceit? One that works on every character level? You need to constantly ask yourself these questions.
Which means that writing is problem-solving.
And take hulk’s advice: the 3 act structure won’t help you solve a problem. If anything, it will create more problems. And thus, there’s nothing more important for you to unlearn in your quest to become a better writer…
… except maybe this next thing:
Hulk guesses that transition will kind of be a cliff-hanger? Oh well, the book is available right here on amazon. Please let hulk know if you have any questions!