HERE I PROVIDE AN EXCERPT FROM OUR BOOK: MASTER THE NANO ON WRITING GOOD SCRIPT FOR YOUR NO-BUDGET FILM:
Three-act structure gets a bad rep. Blame Hollywood. They have perfected the three-act machine to drain the life and edges out of scripts – catalyst happens at 12 minutes, first act change at 22 minutes, B story introduced at 30 minutes, etc. But this is in part because the three-act structure is such a powerful and simple machine for storytelling. That is, simple to say or analyze – not so simple to do well.
When I teach screenwriting I’m a very strong advocate for students learning to tell stories in three acts. Even if you want to stray from that structure – and an advanced writer will often learn how to create story structures that fit the types of story and themes that they’re exploring – there are key things that you achieve by telling a story in three acts.
Three act stories are premised on the lead character, whether it is a dog, a city or a person, changing through their experience. It is premised on that change being motivated by conflict. And it is premised on the fact that the success or failure of that transformation is rooted in the ability of the lead character fulfilling your underlying theme – love conquers all; in war there are only victims; the wages of sin is death; et al. Without a theme your story has no soul. Stories without soul are like watching a plumber fix the kitchen sink. There’s lots of obstacles. There might be rising action and even tension. But in the end it is boring and particular (ie. it’s only exciting if it’s your toilet that exploded).
Good stories have themes that are universal. And a theme, at its most basic, is an argument about what constitutes the good life, as Aristotle put it about politics, whether that be in the positive or negative sense. In American Beauty the pursuit of the American Dream is shown to not provide the good life. In The Secret Life Of Pets, it is friendship that makes life good and solves problems. A story is a polemic though often we don’t notice that its making an argument because it’s relying on common assumptions and prejudices. It can seem merely natural. Of course love conquers all, everyone knows that. That’s why Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks hook up in You’ve Got Mail even though they are enemies. And it’s why Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence not only hook up but resolve their mental health problems in Silver Linings Playbook. Love overcomes capitalist competition AND bi-polar disorder!
Finally, telling a story in three acts at its most basic means being locked into the idea that your story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It helps keep it from wandering aimlessly. And every good story has a beginning, middle and an end. That is true whether it has two acts or five acts; whether it moves forward through time, backwards through time or jumps around in time. A story is a journey.
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