Welcome to the first installment of “Ask the Coach.” As a writing coach, I tend to answer a lot of questions from writers about how to make the work of writing happen, as well as tackling craft questions in my editorial capacity. In today’s article, I’m answering the first of many questions already coming in about craft.
(Got a question you’d like answered? Check out the details at the end of the article about how to submit one.)
Today’s question is specifically about the three-act structure in screenwriting:
"What I'm running into is the common criticism that my stories are not strongly three-act. They have a beginning setup, mounting problem, and ending resolution — good stories, I'm told — but tension doesn't build in common cinematic form. Yet, I watch produced movies even less three-act structured. What am I missing?"
First, congratulations on getting some good initial feedback on your scripts. It sounds like you’re moving in the right direction.
As your coach-of-the-moment, here’s how I’ll approach this question with you. Let’s look at the core components inherent in the question: how films get made (to address your comment about the produced movies), the source of the feedback, the value and strength of the three-act structure overall, and the impact of your own work.
1. Recognize the Script to Final Film Process
First, let’s make a nod toward how films end up on the big screen: There are many reasons why a particular movie gets made, as well as a whole host of decisions that impact a movie well after the writing process. For example, it’s said that a film is written three times: on the page, on set as it’s shot and directed, and in the editing room. This means that without interviewing the writer, director, and producers of a film, we can’t know all the machinations a script has gone through before it’s in its final form.
In turn, this means that a movie you’re seeing as lacking a strong three-act structure may have had a stronger structure when it was initially written.
Additionally — and alternatively — sometimes films are financed and produced independently, and may therefore go through a different screening and selection process than your own scripts.
In other words, script properties can be bought and made with a variety of considerations, which may or may not include a three-act structure. So it’s not always instructive to compare what’s onscreen somewhere with what you’re seeing in your own pages.
2. Consider the Source
Another question is this: Who are you receiving this feedback from? It’s important to consider the source. It’s also valuable to consider how frequently you’re receiving the note; it sounds like it’s something you’ve heard more than once, which is typically worth paying attention to.
Are you receiving this three-act criticism from other screenwriters at your same level of experience? From professional story analysts? From industry gatekeepers? Make sure you’re taking the skill and expertise of the critic into account as you review it.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that we aren’t always the best evaluators of our own work, either. As you decide how to handle this feedback (and you, as the screenwriter, are the one that gets to make that decision), keep the source of the feedback in mind, but also be open to the possibility that they’re seeing something you’re not.
3. Reflect on the Value of a Three-Act Structure
Amongst writers and screenwriting gurus, there’s a fair amount of debate about the value of the three-act structure as a whole. Some argue that three acts are completely arbitrary and are holdovers from stage plays, and have nothing to do with the way film works. John Truby and Jeff Lyons are among them. Screenwriting mentor Corey Mandell advocates for organic structure, which is naturally derived from character-focused goals and compelling conflict. Chris Soth recommends writing in eight mini-movies — or sequences — when structuring a film.
At the same time, there’s an expectation amongst Hollywood executives that a script will follow a three-act structure, so there does seem to be a bit of a dance required between focusing on what works for you as a writer, what the higher-ups want, and what best serves the story.
I personally use external act structures as a tool for organizing my writing, but put my focus on the narrative structure that best serves the story I’m telling. In other words, my character’s story drives the structure, not the other way around.
4. Look for the Note Beneath the Note
Regardless of structural skills or the structure of produced films you’ve seen, it sounds like your stories aren’t landing for others with the impact you feel they have.
This means the odds are there’s something going on that’s not working, whether or not those giving you feedback are correct as to the source of the problem. As Neil Gaiman says, “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
This is where I recommend we look for the “note beneath the note.”
On the surface, you’re being told that your script is “not strongly three-act.” But what does this really mean? Should you try to force your script into some kind of artificial external structure? Probably not.
Instead, it likely means your readers are picking up on something that’s not working about the story, even while they’re pointing to “three acts” as the culprit.
For example, as Jeff Lyons, author of Anatomy of a Premise Line says, “If you are not progressively building stakes (i.e., raising stakes) from the inciting incident to the final battle then the structure and pace will suffer and generate vague feedback from readers about “weak three-act” or similarly unhelpful notes. Rising stakes are a major key for giving any story a strong sense of narrative throughline.”
Notes about structure could mean a variety of things, including:
- The major story beats aren’t landing at a pace that carries the momentum of the story effectively.
- The driving tension and stakes of the story aren’t building and paying off in a compelling way.
- The characters have a lot to do and say that don’t tie into the overarching story — in other words, the scenes are full but the story is sparse; the structure feels flimsy or the story spills out of it.
- The protagonist doesn’t have a clear goal for the reader to track through the story and/or the protagonist isn’t driving the story. The inciting incident and central conflict aren’t powerful or compelling enough to sustain the full length of the story.
- The inciting incident and central conflict aren’t powerful or compelling enough to sustain the full length of the story.
- The ending doesn’t feel like a true resolution to the story the script sets up at the beginning.
Study your story objectively and look for where and how the story beats, stakes, and tension rise and fall for clues. If it’s pitch-perfect, keep marketing and look for the right reader. If it’s not, keep working.
5. Dig deep
If you look deeply at the scripts, what’s missing? Where could they be stronger? Often a writer knows the places where they’re skimping or skipping over facing the hard work of revision, even when they don’t want to admit it to themselves.
As Seth Godin says in his book, The Practice: Shipping Creative Work, “If you’re on a journey but it’s rarely causing a spark, you probably need to make better work. Braver work. Work with more empathy.”
Think of it this way: You’ve made a solid start but you’re not quite there yet. Now your job is to inventory, study, innovate, and improve upon your work until your reader’s experience of your script is the same as your own: Amazing. It may be helpful to work with a story coach or editor to help you see what you’re not seeing about the script and help it fully deliver on the concept you’ve developed.
I hope you find this helpful. Thanks for the question!
Submit your question to be answered anonymously via my online form here or send an email directly to email@example.com. Look for answers to selected questions in my monthly “Ask the Coach” column on the third Thursday of the month.