Stewart Farquhar holds Screenwriting and Advanced Screenwriting certificates from the Professional Program at The UCLA School of Theatre Film and Television. Stewart has analyzed over 6,500 scripts for private and studio clients. Follow Stewart on Twitter @stewartfarquhar.
In the first three parts (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) of this series regarding the legacy of Aristotle, we addressed the fallacious attribution of the ‘3-Act’ screenplay structure to the surviving lectures in his Poetics.
The assertion that a screenplay MUST have 3 acts is akin to the claim that a living entity has 3 ‘acts.’ It is born, lives then dies. The born and dies part are definite (plot) points in time. The ‘lives’ part (‘Act-2’ or ‘Act-2A, and ‘Act-2B’) has a myriad of events that occur at various times, Most are unscheduled, unplanned or simply uninteresting, yet some lives can last upwards of one hundred years with or without divine intervention with many of the beginnings Spielberg spoke of (see Part 3).
Yes, I hear the argument of toddler, childhood, adolescence, young adult, middle aged, senior citizen etc. I challenge you to define the ‘acts’ by years. Even behavioral psychologists specify a range when they refer to ‘normal development.’ The concept of ‘Acts’ that occur on specific pages is a miserable failure when it comes to the details of what happens in ‘Act-2’ no matter how you carve it up.
In his ‘post-scriptive’ review and analysis of plays and epic poems from the successful poets of his time, Aristotle noted that the works contained:
- A Beginning. Birth of the story. A Point.
- A Middle. A Climax. A Point.
- An End. Resolution of the story. A Point.
These are events NOT acts. Review how Aristotle defines his terms in Poetics, Chapter VII.
Today writers in all genres and styles strive for a unique way to drive their story and engage the audience. Why? Many of today’s attention spans are shorter than a Mayfly’s courtship. It’s a sign of the times. We have access to more social media and entertainment distractions than previous generations. Because of this we have developed ‘Twitter A.D.H.D.’.
Unless the subject matter compels, the YouTube clips with the highest number of views are invariably ten minutes or less. In many cases much less. This is an observation worth serious consideration when you structure your story. You don’t want an audience to reach the end and say ‘Nothing happened’ or ‘I didn’t believe it’. Or, worse yet; ‘Who gives a happy holy flying Frisbee?’
Going to the movies on ‘Saturday Afternoon’ is no longer the only game in town. Audiences today are more sophisticated and expect to experience a story that envelopes them and causes some visceral reaction above and beyond their daily challenges.
They want to encounter something they may recognize but may never experience or achieve. A character’s life and unique experiences told through a great story (plot). Your story is unique, treat it as such. Structure it to the events of your unique characters. Don’t feed it formula.
Aristotle addressed two writing genres, comedy and tragedy. Only his writings that cover tragedy survive.
It’s unfortunate that he is no longer available to correct the misattribution to his work.
It may be helpful to remember there is no act structure in a screenplay regardless of who imposes what where. There is only story in a screenplay. A story with a challenge that leads to further challenges that must be resolved.
There are no ‘correct’ solutions.
Your protagonist improvises, schemes, tricks, and bullies, beguiles, cons, and connives, his or her way to many temporary solutions that evolve into a resolution. To paraphrase Spielberg; “A beginning that never stops beginning.”
There is no master formula (myth or not) that can tell every story, just as there is no one way to bake a cake. Begin your story by understanding the quirks and foibles, strengths and weaknesses of your principle characters so well that they guide you on their journey as they discover their own voices. Understand that you can do what you were told not to do as a child. You can color outside the box. It may also be helpful to break from the myth that ‘Hero’ and ‘Main Character’ are always synonymous.
Mad Max: Fury Road, Game of Thrones and Orange is the New Black are shining examples of this break.
What is a solution? Write a 25-35 page short story where you concentrate on the central challenges that face your characters. Understand that each character is a plurality. They are a complex mix of culture, education, experiences and genetics. After you develop their relationships and resolve their challenges in the short story format then you can expand or redact it into screenplay format.
Remember less is more.
’We want a story that starts out with an earthquake and works its way up to a climax.’ Samuel Goldwyn.
Are there definite ‘characteristics’ or conventions (I hesitate to call them requirements) that define various genre combinations (all 35/36) in writing? Yes. This is a topic for future articles.
After you have studied Poetics.
Comments are welcome.
A big thanks to Paul Chitlik for his peer review of this series.
- More articles by Stewart Farquhar
- Meet the Reader: Formulaic Thinking
- Story Structure: The Four-Act Structure
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