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.
There are those pundits who claim Aristotle is responsible for the ‘3-Act’ structure of screenplays. I have read and studied several different translations of Poetics by Aristotle, (Butcher, Bywater (rev. Schultz), Else and Heath) and reviewed chapters, articles or books by Bonnett, Bordwell, Eckler, Hartly, McManus, Tierno and others.
I find there is no assertion of a ‘3-Act’ structure anywhere in what he wrote.
One could argue that what he describes is primarily ‘13-Acts’ where over half involve the Greek Chorus. Or, it could be interpreted as just ‘1 Act’ that contains A Prologue, A Parode, 5 Episodes, 5 Stasimons, an Exode, and a rare Kommos. A third, and more direct explanation, is from the author himself in his Poetics Chapter XVIII – Two Parts: ‘The Tying’ and ‘The Untying.’
The etymology of the word poetics is from the Greek word poiesis, to make or to form. This same word in combined form is found in medicine with such words as hematopoiesis, the formation of blood. Aristotle’s lectures address how the plays of his time were formed or structured vs. how they should be formed or structured.
What Aristotle addressed in his Poetics was Drama (tragedy) and Comedy in both theatre and literature. To apply a strict interpretation of his surviving lectures to film is, in my opinion, unfortunate.
Aristotle’s observations were ‘post-scriptive’, a little over 2,300 years before the development of cinema. He did not say on what page each of the ‘13-Acts’ or parts of a play should occur. Aristotle’s only observation, was that there is a beginning, middle and end (see both Butcher & Bywater, Poetics Chapter VII, Line 5), that the ‘parts’ occurred and that there was a two-part structure. Granted his evaluation was of the major alternative to the spectacles in the coliseums / arenas. From all accounts these plays were almost all day events.
As an exercise use this ‘3-Act’ theory, that some attribute to Aristotle’s observations, and apply it to such successful non monomyth films as A Beautiful Mind, Harry Potter, Juno or The Fugitive. Then tell me on what page or in which ‘act’ of the script is what starts the story, i.e. as some like to say; “Where is the ‘inciting incident’ of each film?” In fact, tell me where each act starts. I guarantee each person’s answer will be different. The same goes for any tent pole series or prequel / sequel with built-in cliffhangers. Now try it with any film with bad box office. Before you answer or comment, invest the time to read and study Aristotle’s Poetics.
This concept of a ‘3-Act’ structure, falsely attributed to Aristotle and his Poetics circa 335, BCE, has caused more harm than good. Again, I strongly encourage you to read Poetics and identify exactly where Aristotle wrote about ‘3-Acts.' All he says is beginning, middle and end. Review how he defines his terms.
There are a myriad of scholarly and not so scholarly books on how to write and structure a screenplay (I have over 130) and most promulgate, paraphrase or regurgitate the same arguments. They are ‘post-scriptive’ essays vs. ‘pre-scriptive’ advice. Many of these authors examine one or more films that made money, dissect one or more, then pronounce: “This is the way all movies should be made.” Really? Think of the fallacy this advice prescribes.
Multiple recent Rotten Tomatoes reviews plus a raft of this year’s domestic receipts from Box Office Mojo support the assertions proffered by John Truby in his article, Why ‘3-Act’ Will Kill Your Writing:
“Using the ‘3-Act’ structure to explain why one script was successful and another failed is like saying that most moneymaking scripts have a happy ending. Most do, but so do most films that fail and most scripts that don't sell in the first place.”
The evaluation or creation of a SCREENplay based strictly on theatre and / or literature is obtuse at best and demonstrates a lack of understanding of the medium at worst. What a screenplay requires is a separate but related approach that applies to this unique form. Screenplays are a mercurial continuum that should be written as such regardless of genre.
The question is: What is it about one cinematic story that hooks its audience?
Hint: Not the ‘acts’ or ‘act’ breaks or PR. It is also not strict adherence to Joseph Campbell’s seminal Hero’s Journey.
What hooks an audience? A visceral, vicarious voyage into stimulating situations and emotions beyond their roller-coaster lives of stress and boredom as an escape from what Thoreau says, “… lives of quiet desperation…”
Since before Aristotle’s time, stories were presented as both diversions / spectacles and cultural entertainment designed to involve and inform the masses or engage the clan / tribe and the curious. In his day, each half day or more presentation required intermissions for both audience and performers. Intermissions are no longer a requirement / option in the fluid continuum of modern movies designed for multiple daily showings to a short-attention-span public. Those that rush to record or stream their favorite television ‘show’ or online entertainment are a testament to this modern day phenomenon of mass engagement or distraction. Let’s not forget today’s need for near instant gratification.
The ubiquitous camera has replaced the chorus in modern storytelling. The Greek chorus is no longer needed for blatant exposition, hence show vs. tell. A cursory review of Shakespeare’s plays show five acts. Who knows, he may have pattered his works after the Romans. You could argue that he and the Romans are the forerunners to the modern half hour television format. Three acts with a tease and sting. Wait. I see a book here. Not.
It could be argued that Hitchcock indicated ‘act’ when he transitioned from silent to ‘sound on film’ in Blackmail (1929) (Charles Bennett, Alfred Hitchcock, Benn W. Levy, Michael Dowell) (85min) or Victor Fleming, et al. when they transitioned from black and white to color in The Wizard Of Oz (1939) (Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, Edgar Allen Wolf, et al. (102 min). You should research for the real reason for these apparent ‘act’ breaks.
Unless it is a new technology epic like The Windjammer (by A.J. Villers, James L. Shute) (135 min) in Cinemiracle three projector format, or Waterworld (by Peter Radder and David Twohy) (176 min) in Anamorphic format, or the more recent 3 hour limited theatrical engagement of Tarantino’s roadshow, TheH8ful Eight (187 min-70mm), a trip to the cinema does not require a theatrical act or intermission. Cinema has long graduated from these concepts. In most films both act and intermission have gone the way of the cartoon, B movie and Pathé News.
It is as J.T. Velikovsky purports in his article, 3-Acts? Aristotle Said What?! (When? Where??)
“…there is also, no such thing as ‘3-Act’ film structure; it is possibly actually a myth, a misconception, a misnomer, a misinterpretation, and a made up mystery”. “It is likely a meme that has gone viral… “.
James R. Hull promulgates a vociferous argument against a ‘3-Act’ structure in his Narrative First Blog: The End of the Three-Act Structure. However, in his opening sentences I feel he misattributes the problem to ‘Aristotle’s stranglehold.’ Aristotle has nothing to do with how people choose to interpret his works. Hull goes on to say that there should be four ‘acts’; 1, 2A, 2B, 3.
Others purport to lay claim to this ‘4-Act’ discovery and have subsequently claimed copyright to this ‘technique.’ They vacuously name it as ‘their method’ by adding an alternating positive – negative – positive – negative, or the inverse, attribute to each of the 4 ‘acts’ via selective ‘post- scriptive’ film analysis. Witness (by William Kelly, Pamela Wallace, Earl W. Wallace) (112 min) ends up passed around as a shining example of this structure. You can force-fit just about any film to any structure if you redefine the story parameters. As good as this Crime, Drama, Romance is, it should not be held up as a template that all scripts in all genre should follow.
Unfortunately, as structurally egalitarian as 1, 2A, 2B, 3 may seem, it does little to fill in the middle of every story.
More in Part 2 for a way out of the ‘3-Act’ quandary.
A Big Thanks to Paul Chitlik for his peer review of this series.
- More articles by Stewart Farquhar
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- Script Notes: Where Story Begins - Premise
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Get more insights into Aristotle's views on story with
Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters:
Storytelling Secrets from the Greatest Mind in Western Civilization