WHY SPEC SCRIPTS FAIL: Formula vs. Structure, Part 2

Stewart Farquhar dives into the topic of formula vs. structure in Part 2 of his series, opining that the separation of a script into acts is a travesty.
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Stewart Farquhar dives into the topic of formula vs. structure in Part 2 of his series, opining that the separation of a script into acts is a travesty.

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The Greeks had no act structure in their plays. The plays had one act. The Romans had five acts. It’s arbitrary. It appeared in plays because of the need to have intermissions. People can’t sit for three hours in a theatre listening to an auditory experience without taking a break or going to the restroom. It appears in television shows because they want to have commercial breaks so they can sell something. None of which has anything to do with story.” – James Bonnet

In Formula vs. Structure - Part 1, I began the discussion of the distinction between formula and structure. Please refer to the definitions as we continue our exploration.

Contrary to good practice, you can eventually force fit a large square peg into a small round hole. But, how will it fit? Is it an awkward or damaged fit? Is the result indicative of someone not making a correct selection? Or, does it indicate a bias to prove their theory of one solution fits all?

The same questions are true when you examine concept of acts in a screenplay. You can force-fit any story into any “act” description. However, this begs the serious question. Why is it necessary?

I maintain that the concept of “act” isn’t, and never has been, necessary in screenplays. The audience watches characters not “acts.” The more appropriate unit of a screenplay is the scene.

However, in its defense, I contend that the use of the 3/4/5+ act structure concept is akin to learning the alphabet, then how words are created, plus the early stages of basic arithmetic. It is a learner’s tool. These tools (the alphabet and numbers) are for the purpose of learning simple ways to interconnect with others in your environment. Think of it also as how youngsters tell scary stories around a camp fire. They start with some gruesome stuff, embellish it then sometimes come to a wrap-up. NOT 3 acts. Writers do need some place to start. Just do not stay in the 3-act rut.

How to Structure a Screenplay – In Defense of “Formula”

This forced “3-act” convention, propagated by various “gurus”, has done more to stifle individual creative expression than any other misinformation campaign about screenwriting structure. It is a teaching technique, not a writing method and it rarely produces successful professional screenwriters. There is one possibly worse misattribution. That is where the unresearched and malinformed pseudo-experts misattribute this 3-act travesty to Aristotle. In my opinion, strict adherence to a 3-act formula in all screenplay attempts produces shackled writers who eventually quit.

As I expressed in my response to a reader, early structure may have value, but story is paramount.

In Part 1 of this series I offered to show some successful films that didn’t follow the 3-act formula. A few readers may argue that if scenes / segments / events were rearranged they would reflect the 3-act paradigm.

Hogwash.

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Or, as John Truby advocates in his text The Anatomy Of Story pg. 287, “abandon 3-acts.”

If you rearrange content then the resulting film /story / screenplay would no longer reflect the writer’s and / or director’s original project. A spurious argument to force a priori conclusion.

Here are a few successful films that didn’t follow the 3-act pattern. There are many more.

<p><strong>Ref#</strong></p><p><strong>Film^</strong></p><p><strong>Year</strong></p><p><a href="https://www.the-numbers.com/movie/budgets" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><strong>Gross Dollars*</strong></a></p><p><a href="https://www.rottentomatoes.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><strong>Rotten Tomatoes</strong></a></p>

1.  

12 Angry Men

1957

4.3 #

100

2.  

2001: A Space Odyssey

1968

71.9

93

3.  

The Godfather

1972

286

98

4.  

Full Metal Jacket

1987

120

93

5.  

Born On The Fourth Of July

1989

161

88

6.  

Sátántangó

1994

24.5

100

7.  

Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi

2002

274.95

97

8.  

Batman Begins

2005

359.1

84

9.  

No Country For Old Men

2007

171.6

93

10.  

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

2011

239.4

86

*The Numbers.Com #IMDb Gross ^Budget #s at IMDb

Strict adherence to the 3-act concept or even the concept of acts in all screenplays originated primarily in academia in the late 70’s. It continues to be advanced by those who need to publish or perish on the road to academic tenure. Another particularly insidious source of this 3-act anathema is the online courses / book / seminar / expo circuit that feeds and survives on the dreams of the hopeful novice scribe. There are considered exceptions, however they are few.

In my personal library there are over 130 books about screenwriting. Unfortunately, only a handful provide any insight into the required skills to become a successful storyteller vs. story hack. Many of the remainder are derivatives of some sort. I keep them for research, then to speak to what others have to say on the subject.

As I mentioned in Formula vs. Structure - Part 1, there are storytelling “formula” exceptions.

MEET THE READER: My Defense of the Three-Act Structure

The recent “success” of certain formulaic film franchises would appear to negate my argument (as reflected in the non-adjusted $11.9B 2018 domestic B.O. receipts). Not so fast. It’s truly unfortunate that comic book films with only a change of gender, locale or costume, speak to how easy the public, in this short attention span era, easily parts with its cash. Those imitative products are geared to just rake in the money. That’s it. As opposed to a distraction that provides inspiration, enlightenment or expresses some redeeming value. In my opinion, most of these films will be forgotten within 5 years or less. Regrettably, as Hollywood recycles vs. creates, they’ll reappear as a rehashed storyline later.

The separation of a script into acts is a travesty. The more accurate way to divide a film is the event (shot), scene and sequence, which I will review in a future series of articles. These elements are the building blocks of your character’s whole story segment. Don’t let terminology confuse you. Just write the story that needs to be released from your inner self. Concentrate first on story, then structure.

The screenwriter’s craft is hard. One solution is to study scripts and films from other cultures. This, if nothing else, will let you know that success as a screenwriter is not dependent on the Hollywood way.

More articles by Stewart Farquhar

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