I’m English. I’ve lived in the US for many years now but still don’t sound like an American, still speak as a Brit. I grew up and lived most of my life in England. I didn’t come up with baseball, basketball, or what you call football and I call American football, I grew up with cricket, and what Americans call soccer, but I call football.
So… where’s all this leading to? I hear you ask. What do sports and games have to do with screenplays and movies? Who cares where I come from or that I would watch a 5-day cricket international “test” match on TV (which might end in draw) and not the Dodgers for 3 or 4 hours. Who cares that I’ve watched countless soccer matches but never a single minute on that gridiron field?
Structure. There’s the rub. Structure and our differing attitudes towards it, attitudes rooted in whether we grew up in America or cut our teeth somewhere else.
I used to wonder why screenwriting teachers in my adoptive country talk so much about structure, the 3-act structure in particular. It sounded so theoretical. It always intimidated me. I thought of structure as an abstract concept, one I felt uncomfortable with because I knew so little about it. The first instance of coming across it, I seem to remember, had been on encountering the teachings of Robert McKee back in the UK, when I suffered a resulting conversion to the structure mantra with disastrous effect—I’d try to come up with ideas for stories using the 3-act structure as a framework to form the narrative before I knew what the story was. I became confused between the “inciting incident” and the end of “act one.” I’d concoct some arbitrarily conceived “mid-point” halfway through “act two”. And the tension in “act three” would crescendo to some kind of physical punch-up or firefight, regardless of genre or tonality. I was creating a skeleton, not a movie. The scaffolding of bone was there, plus the odd package of muscle to flex, but there were no blood vessels, no blood to flow through them, no mind, and—above all—no heart.
I was a fish out of water, cultural water. McKee is an American. He grew up with American sports, whether he watched them or not, and their structure-based foundations. The fluid messiness of ‘soccer’, sometimes brilliant, often less so, was not his country’s weekly fare. He grew up with American politics—not the pandemonium of the British House of Commons but the designed checks and balances of the presidency, congress, and the courts: executive, legislature, judiciary. He grew up with the 12-bar blues, with the 32-bar ballad, with the 3-act structure. That DNA is in his bones. It’s not in mine. I wasn’t acculturated that way. England stumbled through the centuries. The United States by contrast, announced itself with a declaration and a written constitution. It began its life in the Eighteenth Century, in a period of reason, of neo-classical precepts in the arts, of form, of the so-called “age of enlightenment”. (Enlightenment? Was it? Hardly.)
America was steeped in structure from its birth. No wonder that the concept takes centre/center stage in so many screenwriting programs here.
Does the 3-act structure work though? Yes and no. The success of American movies around the world, across languages and cultures, attests to the yes. Why? The simple beginning, middle, and end—the fundamentals—are understood by everyone. As the three acts engaged the diverse immigrant audiences of silent cinema in New York City, in Los Angeles and everywhere in between so they went on to engage audiences across the globe. American films have been more universally successful, more popular than any others. The built-in rising tension, the climax at the end, which yields the protagonist’s final triumph over the forces of antagonism—who doesn’t get that?
The Swiss writer Robert Walser wrote: ‘There’s nothing truly good in this world where something bad hasn’t had to have been overcome.’ There you have it, the three stages.
1. Something bad happens.
2. The struggle to rectify it.
3. This leads to something good.
But do three acts guarantee a good movie? Of course not. When structure becomes formula, when the house is all empty frame and wall but nothing inside, when you watch a movie and find yourself checking your watch at the act breaks, at the midpoint, when the conflict boils over at precisely the required minute, the dramatic has been reduced to the predictable. Structure has become straitjacket. The movie is as packaged and predictable as the concessions you’ve carried to your seat, not story but commodity.
Story is about myth, not math. As long as it keeps us engaged through tension, suspense, through our desire to know what’s going to happen next, through playing on our need to understand the significance of what we are seeing, or hearing, or deducing, through surprises and unexpected turns of event, as long as it conveys emotion, and as long as it delivers a sense of meaning at its end (not a message but a paradox) then it’s not going to fail simply because it’s adopted a 5-act rather than a 3-act structure, whether it has seven or nine acts, or a series of what I prefer to call movements, or captivated us with successive narrative units—scenes, sequences, vignettes. If it fails, perhaps it’s because its story is weak. If it succeeds, perhaps it’s because its story, characters, images, emotions, questions and voice are resonant and strong.
Let your stories go where they need to go, not where the decorum of structure demands. Someone once said that thinking of a structure and imposing it on a story is like making a suit then looking for a man to fit it. Better to first look for your story, then settle for the “suit”.
Don’t impose a structure on your story, find it in your story!