Monday, November 30, 2009

The Myth of... "The Myth of Three-Act Structure" - Part I

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


In the two previous posts on structure I developed the notion of multi-level structure that I believe operates in all narrative stories. In the last post I discussed three less-common surface-level structures, and in the discussion of one of them, 5-act structure, I analyzed the structure of a popular 5-act film, All That Jazz.

That film is one of a handful identified by writer, Alex Epstein, as evidence of the “myth” of 3-act structure. While I believe Mr. Epstein is rightly interested in freeing writers from so-called screenwriting rules and the well-known “guru” story paradigms, I believe he is being led astray by the mistaken assumption that 3-act structure, as it is postulated, is argued as the whole of structure. Mr. Epstein has noticed that there are many successful films that exhibit structures other than 3-act structure. He, then questions 3-act structure, and concludes it is a “myth.” This is specious reasoning, and it leads to more.

It arises from looking at stories as though they operate solely on a single plane, that plot and meaning reside together, and are inextricably tied together by structure. My position is that this view is where most people have gone wrong. I believe that the two components, plot and meaning, operate separately, and are structured separately. The fact that in most cases the two structures mirror one another can lead to assuming that they always do. That is simply not true, and can be seen in my analysis of All That Jazz.

On the plot or surface-level (what I call the Physical Level) the story can be organized in almost any fashion, encompassing any number of so-called “acts” providing a satisfactory story. I believe that on a deeper level, the level of meaning, which I call the Logical Level, the structure is invariably in 3 parts. This is how so many looking at story have gone so wrong. Some see All That Jazz, for example, having 5 parts. Some see it having 3. As I showed in my last post, it has both, and each is on its own level. Once one views story as operating at more than a single level, all structures become possible.

Alex Epstein has stated the following in his book Crafty Screenwriting, pp. 59 – 61, and in his web-based article, The Myth of Three Act Structure:

“Where are the act breaks in Hard Day's Night? All that Jazz? How about Spartacus? Forrest Gump? Apollo 13? Annie Hall? Or the superbly written Wild Things, which has about five or six major twists?

“Or how about The Wizard of Oz? Does the third act begin when the Wizard sends Dorothy after the Wicked Witch of the East? Or when Dorothy gets home to Kansas? Or when the Wizard turns out to be a fraud? What difference does it make to the story? Who cares where the third act begins?”

My analysis of The Wizard of Oz will answer this.

“In The Fugitive, does the second act begin when Dr. Richard Kimble escapes the prison bus, or when he escapes the following manhunt? When does the last act begin? When he discovers the one-armed man? When he confronts Dr. Charles Nichols at the doctor convention? When Marshal Samuel Gerard begins to realize that Dr. Kimble is innocent?”

My analysis of The Fugitive will answer this.

“Who cares?

 “Suppose you could decide where the third act begins. How would that help you understand how the story works?”

A later post in this series on structure will offer a reason why writers should care.

Later, he writes:

“But don't worry about having three distinct acts. You may find that a five act structure works better for your screenplay. It worked for Shakespeare. You may have a true story that just naturally breaks down into four acts. Squeezing it into the Procrustean bed of Three Act Structure is just going to mangle it.

“Just tell a good story that keeps people interested.

“Note, however, that if you are turning in an outline to a producer, he will probably want to know where the act breaks are. Pick some plausible page numbers or events and humor him.”

Despite my advocacy for three-part logical structure, and aside from his final suggestion, these points are not invalid. As I’ve pointed out in my allusion to cutting up pies, this is all just splitting hairs about what I have referred to as physical-level structure.

I submit that, on the physical level, 3-act structure is the most common structural approach found in commercial narrative films since the introduction of sound. And on the logical level, 3-part structure is the only structural approach that matters, period.

Epstein and others have either missed, or failed to acknowledge, the deeper, logical-level structure of protagonist transformation/non-transformation that articulates the meaning of stories.

But, as concerns pure surface-level structure, Epstein has, indeed, nailed it: don’t force your story into an artificially-imposed physical structure! That is why the multi-level concept is so liberating. And that is why I have devoted attention to the variety of possible physical-level structures available to writers. But there’s more to the story than that. And that is where deep structure comes in.

The films Epstein mentions include the ones here. The rest will follow in future posts. In order to articulate their structures we first ask whose story the film is. In the answer to that question lies the deep or logical-level structure.

As was seen in the analysis of All That Jazz, and as will be demonstrated ahead, surface-level physical structure is not always in three parts, consistent from one film to the next. It can exhibit other structures than those articulated by three acts. But the notion of the deeper logical level is consistent for nearly every narrative film, and because of that, there is no better structural model. That’s its strength. Adding to that, the 3-part arc-of-transformation establishes a story’s suitability for writers in the conceptual stage, while later, offering cogent meaning to audiences. And that’s its value

Commercially-produced narrative films that do not exhibit logical-level structure through a protagonist’s arc of transformation/non-transformation may well exist (e.g., David Lynch’s Eraserhead, some Andy Warhol films such as Sleep, and The Nude Restaurant). But they are in so small a minority while the films that do exhibit deep structure are in so overwhelming a majority, that for all practical purposes, the multi-level structural model is the only one that matters.

In separating my notion of deep structure from the surface-level physical structure, I have chosen to call the 3 components, parts rather than acts. I will describe these films in greater or lesser detail as I deem necessary. All but two of the films Epstein describes as demonstrating the myth of 3-act structure, in fact, possess 3-act surface structure along with 3-part deep structure. As we’ve seen All That Jazz exhibits 5-act surface structure. The other film, Wild Things, will be shown to exhibit 7-act surface structure. The only hindrance to identifying multi-level structure is a failure to identify whose story is told by the film. And that is always the primary, story-focused entity – the protagonist - that transforms (or should have transformed, but failed to do so), as the result of the story experience.

I use the term taken from classical Greek drama, protagonist, though my use does not fit the classic Greek drama’s definition. However, this is no less orthodox than is modern drama’s (since at least Shakespeare’s time) departure from the classic Greek requirement of adherence to Aristotle’s 3 Unities. We are no longer on a stage in Athens. As narrative has evolved, it has expanded beyond confining notions of what a story can be or do. So, too, then, are notions of the protagonist.

Who, if not the town, is the protagonist of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town? Who, if not the jury, is the protagonist of Reginald Rose’s and Sidney Lumet’s Twelve Angry Men? Why should it matter that a protagonist be embodied by a single character of a given piece of narrative when a narrative point can be made by that embodied by any entity able to carry the assignation? The protagonist is, then, who (or what) we, as writers, make it.

The films Epstein mentions include the two below. The rest will follow in future posts. In order to articulate their structures we first ask whose story the film is. In the answer to that question lies the deep or logical-level structure.    

I will discuss those films that fit classic 3-act structure first, and leave the remaining one that doesn’t fit, Wild Things (All That Jazz was Epstein’s other film), for a later post. Most of the analyses will list the story minutes (sans credits) for reference. Here (and in the next few posts) are my analyses of Epstein’s list of films:

A Hard Day’s Night

Q – Whose story is it?

A – It's the band’s story, The Beatles’ as a musical group.

In the film, the transformation of the protagonist (the Beatles as a band) was from a kind of innocent exuberance to a kind of road-savvy and adaptation to the imprisoning effects of fame. This is articulated by their journey to a concert in another city and their contention with Beatle, Paul’s, slippery grandfather. 
The Physical and Logical structures are each in 3 identical and corresponding parts:

Part 1 – (1” to 21”) Fame; The Beatles have become famous and are in constant demand by fans, press, and concert promoters; at the 21 minute mark in the 84 minute story, Paul’s grandfather points the way to freedom for the band by slipping away from them and uses Ringo’s invitation to Le Cirque, a gambling club; the band-members get him back just in time to catch the train to the next show
Part 2 – (21” to 60”) Journey; the band continues its chaotic contention with the demands of travel; they wrestle with screaming fans, no privacy, fan letters, etc.; throughout, they constantly contend with their responsibilities to the tour running up against the temptation of just running away like Paul’s grandfather; after arriving for the show, Ringo has had enough insanity, and, following the old man’s latest anarchic suggestion, he goes on “parade” (plays hooky), just before the run-through for the big show. 
Part 3 – (60” to 84”) Show; without Ringo they can’t play; the band searches for and finds Ringo and Paul’s grandfather, and they all get back just in time for the show; they do the show, ending the film.

The structural break-down is 25/46/29%, almost precisely in Syd Field’s 3-act paradigm of 25/50/25%. 
It’s a coming-of-age story of The Beatles. While the transformation about the principle of the frustrations and contention with fame are rather superficially-handled, the film, as a whole, is nothing more, itself, than a trifle. It was more a vehicle to showcase their music and feed the machine of their incredible fame than it was any sort of story worth telling (and this is borne out by director, Richard Lester’s, commentary on the DVD for the film). Nonetheless, the film exhibits classic 3-part structure on both levels.

Annie Hall

This film’s inclusion in Epstein’s list is a remarkable, but understandable lapse. A surface view of the film seems to yield no clear pin-point-able “act” transitions. The film seems almost arbitrary in the scenes chosen for inclusion, and, in fact, was assembled as finally released, only in editing, after the production had ended.

Q – Whose story is it?

A – It is Annie & Alvy’s story, as a couple, their relationship.

Once one identifies the protagonist as, not the male character of Alvy, from whose point of view it seems to be told, but rather the couple, Annie and Alvy, the arc of transformation becomes clear. The film is an obvious variation on the granddaddy of all 3-act stories: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. In this case, it might be better described as: boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl
Annie Hall exhibits classic 3-act structure. With the protagonist identified as the couple together, rather than either one individually, one can see the transitions emerge. The film’s story, sans credits, is 94 minutes long. The story structures out according to the milestones in the relationship: meet; are a couple; break-up. 
The Physical and Logical structures are each in 3 identical and corresponding parts:

Part 1 – (1” to 24”) Meeting; Annie and Alvy, through time jumps, enter into and experience their relationship; the transition from part 1 to part 2 occurs, thanks to a time-jump, at the point when Alvy and Annie first meet. 
Part 2 – (24” to 78”) Ups and downs of the relationship; the relationship progresses through stages of familiarity to waning interest in, at times, a non-chronological, non-causal order; the transition to part 3 occurs when they decide to split up. 
Part 3 – (78” to 94”) Break-up; the break-up and its after-shocks, resulting in Annie and Alvy accepting it.

Because the film has gone through a chaotic mish-mash of on-again/off-again states of the relationship, with jumps in time, and character back-story added along the way, it is hard to see the structural sign-posts. The film’s assembly is more like a mosaic, exhibiting, as it does disruption in the time-line and causality. But like another unorthodox assemblage, Memento (which I will analyze in a later post), in the viewer’s mind, the film assembles itself correctly. 
Given the fact that we see only one “meeting,” and one “break-up,” the stages of the relationship are articulated by these essential and significant moments. The break-down is 26/57/17%. While this may challenge any strict interpretation of Field’s three-act paradigm (25/50/25%), the notion of the three parts articulating the transformation of the couple is clearly present. And the mosaic assemblage, while appearing chaotic, evidences a subtle pattern of causal progression where back-story digressions, for example, support the narrative’s advance (through character development) at the point they appear. So, while there are time-jumps, there is nothing that hurts the narrative’s progress or gives something away early. Annie Hall’s construction is more like a cinematic autopsy of the relationship, in that, as with a pathologist, neither does it truly start at the head, nor end at the toes. Instead, after identifying the subject, it opens it up in the middle and begins to look inside
The mosaic-like assembly, in fact, is the secret to why the film works so well. As with Memento, if you reassemble Annie Hall into time-forward, causal order, the result is much less interesting. This is because we, as the audience, are quite familiar with relationships. So we can “cut to the chase,” and get into the guts of the thing to see how it goes wrong. Assembled conventionally, on the other hand, while still exhibiting the humor, it becomes episodic, even predictable, and therefore, conventional. Only the unpredictable construction of key moments in the relationship makes it truly stand out. It is probably a case where the editing itself won the film its Best Picture Oscar (one of four that it received). 
Both Annie and Alvy show that they have, as a couple, transformed: they understand and accept the necessity of the break-up. This is seen with Annie in her act 3 dialogue, and with Alvy in his ending joke about his and Annie’s relationship. He describes a guy who goes to a psychiatrist and says, “Doc, my brother thinks he’s a chicken.” The psychiatrist says, “Well, why don’t you turn him in?” and the guy replies, “I would, but I need the eggs.” So, Alvy knows his pursuit of Annie was irrational, as they weren’t right for each other, but he sees that it was inevitable anyway, because he needed “the eggs,” he needed to try. So do we all. 
The joke, itself, is a wonderful metaphor for structure, because the hero, the guy who visits the “shrink,” effectively transforms from a rational human being in the set-up, to a nut-case who believes his brother is a chicken, too, in the punch-line. Perfect “logical-level” structure dressed in a classic “physical-level” 3-piece suit.

In the next post I will analyze The Wizard of Oz, The Fugitive, Apollo 13, and Spartacus. I will answer Epstein’s questions pertaining to the first two titles, and will show the way protagonist-identification always throws the necessary light on a story’s structure. #


Lee A. Matthias

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Three Less Orthodox Story Structures

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


In the previous post, I identified the reality that story structure operates on multiple levels: 

  • A surface, or plot level I call the Physical Level, upon which sequences and scenes are ordered or assembled;
  • A deeper, interior, or meaning level I call the Logical Level, where protagonist-transformation (or what its unchanging nature) means, operates;
  • And, sometimes, a middle level, between the surface and interior levels I call the Sub-Logical Level, where protagonist-transforming sub-text may operate.
After providing several examples of films employing the Sub-Logical Level, I observed that such films are likely to be of the highest quality of narratives. I also identified several subordinate levels which can impact multi-level structure:

  • The Image Level, where imagery and/or an image-system having a transformative effect on the protagonist operates;
  • The Aural Level, where sound, music, and/or a sound-effects system having a transformative effect on the protagonist operates;
  • The Montage Level, where image-assembly and/or an image-editing system having a transformative effect on the protagonist operates.
I recognized that many films have an un-changing protagonist, and pointed out that, in such cases, the transformation is still present within the audience at the un-changing protagonist’s expense. Finally, I pointed out the nature of the number three and its function in the way meaning, and therefore, narrative deep-structure operates.

It should be recognized that the above subordinate levels are not necessarily representative of the entirety of subordinate-level structure. I can see the possibility of still others such as:

  • A Performance Level, where the actors’ performances, as opposed to the writing, itself (e.g., Al Pacino in the Godfather films, where his acting transforms from optimistic kid to sober killer shouldering the weight of his world), having a protagonist-transforming effect operate;
  • An Environmental Level, where the production-design having a protagonist-transforming effect operates (e.g., Alien, where the design goes from bright, high-tech to dark, industrial);
  • A Presentation Level, where the directorial-choices that can be identified as having a protagonist-transforming effect operate (e.g., Citizen Kane, where the directorial choices successively portray Kane as self-oppressed).
In this post I will examine three physical-level structural approaches that have received “short-shrift” in many published discussions on structure. This is intended to establish the wide-variance of physical-level structural approaches. These include:

1)  The Sonata Musical Form

2)  Five-Act Structure

3)  Nine-Act Structure with Two Goals and a Reversal 

Note - I prefer to confine my use of the term, “act” to the surface level, and use the term, “part” on deeper levels.

Here are three structures that often escape theorists:

The Structure of the Sonata Musical Form

This approach to structure is sometimes also called the Sonata-Allegro form. Some observers describe the films of Stanley Kubrick as employing the Sonata musical form as a model for their construction. Kubrick, himself, has said:

“A film is - or should be - more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what's behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later. After you've walked out of the theatre, maybe the next day or a week later, maybe without ever actually realizing it, you somehow get what the filmmaker has been trying to tell you.”

Scott Myers, at his blog, Go Into The Story, did a post on the sonata musical form and its resemblance to the three act structure of many screenplays. He pointed out:

“There are striking similarities, if you think of:

“Melodies as Characters

“Transitions from one key to the next as major plot points

“Exposition-Development-Recapitulation as Act I-Act II-Act III.”

“Music is another means of storytelling, and the fact that master composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Brahms, and many more used sonata form, that it ruled orchestral music for 150 years, that pieces based upon sonata form are still performed and enjoyed by millions to this day is yet another example of why structural theories about screenplays work – because they reflect a three act/movement pattern which seems to underlie the basics of all stories, all forms of storytelling, all manner of story-crafting.” 

A sonata is an extended composition, differing from vocal composition in that it’s usually for piano or another solo instrument. It comes in - what else? - three parts or movements: The Allegro, Adagio, and Rondo. They differ in tempo, tone and melody but are usually held together by the same motif (similar to a visual motif in film: the X`s in Ben Hecht`s script for Scarface (1932), the flawed eyes in Robert Towne’s script for Chinatown, etc...).

Allegro is usually fast, bright, cheery, up in tone and melody. Adagio is slower, more leisurely. The last part, Rondo, restates the other themes along with its own new theme (an echo of the main motif) at least three times, sometimes more. Handled properly, it all builds to a complete climax, and it is sometimes even followed by a Coda, a formal tying-up.

The simplest way I`ve heard the sonata form described is first the Allegro makes a statement of exposition, the Adagio develops it more deeply, the Rondo recapitulates it, and finally, sometimes, the Coda closes it.

An example from recent modern American music is by Wynton Marsalis on his Blue Interlude (1992), particularly the title track. I believe this was originally written to be accompanied by a dance troupe. A second example is Marsalis’s Jubilee Suite (year unknown).

CLASSIC SONATA-ALLEGRO FORM in Screenplay Structure:

Sonata-Allegro form mirrors 3-act structure as follows. There are many exceptions, but this is the general classical form (a la Mozart). Consider these movements in relation to such Kubrick films as: Paths of Glory, Lolita, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and Eyes Wide Shut.

  • Adagio (Exposition/Act I):
Themes/characters introduced; stable harmonies/events.

  • Allegro (Development/Act II):
Themes comingled, reinvented, and restated through a variety of techniques; harmonies unstable with a tendency toward modulation; ends with a promise to the listener/viewer for a...

  • Rondo (Recapitulation/Act III):
A return ‘home’ to stability and a satisfying conclusion.

  • Coda (Epilogue; optional):

    A new, yet related, theme/idea tagged on the end.
Kubrick’s use of the Sonata form is more-often-than-not a less-bright, less-cheery approach. However, by sometimes offering a decidedly grim conclusion and/or Coda, it does encompass the emotional range of the form.

Five-Act Structure

Surface-level, physical structure comes in many flavors. William Shakespeare favored a 5-act assemblage. But he wasn’t alone. It’s been used in films many times. Let’s take a look.

In the 4th edition of their (otherwise) excellent book, Alternative Scriptwriting, p. 307, authors Ken Dancyger and Jeff Rush, describe the structural sign-posts of Four Weddings and a Funeral (with The Last Reveal’s italics for later reference):

“A number of writers have experimented successfully with structure. The most commercially successful experiment is Richard Curtis’s Four Weddings and a Funeral [1994]. An argument can be made that this film actually follows three-act form—boy meets girl, boy doesn’t want girl, boy finally decides he really does want girl. But we would like to suggest that, on another narrative level, Curtis does organize the entire story around a series of special events—weddings, proposed weddings, and a funeral. By doing so, he has contextualized the personal issue (commitment to a relationship) into a social context—that is, the weddings and the funeral...” And later, “The challenge to storytelling conventions of structure comes from the theatrical device of organizing the entire story around five social events. Superficially, the implication is five acts, but actually, the film neatly divides into three acts, with the turning points just after the two characters have slept together for the first time: the female lead, Carrie (Andie McDowell), poses the issue of commitment, and Charles rejects it. The next turning point occurs after Carrie’s marriage: Charles confesses his love for her, but now she is married and the possibility of a relationship has never seemed more distant. The dissonance between the formal structure of the film (five acts) and the dramatic structure (three acts) makes the film seem novel and inventive.

Dancyger and Rush get it, and, yet... they don’t! As can be seen by my italicized passages, they can see what we, here, call the physical and logical levels. They can even dichotomize them, naming them “formal” and “dramatic,” respectively. But they reject the legitimacy of the multi-level concept by dismissing the physical level (their “formal” level) as “superficial.” Instead they seem to over-intellectualize the dichotomy by pronouncing it as “contextualized” and “dissonant”, and therefore, “more powerful,” whatever that all means. As can be seen in my analysis of All That Jazz (below), not to mention, the works of William Shakespeare, organizing a story around five physical-level structural components is hardly groundbreaking or, as Dancyger and Rush pronounce it, “experimental.”

The way to get to the heart of any story’s structure is to ask oneself whose story it is. The answer to that question will point to the protagonist, be it a he (e.g., Forrest Gump – Forrest Gump), a she (Norma Rae – Norma Rae), a couple (Annie & Alvy – Annie Hall), a group (The Big Chill’s group), a town (Grover’s Corners – Our Town), a metaphor (America’s coming of age – Nashville), or even an idea (nuclear annihilation – Dr. Strangelove).

So let’s examine another 5-act film, one identified as evidence of the “myth” of 3-act structure:

All That Jazz

Q - Whose story is it?
A – Joe Gideon’s (his death in 5 acts).

The film states its physical, surface-structure in the first 12 minutes (via Joe Gideon’s movie-within-the-movie’s standup comic) in a monologue: there are 5 stages of death: anger, denial, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Death is present throughout the film, connecting the stages, in the form of an ongoing dialogue between Joe and Death in the form of (what else?) a beautiful woman. (At least there weren’t three of them.)
The film’s Physical-Level structure can be charted in those 5 acts:

(My use of italics identifies pivotal story sign-posts)

Anger Stage – (1” to 38”) – Joe Gideon, director, in his life: living cynically; sleeping around despite loving his ex-wife, his daughter, and his mistress; preparing a show, but unhappy with it, despite its excellence; editing his movie, The Standup.

Denial Stage – (38” to 57”) – Has a mild heart attack, but shrugs it off. Business as usual: rehearses; works on show, making it brilliant, but summing himself and show business up (“we take you everywhere, but get you nowhere”). He eventually abandons his “cut” of his movie with the monologue about death stages, even though he has improved it (because it is too accurate about his own life).

Bargaining Stage – (57” to 65”) – Joe and his life “bargain,” showing him that he has love, his work is great, but even in the face of it, during the reading with everyone in stitches, he can’t hear them, and he can’t accept it.

Depression Stage – (65” to 101”) – Joe has a heart “episode,” angina, and is admitted for surgery. Joe in hospital. The show goes on hiatus. The producers interview a new director. Gideon shows glimmers of health. The Standup is a hit, but has a bad review, and that’s all Joe can see. Joe tells Katie he loves her, but if he survives, will hurt her again. Surgery. The show is financially autopsied: if Joe dies, it will reach profit because of insurance and the fact that the hiatus hit before major set expenditures. Four songs, back-to-back, showing Joe what he stands to lose, one from each woman in his life, including “show business” itself. He survives surgery, and it looks like he’ll return to the show.

Acceptance Stage – (101” to 120”) – Set-back: he has an actual heart attack. A re-statement of the 5 stages as Joe accepts his coming death, tears off the hospital gear connected to him, escapes his room, and wanders through the hospital back-areas and basement. Each stage is summarized in Joe’s behavior, culminating in his kissing the dying old woman, one last flirtation as he bows out. Joe’s death is signified by the song “Bye Bye Love” (substituting “Life” for “Love”), at the end of which Joe moves forward to meet his death, the beautiful woman in white.

The film’s Logical-Level structure can be charted in 3 parts (or, as the Fieldians might see it, no levels, 3 acts):

Part 1 – (1” to 33”) Joe Gideon, director, loves but strays from the women in his life, culminating, at 33”, in the admission that he cannot re-marry because his behavior would hurt one more person in his life, and for him, that would be the final straw, no less than a kind of death.

Part 2 – (33” to 65” to 101”) Joe lives his life, loving and hurting both those around him and also himself; at the mid-point, 65” into the story, he sees what’s in store for him, heart failure, both figuratively and literally. He has surgery and almost comes back from it, but resumes his bad ways. Ultimately, at 101” into the story, he has a set-back while still in the hospital; he knows he’s gonna die.

Part 3 – (101” to 120”) Joe symbolically re-examines his journey toward death through an unauthorized “journey” through the back areas of the hospital, at the end of which Joe dies, embodied in a big song and dance number as he says goodbye. The film ends at 120” of story time.

All That Jazz exhibits text-book multi-level story structure; it also exhibits classic dramatic structure: both physically using the 5-act framework used by dramatists such as William Shakespeare, and logically, using the 3-part meaning structure of classic narrative storytelling (with a breakdown of 27/57/16%). In fact, its multi-level structure bursts brilliantly into view as soon as the question of whose story the film is becomes answered. 

So, if there’s one insight to be gained from this discussion of structure, it is that to find the structure in a story, first ask whose story it is. It can be a person, a couple, a group, a town, a metaphor, or even just an idea. This entity is the structure’s protagonist, and its transformation (or non-transformation in spite of the need for it), is the 3-part deep structure, the Logical structure, of the narrative.

David Siegel’s Nine-Act Structure With Two Goals and a Reversal

Here we come to the moment where, if it hasn’t become so long ago, it is quite clear that the narrative physical pie is merely being divided into an ever-greater number of pieces. But, as with my example of human skeletons being of the species, homo sapiens, it’s still the same species of pie (in this case, fabula plures campester, or story of many levels). David Siegel’s approach, like that of Christopher Vogler’s based on the work of mythologist, Joseph Campbell (or any of the other surface-level structures), does not work for all narrative stories, just some. Still, it offers insights that are useful for writers.

(Siegel appears to have removed his approach from the web – it had been there for many years – so we must use a third-party interpretation of it.)

To illustrate my point about pies, I have inserted Syd Field’s and other’s story sign-posts in our standard Courier New Font.

(My thanks to Gerri Baker’s website review of Siegel’s approach)

“In "Anatomy of a Screenplay," the basics of story come out in the form of three P's: Plot, the action; Premise, the concept; and People, the characters. Siegel suggests that a good balance between these three things will make stories fuller, while separating them as much as possible will simplify the story and allow easier manipulating of each component.

“Siegel explains one more key concept before diving into the meat of his idea: the "Two Goal Structure." While many stories are set up with one goal in mind, linked linearly from beginning to end, he points out that this set-up rarely makes the story large enough to become popular. The Two-Goal Structure, he claims, is more exciting because of the reversal in the plot. In the beginning of a story, the characters aim for a major goal, but by the middle or towards the end of the story, they realize they've got the wrong goal. Suddenly, the characters are forced to change what they're doing in order to go in this new, more accurate direction. This idea is the heart of the Nine Act Structure.

“The body of Siegel's theory is in the nine acts that make up a story.

“Act Zero does not directly appear in the story except in flashback and explanations to show backstory. Here, writers need to set up the disaster that is coming in the story. Forces need to already be in motion before the story begins in order to create conflict for the characters. Usually the emphasis for the backstory will be on the antagonist or villain, but even protagonists carry baggage into the story. He even goes as far as to suggest ten years of planning coming into a collision course in the story.

“Act One is used to establish the physical location and time period of the story. This particular act is peculiar to script writing, although other writers should be aware of the need for a powerful beginning to any story.”

Inciting Incident:

“Act Two is an immediate hook into the story. Something bad has to happen, and happen fast, in order to move things from act zero into the main story. The conflict starts, and the rest of the story follows.

“Act Three introduces the cast of characters, including the protagonist and his or her cadre, as well as establishing the villain and his or her allies and flunkies. Character development during Act Three is critical for connecting with the audience. While the development happens, events propel the characters towards the next act.”

Plot Point 1

Fieldian Act 1/Act 2 Transition:

“Act Four involves the protagonist committing to the first goal. He may go willingly into the situation because the alternative is worse, or to help an apparent victim. Under involuntary conditions, someone may push the protagonist into the situation, either for malicious reasons or for the character's own good.”

Fieldian Mid-Point:

“Act Five finds the protagonist pursuing the wrong goal. This act, the longest of the group, is where the complications of the plot pile up. Backstory issues, mysterious strangers, and events; all point out that the protagonist is on the wrong track, and the villain is winning. This act ends when the protagonist realizes he is going after the wrong goal, usually at the villain's peak in the story.”

Plot Point 2

“Act Six is the pivotal point when characters will go after the new, accurate goal. The characters get that final clue, the missing piece to the puzzle, which allows them to make the necessary changes to successfully complete the plotline.

Fieldian Act 2/Act 3 Transition:

“Act Seven doesn't go well even though the new goal is the correct one. While the protagonist will usually win out over the villain by the end of this act, the victory comes at a price. Nothing is free.”


“Act Eight wraps everything up, ties up loose ends, and sends audience members on their way with the emotions the writer wants them to feel. This act is short, sweet, and to the point.

With some work and a little flexibility, the Two Goal and the Nine Act structures can translate from film into the print medium, making a novel plot tighter and more energetic. The pacing he recommends for each act will have to be modified for novel writing. Also, prose allows for more intermingling of acts than Siegel uses.”

From my book, Lateral Screenwriting, and its section on narrative story structure:

“For all of this, an awareness of structure is good only to writers. As long as it works, audiences don’t care. To be sure, audiences would rather not know the structure of a beloved story, because it takes away the magic created by the piece and kills it. So, structure is for writers. It is useful, for story conception, for writing-efficiency, and later as the story is written, for story-unity and story-focus.

“For audiences, then, it is valuable to the extent it works to yield its magical results. It is important not just to help writers work their way through huge blocks of narrative plot-line as the screenwriting priesthood’s surfacists (sure-fascists?) are content to believe. It is valuable because it explains its subject to its creators.

“And, thanks to such functioning on the deeper level of meaning, it helps audiences in understanding their own lives. So, surface, physical-level structure, and deeper, sub-logical-level and logical-level structures, are useful. One helps writers find a way to tell the story, and the others help writers find a way to tell the truth.”

In the next few posts, I will take several examples of films listed by Alex Epstein as demonstrating the “myth” of three-act structure, and show them to have a multi-level structure with the three parts present, nonetheless, in the deeper, logical level.

In a following post, I will analyze two popular films, Pulp Fiction and Memento, whose structure appears decidedly unorthodox, and show them to be, in fact, cases of classic Fieldian three-act surface-level physical structure, with classic three-part deep-level logical structure, as always, beneath.#


Lee A. Matthias