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

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