Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Myth of... "The Myth of Three-Act Structure" - Part 2

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 this post I will continue my analysis of the films Alex Epstein identified in his book (buy it, it’s good despite the points made here) and on the web as demonstrating the “myth” of 3-act structure. I value Mr. Epstein’s writing, and find almost all of it to be accurate. But I feel it damages writers’ understanding of their craft to dismiss something that is demonstrably true (at least, in part), especially when there are good and useful things to be learned from an understanding of it.
The following two films were singled out as examples of the “myth” of 3-act structure, and, I imagine, the confusion awaiting one in trying to discern a story’s structure from them. At the end of each film’s analysis I will directly answer the question posed about them. After those I will analyze two others Epstein has used to question 3-act structure. 
Epstein's concluding questions were, “Who cares?” and “How does that help you understand how the story works?” I will answer those questions in a later post.
The Wizard of Oz
Q - Whose story is it?
A – It’s Dorothy’s story, her search for home.
The Physical and Logical structures each are in 3 identical and corresponding parts:

Part 1 – (1" to 18") Dorothy lives with her dog, Toto, in Kansas along with her Auntie Em and Uncle Henry, and dreams of faraway places; Miss Gulch, an ugly old spinster hates Toto and gets an official Order to have him removed; Miss Gulch takes Toto, but as she rides away, Toto escapes and runs back to Dorothy; since Dorothy might lose Toto to Miss Gulch, she decides to run away from home - this is the Inciting Incident.
She sets off on her journey; along the way, Dorothy meets Professor Marvel and is shown how she has hurt Auntie Em, so she heads back home; as she arrives, a cyclone hits, and before she can find her family in the storm cellar, she is knocked unconscious by the violence of the storm and begins to dream; this ends with her inside her house, carried inside the cyclone, and then falling into Oz; this is at the 18” point in story time.
Part 2 – (18" to 90") Dorothy awakens to find herself in Munchkin Land, part of the Land of Oz, and is greeted by the Munchkins; then she finds her house has accidentally killed the Wicked Witch of the East by dropping out of the cyclone on top of her; the Wicked Witch of the West arrives to see her sister dead.
The Good Witch Glinda arrives and gives Dorothy the Wicked Witch’s ruby slippers to protect her; the Wicked Witch of the West wants the slippers because they will increase her powers; Glinda sends Dorothy on her way to the Emerald City to ask the Wizard of Oz to help her get home.
She starts on the yellow brick road, and along the way is met and joined by the Scarecrow who is looking for a brain, the Tin Man who is looking for a heart, and the Cowardly Lion, who is looking for courage; after nearly being put into a permanent sleep by the Wicked Witch, but then being rescued by Glinda, they reach the Emerald City and the story’s mid-point at the 56” point in story time.
There, they meet the residents, and then, the scary and great and powerful Wizard of Oz; they each ask for their heart’s desire: a way home for Dorothy, a brain for the Scarecrow, a heart for the Tin Man, and courage for the Cowardly Lion; the Wizard commands that for these things, they must bring him the Wicked Witch’s broomstick.
They reluctantly set out for her castle; seeing this through her powers, the Wicked Witch sends her army of flying monkeys to capture Dorothy, and they bring her and Toto back to the castle; Toto escapes; finding the three companions, he shows them the way to the castle; they masquerade as guards and sneak inside; they find Dorothy and set her free before she is to be killed; running through the castle to escape, they are chased and cornered by the Witch and her minions; the Witch sets the scarecrow on fire; Dorothy splashes him and the Witch with water, putting out the fire, but causing the Witch to melt and die; the guards, happy to be free of the Witch, give Dorothy and her companions the broomstick.
They return to the Emerald City and the Wizard with the broomstick; there, they discover the Wizard is a fake, and accuse him of being bad; he admits it, but all is not lost; he tells the Scarecrow that he already has a brain but only needs a diploma to prove it. He tells the tin man he has a heart, but only needs a token to remind him of it. And he tells the lion he already has courage, but only needs a medal. At the 90” point in story time, the Wizard tells Dorothy that he will help her get home in his hot air balloon. She is going home!
Part 3 – (90" to 99") At the balloon’s send-off, they say their goodbyes, and Dorothy gets into the balloon with the Wizard; Toto decides to chase a cat, and jumps out of Dorothy’s arms; Dorothy goes after Toto, and accidentally releases the balloon’s rope; the balloon departs, stranding Dorothy, once again.
Glinda appears and tells Dorothy she’s always been able to go home, she just has to know it inside; Dorothy realizes it’s true, and that her true destiny is in her “own backyard”; she clicks her heels together and wakes up back home with her family at her side. The film ends at the 99 minute point in story time.

The Wizard of Oz is about Dorothy’s journey to find her place, her home. The transitions are present, but skewed from classic, Fieldian structure, with the first part ending only 18” in; the second ending 90” in; and the story ending 99” in (a breakdown of 18/72/10%). Each minute, in effect, represents about 1% of the story. But, it is obvious that the story is Dorothy’s search to get back home—that’s what motivates her to find the Wizard, and it is articulated by her arrival in Oz—establishing her problem; her achieving a way to get home by getting the witch’s broomstick back to the Wizard—establishing how she can finally resolve her problem, and her arrival back home at the end, re-joining friends and family, effectively solving her problem.
So, to answer Epstein’s question as to when the third act begins: because it is Dorothy’s story, the third act and the third portion of the deeper logical structure both begin at the end of the scene of Epstein’s third choice: “when the Wizard turns out to be a fraud,” because that is when the Wizard tells Dorothy he will help her, finally, to go home. Epstein’s two other possibilities do not qualify because they do not directly impact Dorothy’s goal of going home. The first is not directly about getting home, it’s about getting the broom. The second is after she already is home. It doesn’t set up the final piece - as the second act (and the second part) must do to transition to the final act (and the final part) - wherein she actually achieves her goal and goes home (in the physical structure) through believing she can (in the logical structure).

The Fugitive
Q - Whose story is it?
A – It’s Dr. Richard Kimble’s story (his search for his wife’s killer and proof of his own innocence).
The Physical and Logical structures each are in 3 identical and corresponding parts:

Part 1 – (1" to 24") The film begins during a long credit sequence that extends all the way to the 15 minute point. During this, we see intercut sequences of Dr. Richard Kimble’s wife’s murder; then, back-story of a reception and Kimble’s interrogation by the police; and Kimble in surgery after being pulled away from the reception.
The Inciting Incident in Kimble’s story is his conviction as his wife’s murderer at the 10 minute point in the story; then, during transference to prison to await execution, aboard his prison bus, another prisoner fakes a seizure and stabs a guard who tries to assist him; a melee ensues, the prisoner gets a gun, another guard opens up with a shotgun, and the bus driver is hit, causing the bus to crash and land on railroad tracks.
As the remaining prisoners, Kimble and one other, try to collect themselves, a train is heard to be approaching; Kimble tries to help the wounded guard as the others jump from the bus to avoid the train; just as the train hits the bus, Kimble gets clear; He starts to run from the scene. Lt. Gerard and his team arrive at the scene within an hour, and at the 24” mark, declares Kimble a fugitive.
Part 2 – (24" to 90") The hunt is on; Kimble runs and Gerard sets up the manhunt. Kimble begins the process of solving his own predicament by attending to his own wound at a clinic, then he begins to change his appearance by shaving off his beard. Gerard gets a lead and starts to close in on Kimble. Kimble steals an ambulance, but the hunters are on to him, pursuing him by car and helicopter; Kimble abandons the ambulance in a tunnel within a dam complex, finding his way into the service tunnels within the dam. Gerard chases on foot, catching up to him at the tunnel’s end overlooking the drop to the spillway, hundreds of feet below. Kimble jumps.
Gerard sets about finding either Kimble alive or his body in the spillway. Kimble gets away, and finds his way to a hospital where he is able to begin the process of finding the one-armed man whom he had fought, and who killed his wife. Meanwhile, Gerard hunts the other fugitive from the train and finds him in a house, where he has to kill him.
Kimble begins to research prosthetic arms like the one he saw in his fight with his wife’s killer. Kimble makes his way back to Chicago and contacts his colleague, Dr. Chuck Nichols for money. Gerard continues to pick up leads and begins to study Kimble, noticing that he isn’t just running, but is hunting something, too. Searching in his hospital’s database, Kimble manages to narrow his search down to five suspects with the type/brand of prosthesis of the killer. This is the mid-point, 67” into the story.
Kimble saves a kid whom the hospital has incorrectly diagnosed, along the way. Gerard learns of this, and begins to realize Kimble is innocent. Kimble tries to find the killer through his list of leads, and learns that one is a prisoner in the jail, so he goes there and tries to get a conference with him. Gerard has tracked the same lead and intends to find this inmate, too, so they are both in the jail at the same time. Kimble realizes the guy isn’t his man, so starts to leave when he is spotted by Gerard.
The chase is on, as Kimble manages to disappear into a downtown St. Patrick’s Day parade. Kimble continues his search, breaking into a suspect’s apartment, and realizes he has identified the killer, a man named Sykes. He calls Gerard and tells him that “I just found a big piece” of the mystery about why his wife was murdered, and he realizes it has to do with him and a colleague at the hospital, Dr. Lentz—this is the part two transition point, 90” into the story.
Part 3 – (90" to 124") Kimble begins to close in on Sykes. Gerard does, too, discovering that Sykes has a connection to Kimble and the hospital. The team stakes out the Sykes house, waiting for him to return home. Kimble contacts Dr. Nichols again and tells him he’s found his wife’s killer and that it had to do with Dr. Lentz, their colleague at the hospital.
Kimble contacts one of his other colleagues at the hospital, a woman in the tissue lab, and having procured several samples of liver tissue that he had submitted to a drug company for testing of a new drug, his colleague declares that the samples were switched and all from the same liver. This calls into question the drug’s efficacy. They also determine that Lentz, who had died suspiciously in a car accident, could not have switched half of the samples because he was already dead, so suspicion is now falling on Dr. Nichols, himself.
Meanwhile, Sykes, aware he is being hunted by Kimble, begins to hunt Kimble. They come together aboard an “El” train, and Sykes mistakenly kills a Chicago cop during the fight. Kimble subdues Sykes in the fight and handcuffs him there before making his getaway. Kimble goes to a conference at which Nichols will be announcing his testing of the drug, confronts him, accuses him, and a running battle and chase ensues. Meanwhile, Gerard, who has been close on Kimble’s heels but having to clean up all of his collateral damage, gets to the hotel conference and hunts Kimble. Ultimately, Kimble kills Nichols as Nichols is about to shoot Gerard, uniting Kimble and Gerard as colleagues rather than opponents, and ending the struggle; the film story ends at the 124” point.
The Fugitive is, as a Fieldian model, not far from being “mathematically-perfect” in its three part breakdown, with the first part at 24”, the second part at 90”, and the ending at 124” (a breakdown of 20/53/27%). Once it is determined that the story is Kimble’s hunt for the truth of his wife’s killer, the act transitions become clear: when he becomes a fugitive as he begins his own hunt (1), when he identifies the true killer (2), and when he resolves the entire mystery (3). Again, Epstein fails to see the transitions because he fails to identify whose story it is; this, despite the title and the obviousness of the story’s through-line.
So, to answer Epstein’s question of where the second act begins: because it is Kimble’s story, the second act and the deeper level, second part, both begin “when Kimble escapes the prison bus” and is formally declared a ‘fugitive’ by Gerard. That is when he sets out to change his fate. The third act and the deeper-level third part, both begin “when he discovers the one-armed man” because that is when he understands what must be done to resolve his fate.

Apollo 13
Q - Whose story is it?
A – It’s the Apollo 13 mission’s story, its response to the threat of destruction.
The Physical and Logical structures are each in 3 identical and corresponding parts:

Part 1 – (1” to 35”) It begins with the events introducing the crew and the NASA scene, leading up to the launch. Then, we see the preparation for the launch, establishing the training and the way trouble might arise during a mission. From there, it shows the relationships of the families of the astronauts. Then it shows the launch – the Inciting Incident - and first part of the journey, up to the point at which the explosion occurs and threatens the mission.
Part 2 – (35” to 103”) The crew assesses the damage. We see the impact of the explosion on the crew, as well as NASA, and the families. Next we see the efforts on Earth to figure out what to do to save the crew. This includes the arrival of Mattingly, the astronaut who missed the mission, and his efforts to figure out how to save the it. Then the Mission arrives on the dark side of the moon. This is the Mid-Point of the story as well as the mid-point of the mission.
The crew continues to try to cope with their inability to get home, including saving the battery power by shutting down all non-essential systems. On Earth, the NASA engineers look for a way to repair the air cleaning equipment so the waste carbon dioxide can be removed from the air aboard the ship. NASA finally solves the air-cleaning problem, and moves on to how to get them home fast enough to avoid suffocation when the air runs out. A very risky engine burn succeeds, gaining them the necessary speed, so they are assured of getting back in time, though their safe re-entry is still in doubt.
Part 3 – (103” to 133”) The crew hangs on as the engineers on Earth work to make sure the ship enters the atmosphere at the exact right angle to achieve re-entry without burning up or bouncing off the atmosphere and back into space unable to return. The families and NASA cope with the uncertainty. Finally, there is a successful re-entry and splash-down.

Apollo 13 is almost precisely in line with the Field paradigm, breaking down as 26/51/23%. Unless one sees the mission, itself, as the protagonist, and the story structuring about it, one may not recognize the transitions. Once one does, however, the structure stands out like the Vegas Strip on payday!

Q - Whose story is it?
A – It’s the rebellion’s story, its rise and fall.
The Physical and Logical structures are each in 3 identical and corresponding parts:

Part 1 – (1" to 45") The beginnings of the slave rebellion up to the decision to revolt at the gladiator school, 45” in story time, or exactly 25% into the story.
Part 2 – (45" to 147") The rebellion begins and gains strength as Rome first dismisses it, and then finally decides to crush it with all its strength; the rebels are defeated, 147” in, comprising 56% of the story.
Part 3 – (147" to 182") The rebellion is crushed, but not its spirit: the rebels prefer to die over giving up Spartacus. Crassus takes Spartacus’ wife and child, but fails to defeat his spirit, too. Graccus frees Spartacus’s wife and allows her to escape before he commits suicide. Spartacus is crucified, but sees his son and wife before he dies. The story ends at 182”, leaving the third part with 19% of the story; again, not far off of the Field paradigm.

Spartacus exhibits a break-down of 25/56/19%. This becomes clear once the protagonist is seen as the rebellion, itself, rather than the character of Spartacus. The transformation arcs on its origin (1), its confrontation with Rome (2), and its ultimate defeat by her (3).
In the next post I will analyze Forrest Gump and Wild Things, the last films on Epstein’s list. In later posts, I will do a deeper analysis of Pulp Fiction and Memento, and show that even some of the most outrĂ© examples of popular commercial film exhibit classic physical-level 3-act structure within a multi-dimensional, multi-level model. #
Lee A. Matthias

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