WEDNESDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
THREE ACT STRUCTURE - SIMPLIFIED
Between the discussions of three act
structure that are cluttered with jargon like "inciting incident"
and "point of no return" and others I've tried not to learn and
the folks who preach that Act 2 must start exactly a quarter of
the way down page 27, I think this whole three act thing has
become too confusing. It's really a very simple, very basic
element of story telling that's only been around for 2,400 years. It serves a basic story purpose - to focus the story and give us a beginning, middle and end. I think it's so basic that every story - from nursery ryhmes to short stories to poems have some version of the basic three act structure. So here's the simple version, no
jargon, no theories, no bull shit:
Act 1 (about a quarter of your script) - introduces the
protagonist and the conflict. The protagonist is probably
involved in the conflict, but not stuck in the middle of it,
In MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING Julia Roberts has made this pact
with her best friend Dermott Mulroney - if neither are married by
age 30, they will marry each other so that they won't be old and
alone. Julia is about to turn 30. The phone rings... it's
Dermott! Proposing? Nope - announcing HIS marriage! Julia is
about to lose her last chance to get married! Julia decides to
break up the wedding and marry Dermott herself!
At the end of Act 1, some event TRAPS the protagonist in the
conflict. They can't escape the conflict at this point.
Julia arrives for the wedding, meets the bride-to-be Cameron
Diaz... who is the nicest person you can imagine! She asks Julia
to be the Maid Of Honor - now she is PART of the wedding she is
trying to destroy!
Act 2 (maybe half your script, because it's the
conflict part) - The protagonist is TRAPPED in the conflict - no
escape, no way to avoid the conflict, no way to put off dealing
with the conflict until later. Act 2 is a constant struggle with
the conflict. Act 2 IS CONFLICT.
Julia Roberts is the Maid Of Honor at the wedding she is
trying to bust up - Act 2 is her trying again and again to make
Cameron Diaz look bad so that she can get Dermott... but
everything she does backfires and makes Cameron look BETTER to
Dermott. So the conflict gets WORSE - which is part of Act 2 -
the conflict has to escalate. It has to be getting worse all the
time! If the conflict is no differnt on page 80 and page 30 you
have a DEAD conflict.
Finally the conflict presses the protagonist up against the
wall - they have to resolve it or die. Usually at this point they
do the one thing that causes them the most emotional pain... but
is the key to resolving the conflict. Usually the protagonist has
some sort of emotional problem that they have avoided dealing
with because it's just too painful - but they MUST deal with it
in order to "repair themselves" and be strong enough to deal with
that plot conflict that's gonna kill them. (Often they have
admitted to this emotional problem halfway through Act 2 - but
decided it was too painful to deal with... maybe that Act 2
conflict will just go away? It doesn't, so by the end of Act 2
they are forced to deal with it, then they have the power to deal
with that big conflict.)
Act 3 (also about a quarter of the script) - resolving
the conflict. It's been snowballing for all of Act 2, and now the
protagonist has the strength to deal with it... but there's a lot
of stuff to do.
In MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING, after Julia realizes she's the
villain... she has RUINED her best friend's wedding... she has to
set things right and get that wedding back on track. She has to
deal with Cameron and get her back to the house, deal with
Dermott and get him ready to say "I do" and do everything else
necessary to make the ruined wedding happen again. Because the
conflict in Act 2 has been growing, Act 3 will take that quarter
of the script to resolve all of the problems.
One thing to remember - the problems need to be resolved so
that they won't happen again. That's not a band-aid resolution,
that's a REAL resolution. But resolution doesn't mean a pat happy ending -
it just means the main problem in this story is resolved... and that can
mean *unresolved on purpose to make a point*.
You may have noticed that in MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING, Julia Roberts does *not* get the guy.
In MBFW, Julia realizes she is happy alone - she doesn't NEED
to get married. Film ends with her dancing with her Gay friend -
happily single. (If Julia still thought she needed to be married
by age 30 to be happy, the problem wouldn't be resolved and people would wonder what happens next and think this is one of those To Be Continued movies.)
Though I've said "about a quarter of the script", "about half
the script" and "about a quarter of the script" for the three acts,
*about* is the operative word. You might have three acts of equal length - not a problem if the script works. All of these
things are tools not rules - nobody ever rejected a screenplay because Act 2 was too short... but they have rejected a screenplay because there was
not enough conflict and it was boring.
Act 1: Set up the conflict.
Act 2: The conflict & escalation of conflict.
Act 3: Resolve the conflict.
No page numbers, just basic storytelling.
The only rule in screenwriting is - your script has to be great...
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