MONDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

THREE ACT CONFLICT


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I am a strong believer in "tools, not rules". There are no rules in screenwriting, the only thing that matters is that your screenplay works. The 3 Act Structure is a tool that has been around for at least 2,400 years in storytelling - and it has lasted so long because it works. But the purpose of the 3 Act Structure is not to make sure that you have a major plot point halfway down page 27, it's to make sure your story IS a story... not just a collection of events that concern the same character. One of the Three Greek Unities is Unity Of Action/Event - your story has to be about ONE event rather than a series of events. Some think of the Three Acts as "beginning, middle, and end" as a way to target a single event... to make sure the story IS a story.

But "beginning, middle, and end" can become confusing when you're dealing with films like MEMENTO which begins at the end. But even though it runs backwards, MEMENTO's act 1 (first quarter of the film) introduces the conflict and it's act 3 (last quarter of the film) resolves the conflict... so I prefer to think of the 3 Act Structure as:

Act 1: Introduction of Conflict
Act 2: Conflict and Escalation of Conflict
Act 3: Resolution of conflict.

The 3 Act Structure is a great tool for making sure your story actually has conflict, enough conflict, and a focused central conflict. Story IS conflict - without it, you just have boring incidents. You may give your character a goal, and have them spend Act 2 pursuing that goal... but still end up with a boring script. Knowing what your character wants doesn't matter unless you also know why they can't have it (conflict). Your story may have a beginning, middle and end, but what really matters is the conflict... here's why:

Act 1: What Protag wants - a piece of pecan pie.
Act 2: How does he go after it? - Orders from waitress.
Act 3: How does he get it - she returns in about 5 minutes with the pie.

No conflict, dull story.

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But what if he doesn't have any money and wants to STEAL the piece of pecan pie... and the pie case is behind the counter where all of the waitresses are.

Act 1: Wants a piece of pecan pie, has no money. (establishes conflict).

Act 2: Waits until no one is looking and sneaks behind counter to get pie... but a waitress comes back and he has to hide in a cupboard under the counter. Another waitress goes behind the counter and the two waitresses have a conversation. Our hero in the cupboard feels his leg beginning to cramp... has to figure out how to work out the cramp without the waitresses hearing his movements. Our hero feels something crawling on his leg... a big ugly cockroach! (conflict and escalation of conflict).

Act 3: He opens cupboard door enough to toss cockroach onto a waitress' foot. She screams, both waitresses run away. Hero rolls out from cupboard, grabs a slice of pie and crawls to the other end of the counter and escapes. (resolution of conflict due to protagonist's actions).

Conflict makes it a story. It's not so much what the protagonist wants, but why he can't have it... the conflict. Conflict doesn't mean it's going to be car chases and fist fights, the conflict can be wanting to get laid before you graduate high school (and having not a single taker) or wanting to hook up with a guy who lives in Seattle when you live on the other side of the country. Those are conflicts.

To some people it seems like Hollywood is three act crazy - and that the three act structure is constricting their creativity. In reality, it is nothing more than a tool to *help* your creativity. Hollywood had nothing to do with the three act structure, it's just another one of those Greek things from 2,400 years ago - along with terms like "protagonist" and "antagonist" - things that are basics of dramatic structure. Writers have been using these tools for longer than Christianity has been in existence - because they work. The reason why Hollywood seems to be so three act crazy is because so many scripts suck because their structure doesn't hold up. When you see a million scripts with the same exact problem, you get a little Kurtzy about it.

EPISODIC & NO ACT 2

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One of the major problems with scripts that do not work is that they are *episodic* - instead of having one conflict and one story, they have a bunch of different small conflicts and small stories that do not add up. By the end of the script we feel like there is no story - just a bunch of incidents featuring the same character. You've even seen this in films before - a lot of little scenes that don't come together at the end. The three act structure helps prevent this problem.

A variation on this is what I call the "plate spinning act two" - where complications ensue, but they are only peripherally connected to the conflict. This was an issue with COWBOYS & ALIENS, and may be why the film ended up just being okay. In Act 1 we establish the conflict - a sci-fi version of THE SEARCHERS where aliens have attacked a town and kidnapped a bunch of townspeople including mean rancher Harrison Ford's son and wimpy bartender Sam Rockwell's wife. So they form a rescue party, which includes amnesiac alien abductee Daniel Craig and hot stranger in town Olivia Wilde, to get back their people before the aliens... well, do whatever aliens do. A little vague, there - SEARCHERS was more concrete about the peril.

So our conflict is with the aliens, and the title of the film is COWBOYS & ALIENS, but the alien conflict doesn't pop up again until Act 3 where there is a giant battle and rescue scene... Act 2 is mostly alien-free. It's COWBOYS & DESPERADOS and COWBOYS & INDIANS. Craig gets into all kinds of trouble with his old gang of desperados and we get a bunch of scenes lifted from BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID, just without Ted Cassidy. And once Craig has dealt with his old gang, we get back to the search for a minute... and then the search party is attacked by Indians and captured and we get a bunch of scenes where they have to deal with the Indian conflict which manage to kill enough time to get us to Act 3. Oh, I have left out an actual alien scene in the middle of Act 2 - which seemed to be a reminder that this movie was about *aliens*, but most of Act 2 is about conflicts that have nothing to do with the aliens and is just kind of spinning plates on the tips of pool cues for 60 minutes to kill time until that big rescue scene in Act 3. Though the Indians and the desperados do figure in the ending, they are not part of the alien conflict at all - just tacked on complications to waste time. When "complications ensue" make sure those complications are directly related to the main conflict.

Another common script problem is *no act two* - these scripts usually have a long act one - and if those scripts get put on screen, you (as the audience) often wonder when the story is going to start. It seems like the story isn't kicking into gear. Even if conflict is present, the protagonist really isn't involved in the problem - they're standing on the sidelines watching as things happen to other characters. Then, after an hour of being on the sidelines, the protagonist steps up and resolves the problem... and the film ends. These are slow stories that bore you to death, and then *wham* are over. The problem is basic structure. There is no Act 2 - no struggle with the conflict - and we're left with conflict introduced and conflict resolved... with no time for the actual conflict.

One of the common ways for *disguising* the lack of Act 2 conflict is to create an *Act 2 Stall* where some subplot pops up to waste time. Again, the problem is that the stall is not the story - so it's often boring (no matter how many exciting things it may have). It always seems like the important problem for the protagonist is being shoved aside for something of less importance... like a subplot takes over. This is usually unsatisfying for the audience, and often is *obviously* the writer stalling for time so that they can avoid the story's main conflict. I've read many of these scripts when I got roped into reading contest scripts - and they didn't just bore me... they usually made me angry. The writer was avoiding the story's conflict for some reason - chickening out. And making me (the reader) pay for their cowardice. If they had only used the basic story creation tools available!

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Practicing *conflict avoidance* in a screenplay usually results in a bland script - and that's not what we want! We want a big, juicy, conflict-filled story! A story is a *person* with a *problem*. It's all about the conflict and the character. Conflict is what brings the character to the surface! Having your character sit in a Lazy Boy recliner eating Cheetos and watching wrestling on TV is not a good way to explore their character. We need to put them in a situation where they must make tough decisions... even if that situation is just stealing a piece of pie.

The 3 Act Structure is a great tool for making sure your script has conflict, that it has enough conflict, and that the conflict is focused. So what does your protagonist want... and why can't he have it? Who is the antagonist or force of antagonism and why is the protagonist in the way of their goal? The struggle to overcome the conflict and achieve the goal is what Act 2 is all about... what your STORY is all about. Use your tools to create the best screenplay possible.

Story is conflict.

Act 1: Introduction of Conflict
Act 2: Conflict and Escalation of Conflict
Act 3: Resolution of conflict.


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