The Myth of the Three Act Structure

If you’ve ever looked for screenwriting advice in books, on the internet, though seminars or even on the “Ask The Expert” feature on Final Draft, you’ll invariably come across the importance of the three act structure. All the books and gurus talk about how Aristotle detailed the theory of dramatic structure by breaking down story into three acts.

This three act structure then gets broken down into detail with diagrams and examples to form a kind of paradigm for screenwriters. Many of the books and seminars out there, the most prominent being Syd Field, elaborate a great deal on the three act structure. The three acts get broken down in detail by story points and function and some even go as far as to codify the length of each acts.

The problem with all this is that all Aristotle really said about the three acts of dramatic structure is that there is a beginning, a middle and an end. That’s it. Nothing more. What you do with each of the three acts is really up to you as long as the story has a beginning, a middle and an end.

The systematic reduction of story to a specific three act paradigm, like Syd Field does, leads to formulaic and prosaic stories oversimplified to the point of sitcoms. Writing to such rules leaves out the element and joy of surprise for the writer; after all, the writer is the first reader/audience for the story and if you don’t surprise yourself how do you expect to surprise someone else.

“But Mr. Field gives example after example of how the great movies fit inside his three act paradigm,” you say, or “Mr. McKee spends a whole day in his seminar breaking Casablanca down line by line to show how his theories work.” Good for them. Go ahead and buy their books so they can afford a new home in Malibu. The truth of the matter is that there are scores of great films out there that don’t fit paradigm or follow the rules.

Now I’m not saying that these rules and paradigms don’t sound reasonable or make sense. They do. But just because you look at a list of great movies and can find the common denominator between all of them doesn’t mean that you should write with that common denominator in mind. You should strive to write dramatic scenes that flow organically from one to another to tell a story instead of trying to write to the “idea” of the three act structure which can make your story both formulaic and predictable.

A beginning, a middle and an end. That, and common sense, are all you need to know about the three act structure. Why did I throw common sense in there? Because it’s common sense to know that if the beginning is forty minutes long and the ending is two minutes long, chances your story will not be satsifying.

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