There is a little coffeehouse/used-bookstore near Venice Beach where a lot of young screenwriters show up with laptop computers and work on their scripts. Several times I have seen some of these young writers actually bring a three-foot square corkboard, pushpins, and index cards with all of their scenes listed on them then play musical chairs with the structure of their screenplay. This is completely ridiculous.
Each of the three acts of a script must be distinct from the other two, each act having a unique purpose. If a scene can be moved from act 1 to act 2 or from act 2 to act 3, then your structure is wrong, and you need to rethink your story. Acts 1 and 2 must end definitively in a position of no recourse for the lead character. If they don’t end that way, they’re wrong.
Your lead character is your point. If your lead character has no point, then your story has no point. That which is pointless is dull, and dullness is the enemy of good storytelling. Anybody can be dull; it doesn’t take the slightest bit of skill. Good stories are never dull. Also, your lead character must be going through a change of some sort that is important to him or her.
These specifications are necessary to a good script; they are not optional — you must address them. Even if you follow these rules, your script won’t necessarily be good, but, if you don’t follow them, your script will absolutely be bad.
Are there exceptions to these rules? Of course. But don’t bother yourself with the exceptions; they are too rare to have any meaning to most of us. Screenwriting is a craft and a very difficult one at that. You must master a craft before hoping to go beyond craft to art.
Art generally arises from that which is extremely well crafted. To become a good craftsman is a worthy goal in life. Ultimately, it is for others to decide what is “art.” Damn near all of the great film directors — Wyler, Hitchcock, Ford, Huston, Hawks — saw themselves as craftsman, not artists. It is foolish to think of oneself as an artist in film. Filmmaking is a difficult craft that has on rare occasions risen to the level of art, frequently to the complete surprise of the filmmakers. If your goal is to be part of that charmed few, then you’d better know more than everybody.
In 1940 pretty much every writer in Hollywood knew this information. Some put it to better use than others, but even B-movies were usually well structured back then. We’re now seeing $50 to $200 million movies that are not nearly as well written as the old 1930s Republic westerns.
Every script that I have ever read by friends, acquaintances, or peers — and I’ve read many, many scripts — is structurally incorrect, dull, and pointless. Each time I read yet another dull, formless mess, it weighs heavily upon me. What’s going on? Is everybody brain-dead?
I’m not entirely sure why these concepts of dramatic structure have fallen into disuse, but I would offer sheer laziness as a prime possibility. It’s much easier to piss and moan that you are a misunderstood artist than to put in the time and effort it takes to do the work properly.
This is not brain surgery, and you don’t have to be Albert Einstein to understand these concepts and put them to use. The dramatic three-act structure is very much like a house, the three acts being: the foundation, the walls, and the roof. Writing a well-structured, three-act script with a point is no harder than building a house that follows the building codes and will pass inspection, but it’s probably no easier.
You cannot wake up one morning and say, “Today I am an architect and will design a house,” then draw a proper blueprint containing all of the building codes that carpenters can read and from which they can subsequently build a house that can be lived in. All of the information is readily available, and with enough research and practice you too can draw a proper blueprint from which a house can be built that will pass inspection. There will be a plug on every wall and a bathroom on every floor. But this information is not innate to anyone; it must be learned. The same goes for screenwriting. Nobody was born knowing how drainage is achieved in a foundation anymore than they were born knowing three-act dramatic structure. Yet people are constantly approaching screenwriting as if it were a God-given gift.
Certainly, to be a great architect or a great screenwriter (or a great anything), one probably must have some God-given talent. Nevertheless, most architects, just like most screenwriters, are working with approximately the same glob of goo between their ears as everyone else. If you are exceptionally talented, that will make itself apparent; if not, that will make itself known, too.
If you start to pay close attention to dramatic three-act structure (and this goes for comedies as well), it will become obvious very quickly in anything you watch or read whether it is there or not. And, when it is not there, thirty to forty minutes into the film your butt will start to hurt. Harry Cohn, former head of Columbia Pictures, once said that he knew a good or a bad film by whether or not his ass burned while he watched it. When act 1 does not end properly, thirty to forty minutes into the story, you know deep down in your guts that acts 2 and 3 will not be right, either. Now you face twice the length of what you’ve just sat through with a mounting sense of dread, and your ass starts to burn.
There are really only two kinds of movies in the world: the kind where your ass burns and the kind where your ass doesn’t burn. That’s it.
The three acts of a story are: setup, confrontation, and resolution. They are each completely different things and should be approached as such. Continuing with the house metaphor, the foundation is not constructed anything like the walls, which are not constructed the same way as the roof; each has its own appearance and its own purpose.
In act 1 you can set up anything you damn well want (including the introduction of your characters), but that’s all you’re doing is setting up; you’re asking questions. No questions are confronted or answered, however, in act 1. The act should end on a point of no recourse.
In act 2 you confront the problem you’ve set up in act 1. This is generally the main action of the story. Act 2 should also end on a point of no recourse. In act 3 you resolve the problem. It’s simple and totally indispensable. If a joke is not told in its proper order, it will not be funny; if a story is not told in its proper order, it will not be compelling or satisfying.
Stories are just long jokes, in a way. You’ll have to excuse me for choosing a dumb blonde joke as an example, but it comes to mind and makes me chuckle.
A guy walks into a bar holding an alligator and proclaims, “I’ll let this alligator bite my dick for a full minute for one hundred dollars. Any takers?” The amused patrons of the bar throw money until there are a hundred dollars on the floor then look at the guy and his alligator expectantly.
The guy pries open the alligator’s mouth, sticks his dick in, snaps the razor-sharp teeth closed, then grits his teeth while the whole bar counts out the sixty seconds. At the count of sixty the guy pounds on the alligator’s head with his fist as hard as he can. The alligator opens his mouth, the guy pulls out his dick, then the jaws snap closed.
The guy turns to the bar’s patrons and challenges, “All right, now I’ll pay two hundred dollars to anyone who will do the same thing! Come on, I’ll make it three hundred dollars!”
A dumb blonde girl steps out and says, “Okay, I’ll do it. But you have to promise not to hit me on the head so hard.”
If you wrote this joke out paragraph by paragraph on index cards, could you put the end at the beginning or the beginning at the end? No. It follows in a specific order. Certainly you could tell it backward; it just wouldn’t be funny.
I recently had the great pleasure of seeing the first screening of a brand-new 70mm print of William Wyler’s 1959 film Ben Hur at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Wyler is my favorite director, and even though I don’t think Ben Hur is one of his best films (even if it won eleven Oscars, more than any other film), I still think it’s one helluva good example of filmmaking and storytelling. At the end of three hours and thirty-two minutes the audience gave the film a standing ovation.
Nothing that occurs in act 1 of Ben Hur could possibly happen in acts 2 or 3. Act 1 ends with Messala (Stephen Boyd) having Ben Hur’s mother and sister (improbably played by Martha Scott and Cathy O’Donnell) being taken away to jail and Judah Ben Hur (Charlton Heston) condemned to the galleys. Judah vows revenge, saying he will kill Messala when he returns from the galleys. Messala amusedly quips, “Return?” and Judah Ben Hur is taken away. Certainly a definitive ending of an act, at a point of no recourse for the hero.
In act 2 Ben Hur rows in the galley of a Roman warship, and during a giant sea battle he saves the life of the Roman commander (Jack Hawkins). Ben Hur is subsequently taken to Rome, becomes a great charioteer, and is given his freedom. He immediately sets off to find his imprisoned mother and sister. Upon his return home, Judah Ben Hur is informed that
his mother and sister are dead, whereas we the audience really know that they are not dead but are in fact lepers. No matter, Ben Hur believes that they are dead and now resolves to kill Messala, which, as we are well aware, he will accomplish in the chariot arena.
Intermission. Will we be coming back to see act 3? Without question.
Act 3 is the chariot race and Messala’s death; then Ben Hur saves his mother and sister from the horrors of leprosy by taking them to the Crucifixion of Christ, where they are healed. Now that’s entertainment.
No scene from act 1 can go into act 2, and no scene from act 2 can go into act 3. You do not need index cards and a corkboard. If you think you do, then you are approaching the problem the wrong way.
The lead character of most scripts and films these days is generally the dullest character in the story. Why is that? Simply put, your lead character embodies the point of your story. If you don’t know the point of your story, neither will the lead character. If your lead character is pointless, then you can bet that your whole story is going to be pointless. That which is pointless is generally dull. Dullness, if I may reiterate, is disastrous to good storytelling.
Your point doesn’t even have to be a good one, but it’s better to have any point than none at all.
Judah Ben Hur’s point is that he will not betray his people for his friendship with Messala. This makes Ben Hur noble, but it’s not a great point because it doesn’t relate to the rest of the story; he never has to put the betrayal of his people or a friend on the line again.
Now take William Wyler’s film The Big Country as an example of a lead character with a good point. Gregory Peck is a sea captain in the 1880s who, previous to our story, met Caroll Baker back east, fell in love, and has now come west to claim his bride. Peck is met by his fiancé then is promptly taken advantage of by ruffians (led by a very young Chuck Conners) against whom he makes no attempt to fight back. His bride-to-be immediately assumes that he is a coward. At the big ranch where Baker lives, the handsome foreman (Charlton Heston) tries to get Peck to ride a wild, bucking stallion, and Peck humbly declines. Everyone thinks he’s a coward. Heston calls Peck a fool in front of everyone, and still Peck won’t fight him. Now everyone is certain he’s a coward. When no one is around, however, Peck rides the wild stallion. And in the middle of the night he comes and fights Heston all alone in the moonlight.
Gregory Peck the sea captain doesn’t need to prove himself to anyone but himself. He knows who he is, and he has a point. Everything he does reflects that point. It would be much easier to say, as in Joseph Lewis’s Gun Crazy, that the guy just loved guns. It wasn’t because his penis was small or his father abused him; he simply liked guns, and given half a chance he used them. It’s not complex, but it’s clear.
Or you can go in the other direction, where not only does your lead character make a point but every other character in the story is making a variation on the same point. This is called having a theme. Wyler’s favorite theme was the effects of war on a family, which he dealt with beautifully in Mrs. Miniver (“Best Picture” 1942), The Best Years of Our Lives (“Best Picture” 1946), and Friendly Persuasion (“Best Picture” nominee 1956).
Friendly Persuasion is the story of a Quaker family, led by Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire, during the American Civil War. Quakers are totally nonviolent; war is violent — what do they do? Individually, everyone in the family — a daughter and two sons (the older son being a very young Anthony Perkins) — each must make his or her own decisions. We think that Gary Cooper will revert to violence, being that he’s Gary Cooper, and a man, except he doesn’t. Whereas Dorothy McGuire, who is not only the most vocally nonviolent but also a minister in the church, when provoked, does revert to violence. Gary Cooper hears of this from his younger son, “Then Momma hit the soldier with a broom!” Coop raises his eyebrows and proclaims, “By sugar, that’s news!”
One can go farther still along the road of complex storytelling, into the nebulous realms of irony, allegory, and parable. None of them get in the way of the basic three-act structure. These concepts work in tandem with the three acts.
Part of my reason for writing this little essay is so that I can attach it to scripts I’m asked to read instead of having to say the same thing over and over again. Also, if it helps reverse the downward trend even slightly and spurs one writer somewhere to write a better script, then it has been worth the effort. I can only hope.