About Screenwriting Rules [And The 3-Act Structure]

When How To Train Your Dragon was released, some people learned to their horror that the film was written following Blake Snyder’s beat sheet. How could such a successful – and critically acclaimed – film be written by the numbers??

Creatives hate screenwriting ‘rules’. So they should. But it is also helpful to understand what rules really are, and what they do.

Observe And Study

All Blake Snyder did (just like Field, McKee, Seger etc.), is study films and look for patterns, then describe the patterns he found in films that were successful.

screenwriting rules - observe and studyMany screenwriters find this approach incredibly attractive, because it creates the illusion that you can reproduce success by replicating those patterns.

Of course it isn’t this simple.

If you ask yourself what vehicles are the fastest, you’ll see that a Ferrari is faster than a bus, and a Boeing 747 is faster than a Ferrari. Now you know that if you want to go fast, you pick the 747. Sadly, this knowledge doesn’t buy you the ticket; let alone build the airplane.

Screenwriting rules show you what is fast, not how to make it fast.

Analysis vs. Creation

Screenwriting rules, theories and books are mostly analytical. Intellectually, it can be incredibly gratifying to acquire these insights. But none of this is creative. It doesn’t get you anywhere near having a screenplay that works. What these theories do, is give you an understanding of what you need to be successful. Not how to create it.

Now you know this, you are one step closer to writing a successful screenplay. The next step is to figure out how to use this type of information practically. Let me tell you this: studying these theories by heart to apply it during the writing is not the solution. In fact, this may even hold you back by causing writer’s block.

Most working writers first come up with a concept (or else it is handed to them). Next, they write an outline, and finally they write the script. At any stage of this process, they look back at the work and reflect on it. Does it work? Where could it be improved?

This is the analytical stage.

You need to have something written before you can apply any theory to it.

Screenwriting Rules That Work

So, does it work?

Your answer to this question will initially be subjective. You’ll probably think “yes, it works”.

In your head.

10-commands-for-blackhattersThe bad news: as a beginning screenwriter you may safely ignore your subjective assessment, as 99% of the time you’ll be wrong.

The great news is that you have written something. Now you can apply your analytical knowledge to it, and make a prediction based on what has worked previously.

You examine any similarities – and differences – between successful scripts, and yours.  (After this, you’ll see that you were indeed wrong.)

In assessing your work, you look at the precedents, and you apply common sense. Much like this:

  • If successful screenplays are mostly somewhere between 90 and 130 pages, while yours is 276 pages, perhaps you should consider some cutting.
  • If those successful works have a balance of dialogue and description, while yours has 85% description, there’s a clue as to where to cut.
  • If you have only one cliffhanger on page 87, and most scripts have a climactic scene every 10-15 pages, you may have to look at your story’s structure again.
  • Etc.

You may think these are not hard-and-fast screenwriting rules, but many people that judge screenplays actually do.


Alternatively, you can ignore all the above, and just follow your gut. Because you’re creating art.

I am not being sarcastic here.

364092-artist-wallpaperIf you are independently wealthy, and don’t need to draw an income from writing, why would you pander to any audience? Do your thing. Be bold and crazy. What do you have to lose? Ignore screenwriting rules.

The same goes for those who love the romantic idea of the poor, struggling screenwriter.

But most of you want to get your script read, right?

Trust me, no serious producer will read your 276 pages, your endless blocks of description, your badly formatted genius.

Even if they read, and nothing majorly dramatic hooks them in by page 10, that’s it. They’ll bin it. And your name may go on their blacklist. No hard feelings, they’re just trying to be efficient.

Of course there are exceptions, and if you want to bet on those, go for your life.

It makes perfect sense to try and understand what qualities are present in most successful works.

Whoever blanket-rejects the notion that there exists a set of common sense principles, is an idiot.

Does this mean you need to aim and replicate all of these principles? No. But you may want to be in the ballpark, if you want to be in the industry.

Even in the ballpark, you will need to stand out, and be different somehow. In order to be noticed, you may need to bend some rules.

How To Write

Guess what is the one thing that keeps wannabe writers from breaking through the glass ceiling. Hint: it is not a lack of knowledge of rules or principles.

chainedThe only thing that holds you back is the discipline to read scripts and write – every day.

Those who are successful have managed to create a routine that allows them to deliver work, consistently.

No amount of books or courses or gurus is going to help you overcome this challenge.

The tools or programs that will ultimately get you the closest to your goal, are the ones that help you do what you need to do on a regular basis.

The 3-Act Structure

What about the Mother Of All Screenwriting Rules… The 3-Act Structure?

Writers have rejected the 3-act structure based on what I say above: it won’t help you come up with a great story.
What the 3-act structure does help you with, is understanding structure. And structure is one of those criteria where almost every successful film seems to align.

At the end of the 1970’s, Syd Field decided to stay vaguely in the realm of Aristotle, and divide a screen story in three parts.

He gave it a label: the 3-act structure. A paradigm was born.

Can you see that there is no inherent value to this approach?

It is only because professionals need to be able to talk about story, that you need to understand their lingo.

It’s Academic

That said, you can perfectly develop your own system, and write amazing scripts. But once you’re pitching – or working with others on development – they’ll all need to know your custom-built system. Imagine every writer did this. Can you see the problem? We need a common framework.

I would argue that it is better to have a bad understanding of the 3-act structure than none at all. At least you can enter into a conversation, and learn from the people you speak with.

Some producers love showing that they understand story structure (even if they don’t), and you can forge a bond by pretending you are on their wavelength by being prepared to speak their lingo.

In essence, the 3-act structure is no more than a tool to communicate about stories.

To summarise, it really doesn’t matter how you get to write your story, and how you make them work. But sooner or later you will need to talk about them, and you better speak some generally accepted structure language.

Pick Your Label

2-act structureSure, not everyone sticks to the 3-act tool box. Some talk about Hero’s Journey, Dramatica, 4 Parts,  22 Steps, 6 Stages, etc.

You know why?

Because each guru needs a point of difference to get their stuff sold.

Only a very few have really added anything of note to the existing screenwriting rules; they simply change the labels.

Lazy, I know.

I’m incredibly tempted to add a new approach to the list, just for fun. My own structure paradigm: The 2-Act Structure. You might even like it.

But when all is said and done, the 3-act structure ends up being the most commonly accepted dramatic language for the screen.

Learn it.


2 thoughts on “About Screenwriting Rules [And The 3-Act Structure]”

  1. Stories to a large extent dictate their own structure. Studying other film scripts and how they have evolved in the past does not mean that we have to be shackled by frameworks that has been used so successfully by other creatives. What it does do is provide us with a whole bag of devices, structures and a grammatic feel for the way the narrative has been used by others.

    The best reason for becoming familiar with past film makers and their approach to structure, is that it allows us to find our way through the problems we have in our own writing. No script has ever been born anew in all its pristine glory, without someone sweating blood to turn a heap of words into a concept which grabs us by the nether regions and makes us pay attention.

    What I enjoy is the back stories of what happens to force the creative team to realise that things are not going quite the way they had planned. Like how in Cassablanca, no-one knew, until the last moment, who was going to fly off with Ilsa.

    But some things go beyond structure and have more to do with interpretation. In Ben Hur (the William Wyler version), the director was having all sorts of problems with the script. It just wasn’t hanging together, particularly the relationship between Judah and Messala. A script doctor was needed. The whole thing was too plodding and it looked like it was going to die on the editing table. After several attempts to sort things out, enter Gore Vidal with shall we say a little bit of an adventurous approach to the situation.

    Let us invite Reed Johnson to explain what happened next: ” Vidal had some unorthodox ideas about the reasons why Judah Ben-Hur, played by Charlton Heston, and the Roman tribune Messala (Stephen Boyd) had gone from boyhood pals to deadly enemies, culminating in their chariot-race showdown. —- (in) an interview with Vidal in which the writer described how he’d convinced Boyd and director William Wyler that there had to be a deeper motive to explain Messala’s lethal hatred of his old friend Ben-Hur — namely, that the two men once had a homosexual relationship that Messala wanted to resume but Ben-Hur did not.”
    See: http://articles.latimes.com/2012/aug/01/entertainment/la-et-mn-gore-vidal-charlton-heston-ben-hur-20120801

    Sometimes there is a three way or even four way tussle that goes on between various members of the creative team, which causes the script to veer off in a number of directions before finding its final groove. A case in point is Spartacus. There were several monumental egos contributing to the mix. The writer was black listed Dalton Trumbo who’s attribution was only given credit after Kirk Douglas declared open warfare on the studio bosses. There was also Stanley Kubrick as director. We will never be able to discover what went on to arrive at the final shape of the narrative except to be sure that the conflict between director and star, caused some bad compromises to be made which flawed the telling of a great saga.

    So where does this leave us in our search for shape in the scheme of things. Structure should always be subservient to the core of the conflict which drives the narrative. If there is no conflict, you may have a nice well adjusted leading protagonist, but you will have little drama and no entertainment value. You will also never, ever be invited to write another screenplay. A good screen play follows the transformation of characters going through a series of adventures to finally realise a solution to a near impossible situation. A great screenplay adds an additional layer. There is the realisation that the conflict and challenges cause damage to those involved and at the end of the day, some of the problems may be overcome, but around the corner tomorrow who knows what rough beast is going to come along and screw things up.

    The horror of Kurtz is the realisation that the human condition is not one of brotherly love and tender acceptance – man is the destroyer of his own peace. Of course whether or not you care to accept this premise is something else again – but it is the hook around which most conflicts revolve.


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