If Shakespeare were writing screenplays now, he’d be laughed out of Hollywood.
Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet were both five acts long.
Some printed editions of Hamlet weigh in around 400 pages.
Would he have made it through a pitch meeting? Probably not. Somewhere along the line someone would have told him that he needed to rewrite his work into a three-act structure and trim out all of the perceived fat. Yet, both of those plays managed to get adapted multiple times into feature films, albeit with some artistic license applied each time.
Practically every screenwriting book ever written espouses the three-act structure for screenplays. They drill it into your head with colorful (and sometimes not-so-colorful) diagrams backed up with volumes of text to justify its existence. It’s a chicken and egg problem that shouldn’t be. The three-act structure existed long before there was any academic analysis that “discovered” it.
The three-act structure is something that has been brought up to the forefront and made a centerpiece when it shouldn’t be. Because its importance has been stressed so hard and so rigidly to many an aspiring screenwriter, many stories have suffered because of it.
The story should define that rhythm for you, not a rulebook.
Here’s why. It’s been beaten into many of us through repetition that story events must occur in a certain order and with a certain page timing. That specific timing might work for a few stories, but not for the majority of them. The story should define that rhythm for you, not a rulebook.
Those are the training wheels. For those of us just starting out in the world of screenwriting, it’s almost necessary to show that structure explicitly. New writers are frequently confused by the mechanics and structure that they need a helpful guide. With very few hard and fast rules of screenwriting, we crave something as a foundation to get started so we have a strong footing.
Move on to your third, fourth, or fifth screenplay.
Are you still following the same cookie-cutter mold?
Here’s where it breaks down. Move on to your third, fourth, or fifth screenplay. Are you still following the same cookie-cutter mold? Are you afraid to go beyond those boundaries that your teachers laid down in stone writ? Don’t be. Here’s what I’ve found out from writing over a dozen screenplays: the three-act structure occurs naturally, and keeping it in the forefront of your mind when you write can lead to stilted, stiff storytelling. And in this medium, we’ve got more than enough of that. It’s time to cut that out.
We tell stories all of the time, whether we know it or not. Every story, whether told out of linear order like Pulp Fiction or those stories we relate to each other over beers in a bar, they all have a natural, built-in three-act structure. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s three acts right there. You probably didn’t even realize you were telling a three-act story to your friends in the bar about the hot girl in the copy room that leaned over and showed you a little too much cleavage, but you were.
Break that mold if you must. Your first act does not absolutely have to turn right at page seventeen because it says so. If you do that, you end up pushing your story kicking and screaming into a mold that someone else built for their own stories. It is not as important as you might think it is.
No matter what story you tell, in whatever form,
we’re naturally wired to tell stories that have
a beginning, a middle, and an end
Remember that no matter what story you tell, in whatever form, we’re naturally wired to tell stories that have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And that’s where your three acts lie: in your beginning, your middle, and your end. Our acts should be natural ones.