The Three-Act Character

In her PLOT CONSTRUCTION WORKSHOP, Linda Aronson discusses THE INSIDER as an example of a flawed script.

The film not only put Russell Crowe on the celeb map with a Best Actor Nomination, it was also nominated for another six awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. That’s a pretty good result for a ‘failed script’. As a matter of fact, Linda’s move smells a bit like my not so smart move to call WOLF CREEK a ‘missed opportunity’ inside the offices of the FFC.

But Linda is right when she says the script does not follow a straightforward three act plot.

Here are two main stories with three acts each, hooked into each other.

In a sense it is similar to SCHINDLER’S LIST, in which it is Itzhak Stern’s (Ben Kingsley) objective to get as many Jews into the factory as possible. Once we are well into his journey’s second act and over an hour into the film, Schindler (Liam Neeson) witnesses the clearing of the Krakow ghetto which demarcates his first act’s turning point. Now his objective is to get the workers out of the factory and into safety.

Think about it: the Schindler character doesn’t really have a strong enough dramatic objective to get the story to that point. But Stern does. Hence his function as the ‘first protagonist’.

Similarly, in THE INSIDER it is Wigand’s (Russell Crowe) Second Act objective to get his inside information safely to Bergman (Al Pacino), at which point we’re already into Bergman’s Second Act, which is all about getting the information to the public through his television show. Obviously we are now only talking about what Vogler would call the Hero’s Outer Journey, i.e. the ‘visible desire’. But I believe the Inner Journeys of these characters follow largely the same structure.

To me these two movies illustrate that:

Stories don’t have three acts, but strong characters do.

(originally published 24/04/2006)

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