Three or Four?

A properly structured screenplay must have three acts… Or four?

I have said before that the model you use to improve your screenwriting is your own choice.

At the end of the day it is all academic. Whatever works for you.

The Dept Revisited – A rerun of the best of the Story Dept.

A few things to consider before you take your pick:

First of all, whichever you choose, you will need to deliver the exact same turning points. In broad terms, these are the Inciting Incident, Turning Point One, Mid Point, Turning Point Two and Climax + Resolution.

In other words, the outcome of your story shouldn’t depend on the model you choose, but on your premise. The same premise should result in the same structure, irrespective of whether you think in three or four acts.

Otherwise the theory interferes with the result and this can’t be the idea.

Now, what IS the difference?

The four-act model equates to three acts with the middle act cut in two.

In many great stories, the objective as stated in Turning Point One changes at the mid point. In other words:

The mid point is not just a PLOT POINT, but a TURNING POINT.

Therefore you may argue we are moving into a new act.

A crystal-clear example is JAWS:

Act One: Amity has a shark problem.
Act Two: Brody tries to solve the problem by closing the beaches.

Mid Point: Brody realises his failure and decides to change tactics.

Act Three: Brody tries to solve the problem by hunting the shark.
Act Four: Brody kills the shark.

This results in four acts of roughly equal duration, which is kind of elegant.
The acts are also shorter and therefore more manageable, which helps.

I still prefer the three-act structure. Here’s why:

Great films have a strong cohesion in the main character’s journeys between Turning Point 1 and Turning Point 2. Cutting Act Two in the middle could cause a writer to ignore this cohesion.

In the example of JAWS, Brody has one over-arching desire: “to protect the people of Amity”. The Inner Journey, too, has a strong cohesion across Act Two: “to learn to act responsibly” (see the structural analysis of JAWS).

Although most great movies have this inner logic, it is often buried deep inside the essence of the character’s journey and not always clear through a simple analysis.

THE UNTOUCHABLES, however, is another great example. In structure and meaning it is not too dissimilar from JAWS:

Act One: Ness learns of the vicious methods of Capone.
Act Two: Ness tries to capture Capone.
Act Three: Ness tries to capture the bookkeeper.
Act Four: Ness captures the bookkeeper.

The over-arching desire, uniting Act Two and Three: “to protect the people of Chicago”. The Inner Journey: “to accept the Chicago way”.

Finally, another good reason to stick with the three-act structure is the fact that not all successful movies have such a strong reversal at the mid point.

Please let me know your views in the comments.

– Karel Segers

Karel Segers is a producer and script consultant who started in movies as a rights buyer for Europe’s largest pay TV group Canal+. Back then it was handy to speak 5 languages. Less so today in Australia.
Karel teaches, consults and lectures on screenwriting and the principles of storytelling to his 6-year old son Baxter and anyone who listens.
He is also the boss of this blog.

[this post was originally published on 9 September 2009 and selected for rerun by Adrian]

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