The Three Act Structure
What is the Three act structure, commonly attributed to Aristotle?
Simply put, it means that everything must have a beginning, middle and an end.
This is a tautology of sorts, since every type of art must start and end. It applies to life and death, the seasons, day and night, ad nauseam. What defines its practical utility, however, is its implication: Each part of the whole must also have a beginning, middle and an end.
Every screenplay must have a beginning, middle and end. The middle starts when the story can no longer go back to the beginning. The end begins when the story can longer go back to the middle. Moreover, every sequence, scene, shot, action or dialogue must also have a beginning, middle and end. Suddenly, what seems like a simple non-threatening ‘formula’ turns into a web of complexity.
This is where good books come in:
1 Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting
Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting is the gold standard by which every other book is measured. Syd Field’s interpretation of the 3 act structure is the simplest one I’ve seen, and the most useful and practical.
If you’re buying only one book – buy this one. It covers it all and will keep you occupied for years.
2 Richard Walter’s Essentials of Screenwriting: The Art, Craft, and Business of Film and Television Writing
For an excellent alternative to Syd Field’s version, try Essentials of Screenwriting: The Art, Craft, and Business of Film and Television Writing. In this book Richard Walter declares:
One can write anything as long as with every step forward (action or dialog), we either learn something new about the character, or the story.
In this case, there is no need to worry about a structure, and the story doesn’t need to have a point or a ‘solution’. The closest example of this type of writing is poetry, where you just enjoy the moment, and forget about plot and story.
If you are afraid to step into the dogma that Syd Field’s work has become, this book will be a breath of fresh air – and liberate you forever.
3 Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces
The Hero with a Thousand Faces was written in 1949, and is not about screenwriting. It’s about epics. It tries to answer one fundamental question: What makes a story worth repeating over centuries?
Joseph Campbell outlines a basic structure for all mythical (or mythological) storytelling, which he ‘discovered’ after studying ancient texts from all over the world. This is summarized as:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
Here’s an image that explains this:
Three books with three totally different perspectives on writing. With these three in your kitty you should be covered for life.
Do you need anything else? No. After a certain point you just have to write to get better.