All right, it’s confession time. I hate myself. I really do. I hate that I get up each week in front of students and say, “Here are the rules of screenwriting.” Mostly, at several points in the semester, I interject the word “some” before “rules.” Or I mumble after proclaiming something loudly, “Of course, there are other ways to think about this….”
Here’s the deal. There is such a thing as a structural template. Aristotle identified it, and Joseph Campbell read a hell of a lot of myths and fairy tales to confirm this. Most classically structured stories have the same shape. They really do. The same things happen over and over in the same order with different accessories.
But back to why I hate myself. This weekend, I went to Story Expo, which is an event where screenwriters, novelists and people who write memoirs come to talk and give writers tips. And I’m sitting in a seminar by a pretty famous screenwriting guru guy. I’m not going to mention names, but if you’ve ever scrolled the internet looking for books about the craft and such, his name will come up. So, he starts by saying, “Three Act Structure doesn’t work.”
And I am OUTRAGED. I mean seriously. I start to sweat and get totally pissed. I feel my legs begin to shake, my armpits are sweating. I’m about ready to faint, punch him in the face. What did he just say? I mean, really, what did he actually just say?
As if he hears me (all this outrage by the way, is going on in my mind), he says it again.
Now, I’ve read this guy’s “Story Steps” and I’ve decided they have merit. That’s why I’m sitting in his seminar. He’s actually super smart and has lots of valuable things to say about story and craft. And in the left side of my brain I know he’s just saying this so that people will buy into his “brand.” But on the other side, all hell is breaking loose. My Italian side. The side that will throw a frying pan at you if you look at me wrong.
So, I’m fuming, trembling. And I have to leave, I literally cannot sit there another minute. So I go to a bunch of other seminars which are great (Christopher Vogler, you’re my hero.) But later, I decide I need to go back to this moment of outrage and figure out why I got so mad. I mean Joseph Campbell himself told me to go there, right? Because the people we hate most (villains) represent what we hate in ourselves (and I quote here, “Luke, I am your father.”)
And as I’m driving home, analyzing my anger, at first I think I hate this guy because he insulted MY STRUCTURAL MODEL. The one I love, the one that’s helped me understand how drama and comedy and movies really work. But then I go a layer deeper and understand that every week I am doing exactly what this guy is doing. Reducing the magic of storytelling into some little box that I’ve CHOSEN.
Still, I realize what I really dislike is that he’s wrong. I mean, it’s totally irresponsible to tell people who come to a screenwriting exposition with open minds and a passion for movies that three act structure doesn’t work. Because it DOES work. It worked in the time of Aristotle, and it works now. And you can see it every week at your local movie theater.
So let’s look at this guy’s story “steps.”
He has an Inciting Incident, called “The Inciting Incident” in Three ACT Structure.
He has a First Revelation, called “The ACT I Turning Point /ACT I Break” in Three ACT Structure.
He has combined The Opponent’s Plan & Main Counterattack and Attack by Ally to stand in for Three Act Structure’s “Midpoint”
He has an Apparent Defeat, which is called “The Big Gloom” in Three ACT Structure.
He has a Battle, called “The Climax,” in Three ACT Structure
Finally, at the end, he has New Equilibrium, which is called the “Brief Resolution” in Three ACT structure.
Dude, you’re teaching Three Act structure.
So here’s a moment where I can like myself. I’m going to commit to saying to my students as often as I can remember, “There are lots of different approaches to writing a classically structured movie. You can pick the one that works best for you, but they’re all basically the same structure and anyone who tells you different, is blowing smoke up your butt or trying to sell you a book.”
So tell us your theory Mr. Expo, your approach. It’s interesting, and you explore character in a really cool way. But don’t discount something that’s important for every student of the craft of screenwriting to learn. It forms the foundation for your “Steps” and was spelled out by Aristotle in his Poetics in the year 350 Before Christ.
The thing you say doesn’t fly is the simplest, purest, most magical thing of all.
It’s that stories have a Beginning, a Middle and an End.
Good luck telling us that doesn’t work.