Is there really such a thing as a three-act structure in film? When I first started to write scripts and study film, Syd Field’s Screenplay was one of the few books out there on scriptwriting and structure. In his book, Field talks about the three-act structure, but one thing always bugged me: the second act was twice as long as the other two.
The more I studied films the idea of the four-act structure began to make more sense:
Act One: introducing all the major characters, ending not with the “inciting incident” but with a choice of some sort. That can be the arrival at a new location, or a major choice made by the hero (who may not know of its importance.)
Act Two: The development of that choice, which leads to entanglements, ending on a mid-point of major importance. What happens in this middle scene sets the tone for the second half of the film. Mysteries may be solved. In a tragedy, this might be the last time a hero is happy. Stakes will either be raised or identified.
Act Three: Further complications resulting from the choices raised or decisions made in the middle scene. This act invariably ends in some sort of low point for the hero. However, decisions are also made at the end of this scene.
Act Four: The inevitable results of the actions made in Act Three’s final scene, either leading to a happy or tragic ending.
So this occasional series on this blog will take some films, some classic, some recent, some well-known, some obscure, and look at those three major scenes that link the four acts–the end of the first quarter, the all important middle scene, and the end of the third.
And we’ll be asking some questions along the way:
Do these three scenes adhere to the four act structure?
Does this structure change over the course of film history?
Can this structure help unearth a different narrative or explain an obtuse one?
This will be a spoiler-filled series of entries, so you have been warned. On the other hand, I’d love your feedback. This is a theory of mine, so tell me if I’m off my rocker.