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Lecture by Stephen J. Cannell
Often, when I ask a writer this question I am told that it is a beginning, middle and an end. This is not the answer. A lunch line has a beginning, middle and an end. The Three-Act structure is critical to good dramatic writing, and each act has specific story moves. Every great movie, book or play that has stood the test of time has a solid Three-Act structure. (Elizabethan Dramas were five act plays, but still had a strictly prescribed structure.) The only place where this is not the case is in a one-act play, where "slice of life" writing is the rule.
(Book or screenplay)
In Act One the protagonist meets all of the characters in the play. We also find out what the main problem of the story is. Everybody can usually plot Act One because we have to know the problem to have the idea. The trick in Act One is to keep it interesting. Don't just start rolling out story points. Start at the most interesting point, where there is conflict and excitement, and help the audience sort it out.
Act One is a preparation act for the viewer or reader. They are asking who is the hero. Do I like this person? Is this guy a heavy? Do I care about the relationships? What is the problem for the hero? Is the problem gripping?
You should try to have a quick attack on Act One. Don't start at "Once upon a time." Open with a hook.
Three men are chasing a woman down a deserted alley; she is carrying a screaming infant.
What's going on? Who is she? Whose baby is it? Let's go! Get the story started! Make it interesting!
By the end of Act One you should also have introduced the heavy (antagonist) and set up all of the secondary character relationships.
This is the most important act in the drama because you have the two most important structural moves in the story.
The complication usually comes at the top of Act Two. The problem that we already set up in Act One, now has to become much more dangerous and difficult. A good way to design the complications is to let it be a piece of the back-story that has remained hidden until Act Two.
The baby in the woman's arms is not hers, as she originally thought when she left the hospital, but was accidentally switched in pediatrics by an angel nurse, who is in reality the New Messiah. Now all the evil forces on earth are trying to kill the new Christ child. (Much bigger problem!)
The heroes must then start to try to solve this bigger, more complicated problem, while the adversaries make moves to defeat them. YOUR ADVERSARIES MUST BE IN MOTION. Adversaries should not be standing around, waiting to be caught.
At the end of Act Two is the second act curtain. This is the destruction of the hero's plan. At the end of Act Two the protagonist should be almost destroyed, and at the lowest point in the drama, either physically and/or emotionally. He (or she) is flat on his back and it looks like there is no way he can succeed.
This is simply the resolution of the problem. From the rubble laying around him/her, the protagonist picks up a piece of string and follows it to the eventual conclusion of the story. Some stories have downbeat endings, where the hero learns a lesson, but dies or is defeated.
It is always possible to alter this Three Act Structure, but remember, if you break these plot rules, you should at least know why you are doing it.
You can see from this brief description why Act Two is so important. It complicates the initial problem and it defeats the protagonist at its end. (The two major Act Two plot developments.)
If you have ever watched a movie or read a book where it starts out great and then, after about a third of the way through, becomes a "hummer" where nothing new is happening and you're starting to get bored, this is almost always because there is no second act. Next time, put the book or movie to my three act test, look for the complication and the second act curtain. See if I'm not right.
Along the way, I've taught myself a few very handy tricks. They should help make the plotting or writing process easier.
Because Act Two is the hardest act to plot, most people give up on their ideas in Act Two; "This isn't working." "This idea sucks." Most of the time the reason we break down plotting Act Two, is that we tend to "walk" with the hero because we identify with the protagonist. We walk through the story inside his or her head.
Once we get past the complication and are into Act Two, we sometimes get stuck. "What do I do now?" "Where does this protagonist go from here?" The plotting in Act Two often starts to get linear (a writer's expression meaning the character is following a string, knocking on doors, just getting information). This is the dullest kind of material. We get frustrated and want to quit.
Here's a great trick: When you get to this place, go around and become the antagonist. You probably haven't been paying much attention to him or her. Now you get in the antagonist's head and you're looking back at the story to date from that point of view.
"Wait a minute... Rockford went to my nightclub and asked my bartender where I lived. Who is this guy Rockford? Did anybody get his address? His license plate? I'm gonna find out where this jabrone lives! Let's go over to his trailer and search the place." Under his mattress maybe the heavy finds his gun (in Rockford's case, it was usually hidden in his Oreo cookie jar). His P.I. license is on the wall. Now the heavy knows he's being investigated by a P.I. Okay, let's use his gun to kill our next victim. Rockford gets arrested, charged with murder. End of Act Two.
See how easy it works? The destruction of the hero's plan. Now he's going to the gas chamber.
Plot from the heavy's point-of-view in Act Two; it is an invaluable tip.
Sometimes people say to me, "Yeah, Three Act Structure works fine for that cops-and-robber stuff you do, but I write intense, layered human dramas and my stories aren't about murder or violence. They're about the trials of the human spirit." Okay, but that doesn't change the rules. Here's an example:
A Novel and Movie by Eric Segal
Act One: Boy meets girl... chemistry. They fall for each other (remember, even in a love story, there has to be conflict in a relationship. Nothing is duller than two people who agree with each other.
"I love you."
"I love you, too."
"I think you're wonderful."
"I think you're wonderful, too."
Not very interesting. Try this:
"I love you."
"Are you trying to get into my pants?"
"What the hell kinda question is that?"
You have to have conflict.
ACT ONE: In Love Story, we have your basic boy-meets-girl opening. She's a sorority girl; he's hashing in her sorority house, (she thinks to put himself through school). They fall for each other and he invites her to his house for Thanksgiving Holiday.
ACT TWO: They arrive at his house and, lo and behold, he lives in a mansion. "Who the hell are you?" she asks. Turns out he's not some poor boy putting himself through college. He's the son of one of the most wealthy families in Connecticut!
That's the complication, now the tables are turned. Before, she was on top, the sorority girl having a romance with the "poor" hasher. Now everything's changed. His family doesn't like her. She's not good enough for their son. (NOTE: This complication was part of his back-story from the beginning, but was hidden from her and from us.) Now, in Act Two, it is revealed and it complicates the hell out of this love story. They fight with each other and his family. The struggle to keep their love together grows. Then just when it seems they will persevere, along comes the Second Act curtain: She is diagnosed with cancer (Destruction of the hero's plans). "How can our love survive if one of us is going to die?"
ACT THREE: The solution. In this case, a bittersweet ending where she dies and he is forced to go on without her, a sadder but wiser man.
Classic Act Three structure. It's why both the book and the movie work so well.
There are many more craft points that bear examination. I will deal with one or two here and we can talk about the others online.
EXPOSITION: Every story has to have expository scenes and they're hard as hell to write, especially in the screenplay. It's one character telling another character facts that the audience needs to know. It is often dull and always hard to make interesting.
In the Rockford pilot, I was doing a very complicated murder mystery and, at a certain point toward the end of Act One, I needed Rockford to get a bunch of info about some characters to move the story along. It was in this scene that I created the character of Angel Martin. His sole job in the play was to give Jim information on the murder. (You can download the teleplay and look at the scene which starts on page 22.) What I did was make the expository scene about something else. On the surface, it was a scene about whether Jim was guilty of the crime he'd been in prison for. Angel, a fellow ex-con on parole, was working at his brother-in-law's newspaper, and was looking in the morgue section of old newspapers, getting the info that Jim needed (exposition).
In-between the exposition, they were arguing about whether Jim had actually pulled the crime. It's a good example of mixing attitude and exposition to make the mixture go down smoothly. When you have heavy exposition, look for something else to write about. Create equal amounts of attitude with exposition when you're laying out story track.
THE OBLIQUE SCENE: This is a scene that doesn't "go down the center of the page" (a writing term for a predictable scene that doesn't surprise). An oblique scene starts in a different place than we expect it to, but ends up telling the same story point.
EXAMPLE: Let's say I'm writing a scene where a father's sixteen-year-old sophomore daughter has just told him that she's going out with the high school quarterback, a senior. The father checks around with some teachers and finds out that this guy has already impregnated two girls. He tells his wife; no way is this going to happen. Here's the down-the-center-of-the-page scene:
(Excuse this dialogue - it is intentionally flat-footed to make the point)
INT. FAMILY ENTRY - NIGHT
The doorbell rings and the father, CARL GOODGUY, opens the door and finds the handsome eighteen-year-old quarterback, BUDDY GIRLFEELER.
Hi, I'm Buddy. I'm here to pick up your daughter.
I've heard all about you, Buddy. I know about the two girls you got pregnant and there's no way you're going out with my daughter.
Sir, come on... I don't know what you've heard, but I'm innocent.
Oh yeah? Well I checked with the headmaster, who told me about the two abortions.
The what? Oh yeah, those. Well I...
Get the hell out of my house. And if I ever see you again, you're dust.
Good conflict. Conflict always works, but it's exactly the scene we'd expect. Now let's try the oblique scene: (same dialogue excuse)
INT. FAMILY ENTRY - NIGHT
The doorbell rings and CARL opens the door and finds BUDDY GIRLFEELER.
You must be Buddy. Man, I can't tell you how much I've heard about you.
Feet weren't exactly involved, but balls were definitely mentioned.
Hey, you got one a'those new Jimmy vans. You like it?
Yes sir... I guess...
Lemme see. I've been thinking of getting one a'those.
Carl moves to the car as Buddy chases after him, trying to keep Carl from opening the door... but he's too late. Carl is staring inside.
Hey, Buddy, there's a buncha mirrors in here, got one on the ceiling, too. What the hell's that all about?
And a waterbed...
These better be balloons for your birthday or you're a dead man.
This second scene doesn't start where we expect, but like scene one, it ends in the same place, "You're not taking my daughter out." The trick to an oblique scene is to play against the facts the audience already knows. In this case, it's that Buddy is not your wholesome All-American date.
IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER: Every scene in a book or script should do two things. FIRST: It should progress the story. The test is, if the scene is removed does it leave a hole in the plot. SECOND: The scene should simultaneously advance the character relationships. Try to accomplish both of these goals in each scene.
Copyright © 1998-2007 by Stephen J. Cannell and Writers Write, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Copying, reproduction, or dissemination of these materials in any form whatsoever is expressly forbidden.