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The Natural Three Acts

If Shakespeare were writing screenplays now, he’d be laughed out of Hollywood.

Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet were both five acts long.

Some printed editions of Hamlet weigh in around 400 pages.

Would he have made it through a pitch meeting?  Probably not.  Somewhere along the line someone would have told him that he needed to rewrite his work into a three-act structure and trim out all of the perceived fat.  Yet, both of those plays managed to get adapted multiple times into feature films, albeit with some artistic license applied each time.

Practically every screenwriting book ever written espouses the three-act structure for screenplays.  They drill it into your head with colorful (and sometimes not-so-colorful) diagrams backed up with volumes of text to justify its existence.  It’s a chicken and egg problem that shouldn’t be.  The three-act structure existed long before there was any academic analysis that “discovered” it.

The three-act structure is something that has been brought up to the forefront and made a centerpiece when it shouldn’t be.  Because its importance has been stressed so hard and so rigidly to many an aspiring screenwriter, many stories have suffered because of it.

The story should define that rhythm for you, not a rulebook.

Here’s why.  It’s been beaten into many of us through repetition that story events must occur in a certain order and with a certain page timing.  That specific timing might work for a few stories, but not for the majority of them. The story should define that rhythm for you, not a rulebook.

Those are the training wheels.  For those of us just starting out in the world of screenwriting, it’s almost necessary to show that structure explicitly.  New writers are frequently confused by the mechanics and structure that they need a helpful guide. With very few hard and fast rules of screenwriting, we crave something as a foundation to get started so we have a strong footing.

Move on to your third, fourth, or fifth screenplay.
Are you still following the same cookie-cutter mold?

Here’s where it breaks down.  Move on to your third, fourth, or fifth screenplay. Are you still following the same cookie-cutter mold? Are you afraid to go beyond those boundaries that your teachers laid down in stone writ? Don’t be. Here’s what I’ve found out from writing over a dozen screenplays: the three-act structure occurs naturally, and keeping it in the forefront of your mind when you write can lead to stilted, stiff storytelling. And in this medium, we’ve got more than enough of that. It’s time to cut that out.

We tell stories all of the time, whether we know it or not. Every story, whether told out of linear order like Pulp Fiction or those stories we relate to each other over beers in a bar, they all have a natural, built-in three-act structure.  They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s three acts right there.  You probably didn’t even realize you were telling a three-act story to your friends in the bar about the hot girl in the copy room that leaned over and showed you a little too much cleavage, but you were.

Break that mold if you must.  Your first act does not absolutely have to turn right at page seventeen because it says so.  If you do that, you end up pushing your story kicking and screaming into a mold that someone else built for their own stories.  It is not as important as you might think it is.

No matter what story you tell, in whatever form,
we’re naturally wired to tell stories that have
a beginning, a middle, and an end

Remember that no matter what story you tell, in whatever form, we’re naturally wired to tell stories that have a beginning, a middle, and an end.  And that’s where your three acts lie: in your beginning, your middle, and your end.  Our acts should be natural ones.

Devin Watson was born in Brunswick, Georgia, in 1978. Growing up watching countless horror films due to many childhood maladies, he harbored a love of writing with an active imagination. Even through high school and college, graduating with a degree in Computer Science, he pursued screenwriting, culminating in the production of The Cursed in 2007.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Plutor (Shakespeare)

About the Author

Devin Watson

Comments 2

  1. Actually Shakespeare’s 5 Act structure lends itself beautifully to TV and ad breaks – think about it. All of the plays are full of humour (often dark/ graveyeard and irony) – event the most historic. Each takes its audience on an emotional journey and each concentrates on a multi-dimensional villian (in accordance with the traditions of his time as heroes were only two dimensional until believe it or not Jane Austin whose heroes had sensibility). The plays are highly visual with embedded satege directions within the dialogue. Most people make the mistake of trying to impose a Stanislavskian (precursor to the method) style of performing on it. Shakespeare is the ultimate of non-acting – allowing the words (comeplete with phrasing determined by the punctuation) to flow through the player/ actor and have the actor react to the words and the sounds they create instead of imposing an interpretation upon it. This fits in perfectly with the post structuralist perspective of film & theatre (and its twin) – meaning is not in the message itself – meaning is generated/ made by the receiver of the message.

    Having said all of this – I agree I am bored witless going to the cinema or watching a movie and being overly aware of the structure. I want to be suprised when I see a movie. I want to be engrossed in the story not checking my watch to see if the turning point is about to arrive so the movie will move on. The danger of elevating structure over character is the story is not there and special effects and OTT violence are used to distract the audience from the lack of storywriting (and storytelling skills) of the production.

  2. As far as I know, Shakespeare didn’t even write his plays in a 5 act structure. He just wrote the scenes and the act structure was imposed on the play afterwards by the publishers. I guess you could rearrange the scenes of each play quite easily into a three act structure.

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