What’s Wrong With The Three Act Structure? — Part 1

Part One

By James Bonnet

The three act structure is not a story structure. You can’t find it in myths and legends or other great stories of the past and you can’t find it in nature. So why is it being applied to the screenplay or the story of a film?  It’s a good question because it makes no sense. And my very strong recommendation in these articles will be that you avoid thinking in act structure terms when creating a story or story film.

The three (four, five, six, or seven) act structures are the arbitrary divisions of the principal (or main) action of the story into a number of parts – a legacy from the theater and applicable today only to the theater or television shows which have commercial breaks. If you write a movie for television, it will have seven acts. Why? Because it has seven commercial breaks. And you will be asked to insert something intriguing at the end of each act to lure the audience back after the break. But that has nothing to do with story.

The Greeks had no act structure in their plays. They were one act plays. The Romans had five acts. It appeared in plays because of the need to have intermissions. People can’t sit for three hours in a theatre listening to an auditory experience without taking a break or going to the restroom. It appears in television shows because they want to have commercial breaks so they can sell something. None of which has anything to do with story.

A two hour feature film shown in a movie theater is a continuous action. There are no intermissions. It’s one continuous act-less event.

A much better way to look at a story, when you are creating one, is not through any arbitrary division into acts but through the eyes of  the problem, which is the central event and the heart of a great story’s structure. In The Silence of the Lambs, a serial killer is on the loose, and that is the problem that has to be resolved. In Gladiator, a tyrant has usurped the Roman Empire, preventing the restoration of the Republic. In The Sixth Sense, a murdered child psychologist is stuck in limbo and the spirits of dead people are haunting a little boy’s mind.  In Harry Potter, Voldemort is trying to take possession of the Wizard World. In The Lord of the Rings, Sauron, a very similar dark force, is trying to take possession of Middle Earth. In Ordinary People, a young boy is suicidal. Each of these stories and hundreds of others I could name revolve around a problem that has to be resolved. What need is there to think of these events as having three acts? None.

What use would it be to think in terms of three acts (or parts) when creating a story like A Beautiful Mind – which, if you wanted to divide it into parts, clearly has five parts and not three. In the first part, Russell Crowe is a genius mathematician, in the second part, he is a spy; in the third part we discover the first two parts were a delusion and that he is really mentally ill (the problem); in the fourth part, a first effort is made to solve that problem which fails; and in the fifth part, a second effort is made to solve that problem which succeeds. How would it help to impose a three act structure? It wouldn’t.

What good would a three (four or five) act structure do if you were writing a novel – the DaVinci Code, for instance? If you really want to gauge how irrelevant act structure is to a story, try to apply it to a novel. It makes absolutely no sense.

You quickly realize the idea is absurd. It has nothing to do with story. But the screenplay which becomes a story film is a story in the same way that the novel is a story. The spine and structure of both are essentially the same. This is true of the great myths, legends, fairy tales, as well as the classic novels and modern blockbuster films. They all have the same basic structure.

In the second segment of this article I will talk about why the natural problem-solving story structure is a better way to structure your story than three acts.