Jump Cut: On Screenwriting

July 31, 2007
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Neil Flowers

 

Jump Cut: On Screenwriting

"Reel" Time and Three-Act Structure (con't.)

by Neil Flowers

August, 2007

Editor's Note: Authorlink welcomes Los Angeles screenwriter and teacher Neil Flowers and his monthly column on the subject of writing for film and television. Neil's columns appears on the first of every month.

". . . three-act structure is the very being and essence of stories. . ."
—Flowers

In May, reader Carey Abney wrote to ask whether it was possible to structure commercial feature films in ways other than in three "acts." He heard cinegurus recommend creating alternatives to three-act structure. Carey wondered if such as thing were possible.

As we all learned in English Comp 101, every good essay should start out with a declaration of its intent and then prove what it says. Yes?

So here goes, out on a long limb: No, Carey, three-act structure is the very being and essence of stories, and that applies to feature film narratives. Those cinegurus are talking through their hats—or through the end opposite their hats.

"By strict chronology, we mean the sequencing of a film ("reel" time). . ."
—Flowers

That's a bold and provocative stance, is it not, dear reader? So let's gather round the fire and prove it.

 

May's column in passing touched on the difference between three-act structure and strict chronology. By strict chronology, we mean the sequencing of a film ("reel" time) such that it progresses without interruption in a forward manner—as does "real" time. That is, every shot or sequence in the film occurs later in "reel" time than the preceding shot/sequence.

"Flash-forwards are much rarer than flashbacks and dreams. . ."
—Flowers
We discussed how flashbacks and dream sequences are commonly used to disrupt a strictly chronological narrative. These are by far the most common techniques used to deviate from a forward-moving narrative. Flash-forwards are much rarer than flashbacks and dreams, but when they are used, they do interrupt a strictly linear narrative.
". . . by returning to the past, stopping the narrative to interpolate a dream sequence . . . three-act structure remains intact."
—Flowers
However, notice that although these techniques are means to interrupt a forward-moving narrative—by returning to the past, stopping the narrative to interpolate a dream sequence, or by flashing forward in time—three-act structure remains intact. Say what?, you may be thinking.

 

So let's give the following important point, which, as I say, we only touched upon in May's column, it's own paragraph to highlight its significance. And what the heck, let's throw it in Italics, too.

Three-act structure and chronology, although so closely allied that they can seem one, are two distinct components of any narrative.

"Act one introduces the time, place, and central characters."
—Flowers
As we have said ad nauseam in the last dozen columns about three-act structure: Act one introduces the time, place, and central characters. A turning point or major plot point ends the first act and leads to the second act. This turning point entails the reversal (peripeteia) of the protagonist's emotional life, Act two develops the difficulties for the protagonist through rising and falling action, and leads to another major turning point where the protagonist's life arrives at a nadir. He or she must find a way out of the conflicts and complications raised by the second act. At the division between acts two and three, the protagonist takes action. The third act builds increasingly to a climax, which is then followed by a brief denouement (a minute or two; occasionally a bit longer, q.v., Jim Carrey's The Mask), that apportions out the fates of the central characters. And there you have it, amigos, the trajectory of any film, and virtually any story: Three-act structure isn't an externally imposed structure, it is dependent upon the internal, emotional life of the protagonist and his or her development. That's why stories are interesting to us.
". . . three-act structure mimics life. The conflicts and complications of real life change us. "
—Flowers
Three-act structure is a quality of stories that hinges upon the very reasons that we love stories. In this way, three-act structure mimics life. The conflicts and complications of real life change us. A story in which the central character doesn't develop in any way is a boring story. We are compelled to listen to stories, read them, watch them, tell them, for the very sake of seeing what the characters learn from their adventures and how they change because of those travails. In stories, entertainment and instruction become one. Want to learn about Alzheimer's and how it affects lives and be riveted at the same time? See Sarah Polley's directorial debut, Away From Her, a film in which, by the bye, a man who doesn't want to change must learn how to do so.
"As always, there are exceptions that make the rule. Action films tend to be tedious . . ."
—Flowers
As always, there are exceptions that make the rule. Action films tend to be tedious because no matter who the heroes and villains are the plot is the same and, more importantly, the heroes don't change. They seldom really learn anything, or what they do is token. They start out as heroes and end that way. Sure, they are challenged externally by various incarnations of evil forces, but in the end, Hercules, Superman, Sinbad, Tintin, i.e., any number of popular cultural heroes—generally speaking—begin strong and end strong. Not much happens to them internally. Boring. But the box office tends to be huge. So what. In dramas based on human beings and their real-life difficulties—not cultural fantasies—the whole point of such narratives is to reveal the challenges and inner changes that the protagonist undergoes as a direct result of those challenges (the conflicts and complications).
"In the last few years, several commercially successful films have challenged the rule of fundamental chronological sequencing . . . it's principal characters—no matter the sequencing—still follow a three-act structure."
—Flowers
In the last few years, several commercially successful films have challenged the rule of fundamental chronological sequencing and seem to be trashing three-act structure. Pulp Fiction is a prime example. The long central section about Butch and his watch and the throwing of the fight is interpolated between the sections of the revenge shootings, "The Bonnie Situation," the diner bandits, and Mia Wallace's overdose. Reel time is upset in a major way. But Pulp Fiction's messing with time, while certainly a welcome relief from the steady march forward, is really a sort of trick—an excellent one. There is no real reason why the film couldn't be told in strict chronological sequence. And it's principal characters—no matter the sequencing—still follow a three-act structure. Butch throws the fight, runs into some major complications with Marsellus and the BDSM perverts at the gun shop, but he gets away with his score in the end. Jules changes because he believes in the miracle, but Vincent doesn't believe and this failure costs Vincent his life.

 

Irreversible and Memento are two recent films that play their narratives backwards. These films play with "reel" and "real" time in a manner much beyond Pulp Fiction. Do they retain three-act structure? We'll see in next month's column.

Neil Flowers
About
Neil Flowers
Neil Flowers is an award-winning playwright who has worked as a writer, actor, and director in theatre, radio, and film/video. He co-authored a produced TV pilot, and a teleplay produced as a feature by Jim Henson Films. He has written three feature screenplays, teaches screenwriting, and reads screenplays for Los Angeles production companies. Neil also works as a first and second assistant director for feature and short films; his specialty is choreographing extras for crowd scenes. He has an MFA in Playwriting and MA in Theatre and Dance. E-mail Neil at flowersneil4494@yahoo.com.

 

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