Jump_Cut: On Screenwriting – Three-Act Structure of Films

August 1, 2006
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Jump_Cut: On Screenwriting

THREE-ACT STRUCTURE OF FILMS

by Neil Flowers

August 2006

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

"Some of my students find it hard to believe that—structurally speaking—they watch the same film over and over again . . ."

 

—Flowers

We have been examining the three-act structure of feature films. Some of my students find it hard to believe that—structurally speaking—they watch the same film over and over again whether the film is a Western, a comedy, or and action-adventure. Some even complain that knowing this ruins film-watching for them!

 

The good news is that endless variations can be played on feature structure. So let's examine a few set-ups (aka act I, aka the beginning) and, especially, the transitions to act II.

As we have observed, the transition to act II entails a reversal of the protagonist's emotional life in response to an unexpected event. High Noon, Collateral, and Far From Heaven demonstrate reversal in response to a threat.

". . . a sudden reversal upsets the inner (emotional) and outer circumstances of the protagonists."

—Flowers

 

Let's start with the classic Western, High Noon. When we meet Will Kane, he is happy. The causes are simple enough. He stands at the altar with Amy, his lovely bride, and he is hanging up his badge as Marshal of Hadleyville. In Collateral, although Max is set up as a loser, his fortunes are looking up at the end of act I because a woman and money have just come into his life. In Far From Heaven, Cathy Whitaker lives a dream of 50s suburban life with good kids, a prosperous husband, and a picture-perfect house and car. These three protagonists are happy in the moment—even if they are living in a fool's paradise.

Then a sudden reversal upsets the inner (emotional ) and outer circumstances of the protagonists.

For Will, a telegram arrives in the midst of his wedding reception. His old nemesis, the outlaw Frank Miller, is out of prison and on his way to town. As he reads the telegram, Kane's face visibly changes; so does his voice when he announces to the guests the telegram's content (a sustained musical note underscores this emotional change.) In Collateral, Max scrambles from his car, frightened to death, a fear compounded when Vincent levels his pistol at him. In Far From Heaven, Cathy, the perfect wife, takes supper to her husband's office—and finds him passionately embracing another man. Her dream becomes a nightmare. She drops the supper and flees in shock, disbelief, and fear.

The Mask—a comedy—holds the pattern of reversal that marks the break between acts I and II, but Stanley's change is from fulminating anger and depression to a gleefulness in his new powers once he dons the mask.

"It's important to notice that the act I to act II transition can be finessed. A closer look at our examples will illustrate."

 

—Flowers

It's important to notice that the act I to act II transition can be finessed. A closer look at our examples will illustrate.

With Max and Cathy, the reversal and subsequent conflicts and complications happen virtually simultaneously, i.e., the transition from act I to II is abrupt and immediate. High Noon and The Mask are different. In High Noon, Will and Amy, pressed by the townspeople, race out of Hadleyville in their buckboard after the telegram arrives. Then Kane realizes that he must return and face Miller. This decision leads to the first scene of conflict, which is between Kane and Amy and jeopardizes their brand new marriage. At this point, we are in act II. The running time between the arrival of the telegram and the conflict between Will and Amy is about four minutes. In this bridge between acts I and II, we are introduced to Helen Ramirez and Harvey Pell, who form the love subplot of the film.

The Mask employs a similar bridge between acts. The set-up makes Stanley's every move a botch, culminating in his being bounced from the club and having his car collapse. With Stanley's life at this nadir, he shows—significantly—some grit by jumping into the river to rescue what he thinks is a drowning man. What he find instead is a pile of floating garbage. In the refuse, he discovers the mask, presents it triumphantly to the cops, and takes it home. Within a few minutes of running time from when he finds the mask, Stanley tries it on and his spectacular reversal occurs. The film is now in act II.

". . . the protagonist's emotional reversal signals the beginning of act II and the start of the conflicts and complications."

 

—Flowers

In each case—whether it's the immediate sort of transition that occurs with Max or Cathy, or the short bridge between acts that we see in High Noon and The Mask—the protagonist's emotional reversal signals the beginning of act II and the start of the conflicts and complications.

 

Next month: conflicts, complications, and peripateia (peripe-what?!).

Suggested viewing: Red Eye and The Devil Wears Prada.

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. He has an MFA in Playwriting and MA in Theatre and Dance. E-mail Neil at caledonia88@yahoo.com.

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Copyright 2006 by Neil Flowers and Authorlink.

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