By Chuck Hustmyre
First, let me start off by saying that much of what is handed down from the screenwriting illuminati regarding screenplay structure is bullshit.
In writing feature films, whether you think of a script as three acts, four acts, five acts, seven acts, or even eight sequences, there really are no acts at all, not in the conventional sense of the term. If you're working in commercial television or writing a stage play, then yes, there are acts, and you need to write toward those act breaks with the purpose of ending the final scene of each act with something that draws the audience back, usually by planting in their minds a big fat question, to which they desperately want to know the answer.
But I think "acts" in feature screenplays are more useful in deconstruction than in creation. To the deconstructionists, and that includes producers and executives, a screenplay is a Rorschach inkblot, and in it they will see what they want to see, or what they have been conditioned to see.
For the writer, forcing your inciting incident (catalyst, trigger, call to adventure, or however you refer to it) to appear on a specific page (page 12, for instance) is just plain foolish, and worse, can actually hurt your screenplay, because to shoehorn the culmination of that scene onto an exact page to meet an arbitrary "rule," you will likely have to trim or expand what came before it. And how is it that the author of the rule knows better than you, the writer of the screenplay, how much or how little needs to come before that scene? Where was the inciting incident in ROCKY? Where was it in THE GODFATHER? Or CASABLANCA? Or THE EXORCIST? I can tell you where they weren't, and that was on page 12.
And where exactly are the so-called act breaks? At the end of the scene, after the characters have reacted to some new piece of information, or in the middle of the scene, just after the new revelation and before the characters have had a chance to react? If you were a TV writer or a playwright, at what exact moment would you cut to commercial or kill the lights? In a feature film, does it even matter?
All the gurus are selling the same thing and to prove that they're right they use a celebrity endorsement from none other than Aristotle, who, as far as I know, never sold a single screenplay. Sure, he probably saw a whole bunch of Greek tragedies, and I have no doubt that he offered some insightful commentaries.
Aristotle also described stories as having three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. But keep in mind that Aristotle spoke and wrote in Greek, and not just Greek, but ancient Greek, and that the translations and interpretations of his famous treatise on drama, Poetics, vary, and in some respects, vary significantly. Also keep in mind that a big chunk of the original document has been lost to history, so we may only be getting half the story.
Given what we know, or think we know, about what Aristotle wrote regarding dramatic structure, what does it actually mean?
Can't everything that takes place over a period of time, no matter how infinitesimal that period of time is, be said to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Golf swings have a beginning, middle, and end. So do football games, but they also have four quarters. Baseball games do to, but they also have nine innings. The process of building a skyscraper could be said to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but there are at least ten thousand steps between the beginning and the end.
I have read the modern English translation of Poetics and found it interesting and helpful in an academic or theoretical sense, but Aristotle wrote his dissertation on drama 2,500 years ago, and I doubt even he thought of it as a strict set of rules that writers would have to follow for millennia to come.
So are all these gurus and their rules of any use to a struggling writer, or should we just toss them all out, the rules and the gurus?
Yes, they are useful. In the same way that basic instruction in any discipline is useful when you're first learning it. Like training wheels are useful when you're learning to ride a bicycle, or an empty parking lot is useful when you're learning to drive a car. And I certainly don't begrudge the gurus for making piles of money selling books and seminars. I have taught screenwriting classes myself for which I received recompense.
But where I do call "bullshit" is when people insist that screenplays must have exactly this many acts or that many steps, or that this thing or that thing must fall exactly on a certain page.
From a practical standpoint, a single page of a screenplay represents approximately one minute of screen time, not exactly one minute. So even if someone filmed your screenplay precisely as you wrote it, your act breaks would not land in the right minute of the movie anyway.
But no one is going to film your screenplay precisely as you wrote it. Someone-maybe you, maybe another writer, maybe the director, maybe even the star-is going to rewrite your screenplay. The draft that goes into production will be the 10th, the 15th, or the 20th draft, and all of your carefully placed incidents and act breaks will be scattered to the four winds. And do you think that once the film is in the can, the editor is going to worry about keeping your inciting incident, so precisely placed on page 12 of the first draft, in exactly the 12th minute of the final cut of the movie?
The answer is NO.
So what is a writer to do? Here is my advice, and keep in mind that I'm not an A-list Hollywood writer, just a hardworking B, maybe even B-minus, writer living in the boondocks, who has enjoyed only a modicum of screenwriting success.
You need an inciting incident. Something has to kick-start the story. You also need a climax. Something has to end the story. And between those two guideposts, space out, more or less evenly, a series of increasingly dramatic turning points, or if you prefer the English translations of Aristotelian terminology, reversals of the situation, throughout the script, and let the readers, the executives, and the producers find their own Rorschach incidents, pinch points, and act breaks wherever they want.