I’ve been questioning the conventional three act structure quite a bit recently. Clearly it’s the model of contemporary filmmaking, and write or wrong everybody in the industry knows it and relies on it complicitly in anything they’re making. For that reason I think that it’s the necessary formula to follow if you want to “make it” as a “professional screenwriter,” but I also think that truly great artists and truly great art move beyond the formulas to carve out their own path, and film should be no exception.
The other dayI wrote about The Shawshank Redemption, which doesn’t really have clear 2nd turning point, as determined by the accepted definition of “major decision made by hero.” And I think it was the same day that I watched Vantage Point, starring Dennis Quaid, Forrest Whitaker, and William Hurt, which has a similar issue.
If you haven’t seen Vantage Point, it’s got a simple action/suspense premise but with a unique method of delivery – at every step of the way we follow a different character, getting the story from a different perspective, and getting more information about what’s going on – until the very last one (there are supposed to be 8, but it doesn’t seem like that many), when we follow the bad guys to see the real truth.
Dennis Quaid is the closest thing to a hero we’ve got in this movie, but because of the nature of the film’s delivery method, by necessity he doesn’t have much screen time and isn’t really making any major decisions in the classical three act manner. And I don’t know if you can argue the collective consciousness as the hero. Can a collective consciousness grow, change, or adapt?
What the movie does have is a clear beginning, middle, and end. There’s a set up and an inciting incident where we get our socks rocked. The next several characters we follow shows the build-up of the second act, where the hero and we as the audience try to figure out what’s happened. Then there’s a major midpoint with a false high, followed by a second inciting incident that raises the stakes even more than they were before. Then that climbs (at least theoretically – in the execution this is where the let-down was) to a climax and a resolution.
So … are there three acts? Yes, certainly. But it’s not as cut and dry or as formulaic as we make it out like it has to be. There’s plenty of wiggle room, and as long as the tension is rising and there are moments that dramatically propel us to the next set of events, we’re fine.
I’ve seen and read both before, but revisited the Stephen King novella recently, and decided to follow it up by watching the movie. The main plot is the same. The novella tells the story by subjects, guided by chronology, whereas the movie tells the story chronologically, guided by the subjects. In a few cases they shifted the chronology for dramatic effect – for example, Andy coming into the library before Brookes leaves, so that he can help so-and-so set up the trust fund and so that we care about Brookes when he dies; or Andy spending 19 years at Shawshank instead of 27, so that we can frame the movie with Red’s 20, 30, and 40-year parole hearings.
Casting Morgan Freeman in the role of the Irishman “Red” was just a stroke of genius. As well as being a perfect fit for the character, it just gives a timeless universality to the two heroes of the tale – black and white, hope and despair, yin and yang who make this perfect match. It would seem that this casting wasn’t a given during the writing of the script – supposedly Rob Reiner wanted to direct it and cast Harrison Ford as Red. Can you imagine how different a film that would’ve been?
Something else I’m noticing is the three-act structure. Is it there? There are three parole hearings. Maybe that’s it. We enter the prison and try to assimilate ourselves. We try to improve our situation. The shit hits the fan, and we leave.
Standard wisdom says that the turning points are decisions made by the hero. There a few things Andy does that constitute decisions deviating from the routine – The tarring-the-roof scene and the final exit are obviously huge plot-driving decisions. But the Italian ladies singing Mozart? The library project? The rock hammer or Rita Hayworth? No, I think the structure here is not quite so black and white. I think the story stands on its own, and the turning points are the little successes Andy achieves along the way – including all of the above, as well as Hadley beating the shit out of Bogs and Tommy getting his GED.
The thing is, in the presence of great storytelling, “three-act-structure” is a phantom menace. In this movie, every event is driven by the one before it or the one after it. The characters are constantly making decisions that affect each other and affect themselves, and the situation itself is perfectly sufficient to heighten the tension and the stakes. Because that’s really what the acts are measuring: the tension and the stakes.
I think this is a happy benefit of the adapting a novella of this length. The story is a hundred pages long, which is just long enough to get in every piece of the action, without having to cut anything and without having to embellish, and letting you jump in at just 2 hours. Sure, you shift some stuff around, but you don’t need to worry about restructuring it, because it’s the perfect length as it is.
I wonder how many great screenplays have been passed over or killed in spirit because they don’t fit the mold. I wonder whether, if Darabont hadn’t directed his own screenplay, it could have ended up as one of the most acclaimed movies of all time. I doubt it. Reiner’s version, with Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford, certainly would have grossed more in the box office, but it wouldn’t have had the same energy or spirit.
A lot of great movies are based on short novels. Darabont himself is currently rumored to be working on an adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, which definitely qualifies. And I have no doubt he’ll make it great, because he’ll have the freedom to do what he wants.
I read in Save the Cat! today that your needs to have something at stake, and what’s at stake needs to be primal – that is, something connected to survival or reproduction. He offers a number of “example ideas,” one of them being a company retreat in which people suddenly start getting murdered, as a means toward “downsizing” the company. He says that this is more compelling than playing pranks, which I guess, in this example, is true.
Naturally, I began looking at Charisma, and started asking questions about the stakes that my character has. The second act is about Charisma getting out of jail (or rather, getting acquitted) for a crime she didn’t commit – a primal stake, to be sure. We can all relate to a character in that situation, because if we were in jail for a crime we didn’t commit, we’d want the same thing.
But I’m afraid the stakes after that are a little weak – she tries to convince teachers to change her grades so she can stay in school. Much less compelling, in comparison to the drama that preceded it. Ultimately, this will prove to be a fruitful exercise and the villain will put her life (literally) on the line, which gets us back to the primal stakes (which have been appropriately raised), but I’m wondering whether this second half of the second act is too much of a back-pedal from what happened before it. Should this portion come earlier, maybe, so the stakes are raising linearly, rather than going up and down? Or is that dip a necessary component to the drama – it’s the valleys that make the hardest mountains to climb.
I’ve wondered before whether Snyder’s goals aren’t a little different from my own. And besides, how much can you trust his advice – according to IMDb he’s only had two movies made, one of which one a Razzie award for “Worst Screenplay,” and though he’s surely doctored dozens of others, that’s not exactly a gleaming resume. Maybe his attachment to the formula is part of the problem.
So I started looking at other movies for the hero’s primal urge. Movies I’m intimately familiar with that are also highly revered screenplays.
Aladdin – At the start, he just cares about finding food (survival) and getting the girl (reproduction). When he gets out of the cave, there is no more immediate threat to his survival, so he turns to reproduction, asking the genie for something that will get him the girl. Then he gets the girl … and gets captured, escapes … and realizes he needs to tell the truth to get the girl, gets ready to tell the truth … and then Jafar comes back, and he has to both survive and get Jasmine back. It’s an exhausting zig-zag of attention, but it’s important, because when we’re focusing on one, the other is always in the background waiting to rear its ugly head. The triumph of one always leads to the fall of the other, until the very end of the movie. So there’s lesson #1 – intentions can play off each other, as long as they climax simultaneously.
The Shawshank Redemption – Physical survival and escape from prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Sounds familiar. The physical threat of death dissipates very quickly, but the theme is more about emotional survival, and those stakes continue to get heightened. Lesson #2 – the survival doesn’t have to be physical, as long as the theme is consistent with that.
The Usual Suspects – Verbal is the hero, and he’s constantly trying to “survive” and “make it in the big world.” Lesson #3 – the survival can look like “making it,” as in “being successful” or “being famous.” The character would have to be someone who associates riches with survival, subconsciously if nothing else. Of course, this theme kind of turns on its head with the twist, but that doesn’t change the fundamental lesson at all.
The Silence of the Lambs – In all the interactions between Hannibal and Clarice there’s the sense of personal threat, as well as a hint of sexual tension. Of course, the sex will never be consummated, and Clarice says toward the end that he wouldn’t come after her, because, “He’d consider it rude,” but by that point it doesn’t matter because it’s not about her physical safety, it’s about saving someone’s life. So there’s lesson #4 – the survival doesn’t necessarily have to be the hero’s own – if her interest is in saving someone else. We simply must be made to care about that someone else, and our sympathies then move with the hero, whose job is to save that person.
Of course, all of these films carry something in common that we haven’t addressed yet, and that’s the subtleties that make a good movie great. The Usual Suspects was good, but those last five minutes made it the 21st best movie of all time, according to IMDb. The Silence of the Lambs was an outstanding screenplay, only made better by a pair of brilliant performances by our two stars – at every interaction between the two characters there’s a physical threat, but over time we realize that the threat is more internal than external – that he’s inside her head, and also inside ours. At every moment there’s a tantalizing sexuality there that just can’t be explained.
So here’s lesson #5: It’s all in the subtext. In the greatest movies ever made, the quality lies in what wasn’t said on screen. What the characters weren’t saying when they talked to each other. What we go away thinking about when we’re done.
And lesson #6: The urge to write a successful screenplay is primal.