Death of the Three-Act Structure – Maybe Not

Story Sequence BreakdownFor decades filmmakers have pointed to William Shakespeare’s three-act structure for the development of motion pictures. Even noted screenwriter and teacher Syd Field was a solid proponent of the structure. But today, the Internet, television, and shortened attention spans of viewers are forcing filmmakers to shift to a new eight-sequence structure.

The new structure still holds true to the three-act form, but breaks it down into acts 1, 2A, 2B, and 3 – Each having two sequences. The story beats have stayed the same, but the structure was evenly divided to simplify productions, reduce costs and provide for future commercial breaks.

In all reality, the three-act structure will never disappear, as all stories have a beginning, middle and end. However, the middle is now split into two parts to avoid the loss of momentum in the action plotline. In the past, numerous films would die in the second act, which gave rise to the mid-point that turned the tables on the protagonist in order to regain the audience’s attention.

The further shrinkage of attention spans drove films to split each act further into what is referred to as mini-movies. Each 12-15 minute segment is given its own beginning, middle and end, while energizing the character arc and plot points to catapult the viewer into seeing the next sequence.

This format allows the audience to gain some satisfaction from minor issues being resolved in the story, while building a desire for them to watch until the entire film is resolved. In other words, the mini-resolutions reward the audience for continuing to watch for the climax of the overall story.

The new structure makes it all the more difficult for the director to generate an emotional flow with the audience and forces the use of more transitions to reset the viewers’ emotional state at the end of each sequence. This formula, if adhered to religiously, can create an unwanted pulse that alerts viewers to what’s coming next within the story. It can also pull the audience emotionally out of the story and make them feel like they’re watching a film rather than exploring an unfolding event.

The good news is that the new structure can help first time filmmakers understand a complex process in simpler terms. It may also lead to longer shorts that use a similar structure with the hope that a series of shorts can turn into a feature film after transitions are edited in.

A 10-minute short might be broken down in the following way:

ACT 1

:30 Teaser
:60 Backstory/Set-up
:30 Reluctant of Call to Action
:30 Turning Point 1

ACT 2A

:30 Intro Plot B
:60 Learn Needed Skills for Act 3
:30 All Goes Well
:30 Mid-Point

ACT 2B

:30 The Chase
:60 Mini Proxy Battle
:30 All is Lost
:30 Turning Point 2

ACT 3

:30 Regroup
:60 The Main Battle
:30 The Climax
:30 The Resolution

This type of structure works well for a story based short film rather than an image based film. It allows enough time for the director to develop the story and its main characters, causing audiences to desire a second and third viewing. It might also be combined with seven other shorts utilizing the same structure to make a feature film, although this has yet to be accomplished.

The pacing of shots and sequences has also increased due to short attention spans and the audiences’ ability to construct the missing elements in order to compete the story. This allows for further time compression and shorter scenes. In fact, the average scene length today is one page long compared to four pages in the early 70s.

Copyright © 2015 by CJ Powers
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2 thoughts on “Death of the Three-Act Structure – Maybe Not

  1. As a quick thought experiment, I used this structure for the following image based story. I offer it here foryour amusement.

    ACT 1
    Rock split from mountain by lightning.
    Cavemen use rock to crush grain.
    Rock rolls away, caveman sees, thinks it’s beautiful.
    Caveman makes wheel from rock.

    ACT 2A
    Forgotten cart is found by nomadic peasant, rock rolls away.
    Rock used as seat for a weary traveler.
    Rock used as table for picnicking lovers.
    Peasant takes rock to use in shop.

    ACT 2B
    Rock used to butcher animals on.
    Rock abandoned as Roman soldiers kill townspeople.
    Rock picked up by soldiers, loaded into catapult.
    Rock used as weapon to kill people, rock lies beside dead.

    ACT 3
    Rock dug up by archeologists, discarded, trucked away.
    Rock crushed, beautiful inside, but each piece lost in gravel.
    Crushed rock made into road.
    A kid finds piece of rock by side of road, thinks it beautiful, pockets it.

  2. Pingback: 10 Directing Techniques that Raise a Film’s Quality (Part 1) | CJ's Corner

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