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Screenwriting 101: Three-Act Structure II - Basics

Foreword


Nearly all films are based on a screenplay, yet very few people actually read them, and fewer know how they work. As one of the most in-demand art forms today, screenplays are oddly misunderstood as no one outside of film production reads them. They are not exactly literature, as it belongs to cinematography, but not considered a film either as it has no images; the screenplay finds itself lost between art forms. Its place within art has always been bumpy, especially today as countless screenwriting manuals have been published, each of them claiming different ways to write for screens. Being one of the most popular forms of media, cinema attracts many artists eager to break into the industry, screenwriters included. The objective of this Screenwriting 101 series is to remove the veil from the elusive art of screenwriting, revealing once and for all the true nature of a screenplay.


Screenwriting 101 is divided into six chapters:

  1. Screenwriting 101: Three-Act Structure II - Basics

  2. Screenwriting 101: Three-Act Structure III - Rigidity

  3. Screenwriting 101: Three-Act Structure in Practice

Screenwriting 101: Three-Act Structure II - Basics


Widely regarded as the first and most influential screenwriting manual for Hollywood story templates, Screenplay (Field, 1979) popularized a three-act narrative in screenplays (Price, 2013, p.201). The manual’s influence was such that even today, it still reaches the top five screenwriting book recommendations. (Hellerman, 2019; Muhammand & Zilko, 2021; ScreenCraft, 2022; Studio Binder, 2021). Syd Field (1979), once recognized as the most sought-after screenwriting teacher in the world (The Hollywood Reporter, 2013), offered a simple guide to story structure. Through the years, Field revised and updated his template with The Screenwriter’s Workbook (2006). Many gurus followed in his steps, including Blake Snyder, creator of the famous 15-beat sheet story structure with his book Save the Cat! (2005). However, unlike Field’s (1984/2005) simple paradigm, Snyder built a precise beat-sheet with exact page numbers (2008). What these two famous gurus have in common is their commercial approach to screenwriting: “You're writing it, I hope, to sell!” (Field, 1984/2005, p.82). From this perspective, a good screenplay is one that sells: money equals quality. Regardless of the moral implications stemming from the idea, Hollywood is fueled by profits (Escandon 2020), like many industries. Thus, if a writer wants to see their script on the big screen, they must somewhat adhere to the rules of the game.


Firstly, the film structure is built around financial concerns. Due to the fact that “one page equals one minute of screen time” (Trottier, 2014, p.188), standard screenplays range from 90 to 120 pages (Trottier, 2014, p.4). 90 to 120 minutes is not a random decision, but an economic one that evolved throughout Hollywood history (Field, 1984/2005, p.22). In fact, Field (1984/2005) estimates that a single minute of a Hollywood studio film costs between $10,000 to $12,000 (p.22). With the costs being so high, studios are very careful when choosing which film to produce as show business is much more “business” than “show” (Field, 1984/2005, p. 22). Incidentally, money also happens to be why sequels, reboots and movie franchises keep getting made: “That's why they produce so many sequels and remakes [...]. A pre-sold franchise is something that a goodly chunk of the audience is already sold on” (Snyder, 2005, p. 3). From a Hollywood producer’s point of view, they must make as many commercially successful movies as possible. Aside from franchises, sequels and other pre-sold movies, it is impossible to accurately predict which movie will work and which won’t: “Hollywood’s bombs are made with the same commercial calculation as its hits” (McKee, 1997, p.11). Most gurus agree on the fact that it is impossible to know exactly which movie will make money and which won’t (Akers, 2008, p.66; Field, 1984/2005, p.103). With this in mind, producers must still decide what to produce, it is their job after all. For the answer, they turn to screenplay manuals: “The principles in this book have been totally embraced by the film industry” (Field, 1984/2005, p.12).


Figure 1: Film is show-business (2019).

At first glance, Field’s (1984/2005) claim about the principles in his book (p.12) may be quite bold, but one look at the structured paradigm reveals why his principles are so widely accepted. The structure is fairly straightforward. Only two major beats separate each act. The beginning, act one, ends with Plot Point I and act two ends with Plot Point II. As for page numbers, they are merely guidelines: “Any page numbers I reference are only a guideline to indicate approximately where the story progresses to the next level, not how it progresses” (Field, 1984/2005, p.28). These numbers vary from screenplay to screenplay, especially for those closer to the 90-page mark. Field’s structure paradigm seems even simpler than The Hero’s Journey (Vogler, 2007, p.14) presented in Screenwriting 101: Three-Act Structure I - Origins. However, Field omits to include two crucial act one beats in the diagram: the inciting incident and the key incident. It is important to note that Field’s original conception of these beats differs from modern screenwriting theory. In Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting (1984/2005), Field (1984/2005) defines the inciting incident as the opening scene:


What is the opening of your screenplay? How does it begin? What is the opening scene or sequence? [...] Once you establish this scene or sequence, usually called the inciting incident, you can set up the rest of your story. (p. 97).


Field’s (1984/2005) idea of an opening scene that captures the viewer’s attention, the inciting incident, is known as the hook today: “If the opening scene captures the reader’s interest in some unique way, it is called the hook” (Trottier, 2014, p.10). Many terms float around and are used differently. The general understanding of the term “inciting incident” today is as follows: “[T]he Catalyst [inciting incident] kicks things out of balance and gives the central character a new problem, need, goal, desire, or mission. The central character spends the rest of the movie trying to get things back into balance” (Trottier, 2014, p.16). Although David Trottier, author of The Screenwriter’s Bible (2014), prefers the term “catalyst” he indicates that it is the same as the inciting incident (p.16). Robert McKee (1997), the most sought-after screenwriting lecturer in the world (IMDb, n.d.), has a similar definition: “[T]he Inciting Incident first throws the protagonist’s life out of balance, then arouses in him the desire to restore that balance” (p.187). The key difference between today’s conception of the inciting incident and Field’s (1984/2005) is the function. Field’s (1984/2005) inciting incident hooks the viewer (p.97) as opposed to today, where the beat disturbs the protagonist’s status quo (McKee, 1997, p.187; Trottier, 2014, p.16). Recent versions of Field’s screenplay template adopt the more modern idea of inciting incidents, placing it in act one, although no specific page number is provided (figure 2).


Figure 2: Field's modern paradigm (2013).

Notice the absence of “key incident” in the modern diagram, Field’s (1984/2005) second act one beat: “Screenplays are usually about a key incident, and the story is the character acting and reacting to it. It is the major source of all action and all character” (p.44). That is the same as McKee’s (1997) inciting incident where the protagonists react to it, driving the rest of the story (p.186). Field’s (1984/2005)original theory of inciting incidents has been replaced by the hook (Trottier, 2014, p.10). Furthermore, the key incident took the name of inciting incident, the event that disturbs the protagonist’s balance and fuels —or creates— their desire and/or goals. Pinches, Midpoint and Climax are all additions made later on by Field in The Screenwriter’s Workbook (2006). The newer version of the paradigm is much more precise than the original one which was essentially a three-beat act one (inciting incident, key incident and plot point I) followed by a single-beat act two that marks its ending (plot point II), and a beatless act three (Field, 2005, p.200).


Field’s (1984/2005) initial conception was rudimentary compared to today. Perhaps his most influential addition to screenwriting is his plot points. Only two appear in his paradigm, but many plot points can occur during a movie: “There may be many Plot Points during the course of the storyline; I only focus on Plot Points I and II because these two events are the anchoring moments that become the foundation of the dramatic structure in the screenplay” (Field, 1984/2005, p.28). Plot points I and II are the basis of the paradigm since they ensure the transition between acts: “Plot Points serve an essential purpose in the screenplay; they are a major story progression and keep the storyline anchored in place” (Field, 1984/2005, p.27). As progressions anchors, major plot points allow for the story to move from one act to the other. Field (1984/2005) notes that plot point I and the key incident sometimes occur in the same scene (p.134). Plot points ensure these transitions by hooking in the action and spinning it in another direction (Field, 1984/2005, p.26). In Aristotelian (c.335 BC/2008) terms, they are reversals (p.13). Just like multiple reversals reside in a story (Aristotle, c.335 BC/2008, p.13), multiple plot points structure the paradigm (Field, 1984/2005, p.28). Despite being absent from the paradigm, regular plot points spin the action around, just like the major ones. For instance, in Chinatown (1974), private detective Jake Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson, is asked by a woman to investigate if her husband, chief engineer at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Hollis Mulwray, is having an affair. Gittes takes a picture of Mr. Mulwray kissing a young woman and turns the evidence over to the wife. The next morning, the picture is in the newspapers and Evelyn Mulwray threatens to sue Gittes. As it turns out, the woman who originally hired Gittes was not Mrs. Mulwray, but an impostor. Frustrated by the trickery, the detective sets out to find out who set him up when Hollis Mulwray is murdered. The story follows Gittes figuring out who is behind everything and why he was set up. In the inciting incident, Gittes is asked to investigate an affair (00:04:30). According to Field (2005) Plot point I occurs when the real Mrs. Mulwray shows up at Gittes’s office (00:19:19) (p.27). The action is spun in another direction. Gittes was caught in something bigger than just a love affair, someone was willing to pose as Mrs. Mulwray to get dirt on Mr. Mulwray. Naturally, Gittes sets out to find out who is behind it. The story changes direction from a straightforward cheating investigation to something bigger. It will soon get even worse as Mr. Mulwray is murdered (00:31:30).


Figure 3: Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) and Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway). Still from Chinatown (1974).

Due to major plot points and regular plot points filling the same function, they are not always easy to distinguish. Field (1984/2005) identifies Mrs. Mulwray confronting Gittes as both plot point I and a key incident (pp. 27, 44, 133). Field (1984/2005) may be wrong in this situation as Mr. Mulwray’s murder (00:31:30) is a more significant and timely event than Mrs. Mulwray’s confrontation. His paradigm (figure 2) requires plot point I to be at approximately 30 pages in the screenplay. Using the “one page equals one minute of screen time” (Trottier, 2014, p.188) rule, that would be the 30-minute mark. Following timestamps, the murder at 31 minutes should be plot point I not the confrontation with Mrs. Mulwray at 19 minutes. A more accurate analysis would be to say that the confrontation with Mrs. Mulwray is the key incident while the murder is plot point I. The movie runs just over 120 minutes, the perfect length to compare with the 120-page paradigm template (figure 2). Since page numbers are only guidelines, that would discredit the argument for time. However, both story events spin the action around since they are both plot points. McKee (1997) argues in favor of the murder as plot point, stating that Chinatown’s (1974) central plot starts later than 30 minutes (p. 221). McKee (1997) claims that movies with late central plots (plot point I), need to include subplots to fill the first 30-minute void (p.221). Mrs. Mulwray’s confrontation is not exactly a subplot. Her character is central to the story as she’s not only the victim’s wife, but the person Gittes works with and, later, fails to save when it is revealed that her father, Noah Cross is the culprit. However, her character’s importance to the story only strengthens the idea that the murder is the true plot point I as she officially teams up with Gittes on the very next scene (00:33:40). In the end, both are crucial plot points to the story and figuring out exactly which is the correct plot point I will not change the movie. If a writer wants to use the paradigm, they can choose which scene will transition from act one to act two.


The modern approach to Field’s (1984/2005) paradigm provides a more accurate and helpful guide for screenwriters as more milestones divide the structure (figure 2). The inciting incident can happen anywhere in act one, from the opening scene to plot point I. In The Sixth Sense (1999), psychiatrist Malcolm Crowe must help a troubled child who sees dead people. The inciting incident of the movie occurs at the end of the long opening sequence when a young man that Crowe failed to help years earlier, shoots him (00:07:40). Plot point I occurs later on when Crowe commits to helping a young boy, Cole, with similar problems to the man who shot him (00:28:15). Pinches I and II, new additions to the paradigm, are not absolute beats: none of them are. According to Field (2006), pinches keep the action going as they are:


a sequence that keeps the action moving forward to the Mid-Point, or to Plot Point II. It is just a little pinch in the storyline that keeps the action on track, moving the story forward either to the Mid-Point or Plot Point II. (p. 243).


Simply put, it is just an extra pinch to the story: a minor complication. In Chinatown (1974) this would be when Gittes accurately accuses Mrs. Mulwray of hiding information from him (00:49:00). In The Sixth Sense (1999), it is when a teacher scolds Cole and calls him a freak (00:37:00). Time differences are noticeable already. The Sixth Sense (1999) runs for 107 minutes while Chinatown (1974) runs for 128 minutes, justifying the difference in times. Furthermore, they are two different stories. Each story has its own needs and beat lengths. The paradigm splits act two in half with the midpoint and splits that half again with the pinches (figure 2). Some stories may have several pinches between act one and the midpoint just like they could have none. Similarly, the second half of act two, from midpoint to plot point II, could have a variety of pinches. Pinches are plot points (Field, 2006, p.243): they are the regular plot points that were absent from the original paradigm.


Figure 4: Haley Joel Osment (left) and Bruce Willis (right). Still from "The Sixth Sense" (1999).

The midpoint is yet another plot point: “It would not only move the action forward but would also break Act II down into two separate units of dramatic action” (Field, 2006, p.218). Field (2006) modified his paradigm based on the needs of his students (p.213). Because of the massive gap between act one and act three, students found it difficult to write 60 pages without direction or milestones (Field, 2006, p.213). The midpoint originated from this need for direction. In fact, pinches were born the same way, to bridge the gap from act one to the midpoint (Field, 2006, p.243). Thus, instead of a colossal 60-page void, act two was divided into four bite-sized sequences, each 15 pages long (Field, 2006, p. 243). Once again, every story will have different needs. In The Writer’s Journey (2007), one story beat leads to the midpoint and two beats connect it to act three (Vogler, 2007, p.14). For Aristotle (c.335 BC/2008) there are no pinches, simply a midpoint reversal (p.20). Snyder (2005) identifies three beats on either side of the midpoint (p.70). Trottier (2014) finds none between plot point I and the midpoint, but one after (p.22). McKee (1997) only specifies a mid-act climax (midpoint), but he does not advocate a single structure guideline, noting that three acts are simply a minimum, there may be as many acts as necessary interspersed with climaxes (p.214). Gurus and writers alike do not agree on the correct structure (McKee, 1997; Snyder, 2005; Trottier, 2014; Vogler 2007). For an aspiring screenwriter, it is best to take information from every author, personalizing beats and structure according to the story they wish to write.


In the end, writers are always completely free to write however they wish. Even if they adopt Field’s (1984/2005) old or new paradigm, they have plenty of legroom to build stories, especially after act one: the most beat-dense act. The three-act structure was created on the basis of movie economy, structured around 120 pages. Upon closer look, Field, “the father of the modern movie template” (Snyder, 2005, p.69), does not provide the absolute truth on screenplay structure and many of his ideas differ from other major screenwriting authors such as Robert McKee and David Trottier. The idea of major plot points turning the action was an important innovation, a change from Aristotle (c. 335 BC/2008) who only thought about one, the midpoint reversal (p.13). Conceptualizing plot points is a complex task. The aspiring writer must remember to make their story progress, whether they have earlier or later plot points, Chinatown (1974) is one such example. Major screenwriting researchers and gurus are both right and wrong, customizing their ideas to create a story is each writer’s individual task. What works for one story may not work for another. In screenwriting, there is only one truth: “[D]on’t be boring. That’s the only inviolable rule” (Akers, 2008, p.27).



Bibliographical References

Akers, W. M. (2008). Your Screenplay Suck! 100 Ways to Make it Great. Michael Wiese Productions.


Aristotle. (2008). The Poetics of Aristotle (S.H. Butcher, Trans.). Project Gutenberg. (Original work published c. 335 BC) https://www.amherst.edu/system/files/media/1812/The%252520Poetics%252520of%252520Aristotle%25252C%252520by%252520Aristotle.pdf


Field, S. (2005). Screenplay: the Foundations of Screenwriting (revised edition). Delta.


Field, S. (2006). The Screenwriter’s Workbook (revised edition). Delta.


Escandon, R. (2020, March 12). The Film Industry Made A Record-Breaking $100 Billion Last Year. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/rosaescandon/2020/03/12/the-film-industry-made-a-record-breaking-100-billion-last-year/?sh=481bb46934cd


Hellerman, J. (2019, October 23). The 20 Best Screenwriting Books You Should Get Right Now.

No Film School. https://nofilmschool.com/best-screenwriting-books


Internet Movie Database. (n.d.). Robert McKee. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0571210/


McKee, R. (1997). Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. HarperCollins.


Muhammad, L. & C. Zilko. (2021, September 27). Best Screenwriting Books Every Writer Should Read. Indie Wire. https://www.indiewire.com/shop/best-screenwriting-books-1234621795/


Polanski, R. (Director). (1974). Chinatown. Long Road Productions.


ScreenCraft. (2022, August 16). Top 16 Screenwriting Books. https://screencraft.org/blog/top-16-screenwriting-books/


Shyamalan, M. N. (Director). (1999).The Sixth Sense. Hollywood Pictures.


Snyder, B. (2005). Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. Michael Wiese Productions.


Studio Binder. (2021, August 15). 15 Best Screenwriting Books to Help You Break Into Hollywood. https://www.studiobinder.com/blog/best-screenwriting-books/


The Hollywood Reporter. (2013, November 18). Screenwriting Guru Syd Field Dies at 77. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-news/screenwriting-guru-syd-field-dies-656878/


Trottier, D. (2014). The Screenwriter’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script. (6th ed.). Silman-James Press.


Vogler, C. (2007). The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers (3rd. ed.). Michael Wiese Productions.

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