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Screenwriting 101: Three Act Structure III - Rigidity


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: The History of Screenwriting

  2. Screenwriting 101: How to Write and Format a Screenplay

  3. Screenwriting 101: Three-Act Structure I - Origins

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

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

  6. Screenwriting 101: Three-Act Structure in Practice

Screenwriting 101: Three-Act Structure III - Rigidity

Syd Field’s (1984/2005) original screenplay paradigm left much to be desired. Composed of three mostly empty acts and inaccurate early beats, the paradigm was far from perfect (Field, 1984/2005, p. 200). Nonetheless, Field’s work is an early conception of film structures. Many authors came up with their own structure theories, such as Michael Hauge (2003), Robert McKee (1997), John Truby (2007), David Trottier (2014) and Linda Seger (1987). Among them, was Hollywood’s so-called “most successful spec screenwriter” (Save the Cat!, n.d.), Blake Snyder. Snyder’s book, Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need (2005), offers a precise beat sheet for the entire length of a screenplay, leaving little to no blank space. Field (2006) upgraded his paradigm to fit his student’s needs (p. 213). Similarly, Snyder (2005) provides an extremely friendly approach for beginners and students alike by carefully outlining 15 beats with precise page numbers (p. 70). While screenwriting gurus and researchers avoid a formulaic conception of structure (Field, 2005, p. 28; McKee, 1997, p. 212; Trottier, 2014, p. 29), Snyder seems to lean into it. Although he never specifically uses the term formula, the insistence on page numbers and precise beats suggests a recipe of sorts. In fact, his formula is so precise that it averages one beat every seven pages (Snyder, 2005, p. 70).

Firstly, the rigidity of Snyder’s page count should be taken with a grain of salt. They are somewhat arbitrary and no concrete reason justifies them: “It [beat break into two] happens on page 25. I have been in many arguments. Why not page 28? What's wrong with 30? Don't. Please” (Snyder, 2005, p. 78). Secondly, his principles are not ironclad. He admits that he only wrote Save the Cat! (2005) to get credit for coining screenwriting terms (p. 119). This much is evident by the short explanations of his principles and the fact that nothing outside the 15-beat sheet became popular. In his 194-page book, only 30 pages are dedicated to the famous —and infamous— 15 beats. Snyder (2005) covers the logline, 10 new film genres that he came up with, a compilation of random screenwriting rules, hero archetypes, a checklist, a work method and tips on selling a screenplay (pp. v-vi). Additionally, Snyder's (2005) “save the cat” concept is erroneous. Save the cat is the idea that the protagonist must do something early in the story that makes the audience like them, such as saving a cat (Snyder, 2005, p. xv). Protagonists do not need to be likable, which is discussed in depth in The Problem of Likability in Protagonists (Praet, 2023). The article concludes that the main characters should be interesting, but not necessarily likable (Praet, 2023). Finally, despite this criticism, the 15-beat sheet still holds value as a tool in a screenwriter’s arsenal. The beats and their lengths should not be viewed as absolute. Robert McKee, Syd Field and David Trottier, famous screenwriting gurus, all note that there is no structured formula, only guidelines (Field, 1984/2005, p. 28; McKee, 1997, p. 212; Trottier, 2014, p. 29).

The beats and their page numbers in the screenplay are as follows:

Figure 1: Authors' 2023 adaptation of "Save the Cat!" (Snyder, 2005).

Unfortunately, there are no diagrams in Save the Cat! (2005) which showcase this structure. Jessica Brody, a young-adult novelist, offers a visual aid to the beat sheet in her adaptation of Snyder’s work, Save the Cat! Writes a Novel (2018). Since novels have a wide variety of page lengths, Brody (2018) divides the structure by percentages instead of page numbers. The structure is composed of sequence beats (multi-scenes) before being broken down further by single-scene beats (Brody, 2018, p. 31).

Field’s (1984/2005) ideas can be found in Snyder’s (2005) structure. The inciting incident matches the opening image: “The very first impression of what a movie is - its tone, its mood, the type and scope of the film - are all found in the opening image” (Snyder, 2005, p. 72). The inciting incident works as the opening to the film (Field, 2005, p. 97), just like the opening image. It should be noted that Field’s (2006) updated paradigm has moved the inciting incident from the opening scene to the catalyst: “In the set-up you, the screenwriter, have told us what the world is like and now in the catalyst moment you knock it all down” (Snyder, 2005, p. 76). The catalyst is the same as Field’s (2006) later conception of the inciting incident (Trottier, 2014, p. 16). Initially, the inciting incident was called the “key incident” (Field, 1984/2005, p. 44). Field (1984/2005) follows up with plot point I (p. 200), whereas Snyder prefers “Break into Two” (p. 79). The break into two scenes is key as it ensures the transition from act one to two just like plot point I does (Field, 1984/2005, p. 27). It must be a clear transition as: “the act break is the moment where we leave the old world, the thesis statement, behind and proceed into a world that is the upside down version of that, its antithesis” (Snyder, 2005, p. 79).

Figure 2: A child, Preston, becomes rich at the start of act two in Blake Snyder's "Blank Check" (1994).

Snyder (2005) conceives the three acts as thesis, antithesis and synthesis (p. 76). Act one is the thesis world: the hero’s status quo, while the antithesis is an upside-down version where chaos reigns (Snyder, 2005, p. 193). This beat cannot be vague, the hero must willingly enter a brand-new distinctive world (Snyder, 2005, p. 79). The transition from act one to two has to be clear, which is different from Field (1984/2005) who disagreed with McKee (1997) on the moment of this transition (p. 27; p. 221). Brody (2018) describes the break into two as “very obvious” (p. 41). A screenwriter must make the decision on how to write their act transition, explicit or not, as long as it serves the right purpose: “Crossing the First Threshold [plot point I] is an act of the will in which the hero commits wholeheartedly to the adventure.” (Vogler, 2007, p. 127). Crossing the first threshold is the same as plot point I (Vogler, 2007, p. 128). Although Brody (2018) indicates that the break into two parts happens at the end of act one (p. 27), she also places it as the first beat of act two (p. 41). This hesitance suggests an overlap in both acts. Similarly, Snyder (2005) places the beat on page 25, which coincides with the previous beat’s (debate) final page, corroborating the idea that it takes place at the end of the first act (p. 70). However, there is a 5-page gap between the break into two on page 25 and the B story on page 30 (Snyder, 2005, p. 70). For page ranges, Snyder (2005) writes them as such: “Fun and Games (30–55):” (p. 70). In this lengthy beat, a writer must provide the promise of the premise (Snyder, 2005, p. 81). This section is where the script delivers on the premise set in a synopsis, and most of the action happens here. For break into two, he simply writes: “6. Break into Two (25) 7. B Story (30):.” Every beat entry ends with “:” except break into two, highlighting the idea that it is not so clear-cut after all.

Field's (2006) and Snyder’s (2005) beats match two more times: the first at the midpoint and the second at plot point II. Field (2006) defines the midpoint: “It would not only move the action forward but would also break Act II down into two separate units of dramatic action” (p. 218). Act two is the longest act and tends to be difficult to write. To avoid a tiring act two, a midpoint must be created in order to give rhythm to the action in the story. The midpoint is a plot point that changes the story’s direction, often by raising the stakes (Brody, 2018, p. 52). This definition is similar to Snyder’s (2005, p. 82). However, Snyder (2005) adds perhaps his most significant twist to the modern screenwriting template at the midpoint:

[A] movie's midpoint is either an “up” where the hero seemingly peaks (though it is a false peak) or a “down” when the world collapses all around the hero (though it is a false collapse), and it can only get better from here on out. (p. 82).

Figure 3: Samantha the German Shepherd, dies at the midpoint of "I Am Legend" (Lawrence, 2007).

The importance of direction in a story was already theorized by Aristotle in Poetics (c. 335 BC/2008). More modern authors on narrative theory, including Field (2006, p. 240), highlight this: “The effects of Turning Points [plot points] are fourfold: surprise, increased curiosity, insight, and new direction” (McKee, 1997, p. 226). The concept of direction was straightforward, from plot point to midpoint (Field, 2006, p. 240); from left in the diagram to right in the diagram (figure 1). Snyder (2005) introduces the idea that while the direction is indeed from the plot point (break into two) to the midpoint, it goes up (or down) and not simply left to right (p. 82). Aristotle (c. 335 BC/2008) had already mentioned such an idea: “By the Complication [from beginning to midpoint] I mean all that extends from the beginning of the action to the part which marks the turning-point to good or bad fortune” (p. 20). The ancient two-act structure was built around the turning point that propels the story to good or bad fortune. As mentioned by Brody (2018), from the beginning of act two to the midpoint, everything is either going well or bad for the protagonist:

If your hero is shining in their upside-down world, if things are generally working out well for them (aside from a few bouncing balls), and Act 2 is proving to be a pretty decent place, then you ultimately have a false victory in your Midpoint. (p. 51)

If act two is an upward path for the hero, things are working out for them, and then they peak at the midpoint, which is a false victory. The victory is false because everything will go bad subsequently (Snyder, 2005, p. 82). Inversely, if the main character’s story was going terribly up to the midpoint, it is a false defeat since everything will start to work out for them (Brody, 2018, p. 51). This concept is first explored in Aristotle's Poetics (c. 335 BC/2008) and his discussion of the reversal. Snyder (2005) and Brody (2018) propose an adaptation of the idea. Reviving the midpoint’s good or bad fortune provides dimension to the story instead of being a straight line from left to right. The result is a structure that looks like a pyramid, similar to Gustav Freytag’s (1900) conception. However, Freytag’s (1900) pyramid was based on tension, not the protagonist’s individual situation in the new world (p.198). Field (2005) had already written that plot points should spin the story in another direction (p. 26), but did not specify up or down. These plot points indicated that something should change how the story plays out, but nothing was said about how well the protagonist handles the antithesis world of act two. These upward and downward trends influence the beats: Snyder (2005) refers to these concepts as: “Fun and Games” (p. 80) and “Bad Guys Close in” (p. 85). These names suggest that the hero is having fun in the first half, and after the midpoint, they struggle against their antagonists. The beats are named after the traditional structure of an upward path followed by a downward one. If it is the reverse: fun and games should not be fun for the hero; inversely, the bad guys close in would be a good sequence, which is the opposite of bad. (Brody, 2018, p. 58).

Figure 4: Freytag's pyramid (1900).

The last similarity between Snyder (2005) and Field (1984/2005) is plot point II or break into three. Two crucial beats lead up to break into three: “All is Lost” (p. 86) and “Dark Night of the Soul” (p. 88). Plot point II is simply described as: “the same as Plot Point I; it [plot point II] is the way to move the story forward, from Act II to Act III. It is a story progression” (Field, 1984/2005, p. 28). Break into three is the same except where the transition is accurately defined by its previous two beats. The hero reaches rock bottom and has lost everything (Brody, pp. 59–60). Dark night of the soul is the main character’s internal experience of all is lost and the way they feel about the situation (Snyder, 2005, p. 88). Once they lost everything and reacted to it, the protagonist finally finds the light at the end of the tunnel and understands everything. Thus begins act three: synthesis. Like Field (1984/2005), Snyder (2005) does not offer much description for act three. The beats are “Finale” (p. 90) and “Final Image” (p. 90). In the finale, the protagonist triumphs against evil and the final image is simply an epilogue (Snyder, 2005, p. 90). In 2009, he wrote another book, Save the Cat! Strikes Back, adding the “Five-Point Finale” (p. 58) to his oversimplified act three.

Writers should use any tool at their disposal to create the best story possible. Save the Cat! (2005) is just another item in their toolbox. It is not necessary to exclusively use Snyder’s (2005) structure. His beats can be ordered in whichever way a writer needs their story to unfold. In fact, they can select a few beats from Snyder, a few from Field, some more from other authors and even make up their own. Despite the insistence on following page numbers, structures are still only guidelines and approximations (Field, 2005, p. 28; McKee, 1997, p. 212; Trottier, 2014, p. 29). They can order them however they wish. Snyder’s (2005) exact page numbers are much too rigid and formulaic for screenwriters. Indeed, films have many forms. They should not be restricted to a single recipe, avoiding the risk of killing diversity in film. On the bright side, Field (1984/2005) and Snyder (2005) share many concepts, including the overall idea of structure, which helps to figure out the most important moments in movie structure.

Bibliographical References

Aristotle. (2008). The Poetics of Aristotle (S.H. Butcher, Trans.). Project Gutenberg. (Original work published c. 335 BC)

Brody, J. (2018). Save the Cat! Writes a Novel. Ten Speed Press.

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

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

Freytag, G. (1900). Technique of the Drama (E.J. MacEwan, Trans.) (3rd ed.). Scott, Forsman and Company.

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

Praet, Y. (2023, February 2023). The Problem of Likability in Protagonists. Arcadia.

Save the Cat!. (n.d.) Blake Snyder Bio.

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

Snyder, B. (2009). Save the Cat! Strikes Back. Greenleaf Books.

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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Yoran Praet

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