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Screenwriting 101: Three-Act Structure in Practice

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:


Screenwriting 101: Three-Act Structure in Practice


Several authors thoroughly investigated story structures (Aristotle c. 335 BC; Freytag 1900; Propp 1928; McKee, 1997; Field, 2005; Snyder, 2005; Vogler, 2007; Trottier, 2014). Despite the mountain of knowledge provided by their books, good and bad movies keep being made, with and without consideration of their structures. Field (2005) and Snyder (2005), both successful screenwriting gurus, boast their authority and the credibility of their theories based on their industry experience (p. 8; p. xii). If these theories were absolute, then the film industry would likely make similar movies, yet even Hollywood fails to predict the success of their films (McKee, 1997, p.11). Naturally, there is no guarantee that a movie will be successful, critically or commercially, irrespective of structure (McKee, 1997, p. 11). With that in mind, a certain style of film is generally preferred to increase the chances of success. McKee (1997), the most sought-after screenwriting lecturer in the world (IMDb, n.d.), calls this style the Archplot (p. 48):


CLASSICAL DESIGN [Archplot] means a story built around an active protagonist who struggles against primarily external forces of antagonism to pursue his or her desire, through continuous time, within a consistent and causally connected fictional reality, to a closed ending of absolute, irreversible change. (p. 47).


The Archplot, or classical design, is not the only form of storytelling. It is, however, the most popular method by far (Bevis, 2017). Consequently, Hollywood prefers to produce films that lean towards this method of story design to maximize the odds of success (McKee, 1997, p.65). Neither popularity nor Hollywood are definite factors of quality. As such, commercially successful films leaning towards the Archplot like Miss Congeniality (2000) can suffer critically (Rotten Tomatoes). Inversely, stories that do not follow the Archplot or common structures can be critical successes without necessarily reaching blockbuster numbers in terms of profits (McKee, 1997, pp.60-61). Memento (2000) is an example, reaching 93% on Rotten Tomatoes. A film may also boast both classic plot design and structure while failing completely on both commercial and critical fronts, like with Detention of the Dead (2013).


First, a dive into the specifics of Hollywood films is required as screenwriting gurus focus mainly on the financial aspect of the script (Field, 2005, p. 82; Snyder, 2005, p. xiii). In his famous, and controversial, book on story structure, Blake Snyder (2005) claims that his 15-beat sheet (Figure 1; Screenwriting 101: Three-Act Structure III - Rigidity.) fits perfectly with the $200 million (Box Office Mojo, n.d.) hit Miss Congeniality (2000).

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

In fact, Snyder (2005) dedicates four pages to this analysis through the scope of his structure (pp. 92-96). In Miss Congeniality (2000), Grace Hart, played by Sandra Bullock, is a tomboy FBI agent who must go undercover in a beauty pageant to stop a bomb attack (Petrie, 2000). Femininity, masculinity and toughness are the main themes found within this film. In act one, the thesis world, in Snyder’s (2005, p.76) terms, Hart is a child; she fights off bullies to save a boy (Petrie, 2000, 00:01:40). The boy insults her, claiming that he does not want to be saved by a girl (Petrie, 2000, 00:02:00). The story then cuts to Hart as an adult. She is one of few women in the male-dominated FBI. Hart claims she does not need to worry about being feminine since she is an FBI agent (Snyder, 2005, p. 92). That declaration is the thematic premise of the film (Snyder, 2005, p. 73). The set-up shows Hart at the bottom of the rung at the FBI, no one takes her seriously and her boss wants to suspend her (Petrie, 2000, 00:12:40). The catalyst of the plot is when the FBI receives credible information that someone threatens to attack the Miss United States Beauty pageant (Petrie, 2000, 00:12:00). Hart comes up with the idea of an undercover operation within the pageant (Petrie, 2000, 00:17:00). Being a tomboy herself, no one realizes that she is a suitable candidate for the operation until they run out of female agents in the database. Ultimately, she accepts to enter the pageant as an undercover operative (Petrie, 2000). Snyder (2005) accurately identifies the following section as the debate (p.93). The debate corresponds to Hollywood executive Vogler’s (2007) conception of the “Refusal of the Call” (p.11). The debate is: “a multi-scene beat in which you visibly show us how resistant your hero is to accept the change that’s been thrown at them” (Brody, 2018, p.40). The hero is initially reluctant to accept the quest, which is why they often refuse it at first. Refusing the quest is not an obligatory moment. In Miss Congeniality (2000), Hart initially refuses the job at the pageant (Petrie, 2000, 00:20:00). The debate extends further in this case since Hart must prepare for the quest as she needs to become more feminine in order to pass as a beauty pageant contestant. The FBI hires beauty pageant consultant Victor Melling (Michael Caine) to help Hart become contest-ready (Petrie, 2000, 00:25:30–00:35:30). The break into two (Snyder, 2005, p.94) occurs at the end of Hart’s preparation; she saunters out of the studio with clean hair, a miniskirt and heels (Snyder, 2005, p.94).


Figure 2: Grace Hart is pageant ready. Still from "Miss Congeniality" (Petrie, 2000).

Act two begins with the fun and games beat (Snyder, 2005, p.940). Hart is out of place with the pageant girls, but she learns to fit in (Petrie, 2000, 00:42:50). During this beat, the B story takes place. The B story is where the protagonist learns the theme(s) of the film, like femininity in Miss Congeniality (2000) (Snyder, 2005, p.94). It is important to note that the film links femininity to beauty pageants despite the fact that gender may take on many forms (Gender Spectrum, n.d.). At the midpoint, Hart leaps offstage onto a man, erroneously believing that he was a criminal (Petrie, 2000, 00:54:12). Hart’s competence is in doubt and the pageant hosts are furious (Petrie, 2000). The next beat is bad guys close in (Snyder, 2005, p. 94). Usually, life gets more difficult for the protagonist as the antagonist complicates the quest (Brody, 2018, p.58). Snyder (2005) indicates that actual bad guys move in closer behind the scenes (p.94). He fails to provide additional information. In Miss Congeniality (2005), Hart does have a falling-out with her coach, but gets right back up before becoming friends with the other pageant contestants (Petrie, 2000, 01:00:00). The bomb attack does move nearer when the end of the pageant approaches, but the hero’s life seems to actually become easier after the initial drop that follows the midpoint. At the stage called all is lost (Snyder, 2005, p. 95), Hart’s boss cancels the operation (Petrie, 2000, 01:14:30). Hart continues on her own, but without her coach’s support, she is lost (dark night of the soul) (Snyder, 2005, p. 95). Thankfully, her new pageant friends help her out during the break into three beat (Snyder, 2005, p. 95). In the finale, Hart saves the pageant and beats the antagonists (Petrie, 2000, 01:35:00). Hart is then given the Miss Congeniality award by the contestants in the final image (Snyder, 2005, p.96). The film grossed over $200 million worldwide but received a 41% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (n.d.). Miss Congeniality (2000) closely follows Snyder’s (2005) beat sheet. The film may have succeeded in terms of profits, but not quality. From the perspective of selling, the script achieved its goal of making money. However, it seems to not have been a good one as critic ratings show.


Second, some critically acclaimed movies like Memento (2000) do not adopt Snyder’s (2005) strict structure. Snyder (2005) goes as far as to write: “screw Memento!” (p.91). His opinion notwithstanding, Memento (2000) did turn a profit with nearly $40 million box office gross on a $9 million budget (Box Office Mojo, n.d.). Although, quite far from Miss Congeniality’s (2000) $200 million (Box Office Mojo, n.d.). While Snyder (2005) admits that Memento (2000) was an entertaining movie, he equates its quality to the money it made (p.96). Memento (2000) tells the story of Leonard, a man with short-term memory loss, whose goal is to find and kill his wife’s murderer (Nolan, 2000). Due to his memory loss condition, he writes many notes to himself and gets tattoos of important information to guide himself when he inevitably forgets everything that happened just a few minutes prior (Nolan, 2000). What makes this film unique is the way the story unfolds with two timelines following each other in parallel: the first one, in the past and shot in black and white, shows Leonard on the phone explaining his condition; the second is set in the present, but laid out in reverse order (Nolan, 2000). The movie starts with the ending and moves up to the beginning, revealing precious information along the way. This peculiar chronology opposes Snyder’s (2005) 15-beat sheet, which requires a linear conception of time in stories. Despite how unique the film is, it does follow basic structures. Notably, Syd Field’s (2005) original screenplay paradigm template. In the early version of the paradigm, Field (2005) indicates that the inciting incident is the opening sequence of the film:


[T]he opening sex/murder [scene], is called the inciting incident, because it sets the story in motion; it is the first visual representation of the key incident, what the story is about, and draws the main character into the storyline. (p. 129).


The opening does not have to be sex or murder to be an inciting incident. However, for Memento (2000), Leonard murdering Teddy is the first scene and the inciting incident (Nolan, 2000, 00:02:23). That murder is the driving force of the story. Leonard kills the man who raped and murdered his wife (Nolan, 2000). This opening shows him exacting revenge. However, as the story progresses, the audience learns more about Leonard, why he killed Teddy, how his memory condition works, and, most importantly, that Teddy is not the culprit (Nolan, 2000). The audience knows none of this at the start, only that Leonard killed a man. The catalyst, or key incident in Field’s (2005) first paradigm and inciting incident in his most recent template, occurs at around 15 minutes when Leonard removes his shirt and discovers a tattoo across his chest: “John G. raped and murdered my wife” (Nolan, 2000, 00:15:42). It should be noted that this scene serves both the catalyst and the plot point I function. The catalyst: “kicks things out of balance and gives the central character a new problem, need, goal, desire, or mission” (Trottier, 2014, p.16). Leonard’s problem is that a man named John G. killed his wife and he wants revenge (Nolan, 2000). This catalyst gives the story direction. During the first 15 minutes, the audience learns about Leonard and his condition, but they do not know why he killed someone until the catalyst occurs. This scene is also considered a plot point; “A Plot Point is defined as any incident, episode, or event that hooks into the action and spins it around in another direction” (Field, 2005, p.26). To be exact, it is plot point I, the event that ensures a transition to the second act (Field, 2005, p.26). In Snyder’s (2005) terms, this is called the break into two. However, in Trottier’s (2014) terms, it is simply called the “Big Event” (p.28). Field’s (2005) act two is mostly devoid of story beats (p.200). Only plot point II marks the transition to act three, but no other beats cover the second act.


Figure 3: Leonard's tattoos. Still from "Memento" (Nolan, 2000).

In Memento (2005), act two has no specific beat like Save the Cat! (Snyder, 2005). Normally, fun and games, B story, midpoint, bad guys close in, all is lost, and dark night of the soul would guide the narrative before act three (Snyder, 2005, p.70). However, there is no such structure in Memento (2000). An argument could be made for a midpoint at 01:13:00 when Leonard discovers that the woman helping him, Natalie, is actually using him to kill her drug dealer boyfriend (Nolan, 2000). It is roughly the middle of the film and spins the action in another direction, proving that an ally was actually an enemy, just like a plot point would. Plot point II, the plot point ensuring the transition to act three (Field, 2005, p.28), occurs at 01:35:30 when Leonard sets out to meet Jimmy Grant, the suspected John G. who attacked his wife (Nolan, 2000). Field (2005) simply notes that act three resolves the story (p.26). The resolution in Memento (2000) comes when Teddy explains that Leonard already killed the real John G. a year ago, but he forgot (Nolan, 2000, 01:43:00). Leonard has been repeating the same task of killing a person named John G. over and over again, but he never remembers (Nolan, 2000). Leonard refuses to face the truth and tricks himself into killing Teddy by writing his car’s license plate number as John G.’s (Nolan, 2000). Thus when he inevitably forgets the truth, he will hunt and kill the man who owns that car, Teddy or, his real name, John E. Gammel (Nolan, 2000, 01:48:33). In the end, John G. is neither Jimmy Grant nor Teddy. That scene is the beginning of the movie. The non-linear timeline and lack of precise beats go against Snyder’s (2005) idea of structure. Yet, Memento (2000) received critical acclaim despite not making nearly as much as a Hollywood blockbuster.


A precise structure seems to have little impact on a movie’s quality or commercial success. For instance, Detention of the Dead (2012), mostly follows Save the Cat! (2005), but ended up with a 4.5/10 (IMDb, n.d.) and less than $2,000 in box office gross with a $500,000 budget (The Numbers, n.d.). In a similar vein, Speed (1994) is both a critical success (94% on Rotten Tomatoes) and a commercial success ($350 million according to Box Office Mojo). Speed (1994) uses a classic story design like Field’s (2005) simple template. The paradigm is not necessarily better than the 15-beat sheet, but it is much simpler, allowing for significantly more variation. The first 30 pages of the screenplay follow SWAT operative Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) thwarting a terrorist’s plan to blow up a building (Whedon & Yost, 1994). Only the set-up beat from Save the Cat! (2005) is used in this case. The catalyst and break into two; or key incident/inciting incident and plot point I are combined in one scene when a terrorist calls Traven, telling him that there’s a bomb on a bus (Whedon & Yost, 1994, pp.27-31). The first half of act two is quite long, lasting 42 pages, from pages 34 to 73 (Whedon & Yost, 1994). In comparison, Save the Cat! (2005) requires 25 pages and two beats. The midpoint comes on page 73, where Traven gets the bus off the road and into the airport (Whedon & Yost, 1994).


Figure 4: Jack Traven speaking with the terrorist. Still from "Speed" (De Bont, 1994).

Furthermore, an upward and downward trend should flank each side of the midpoint in the 15-beat sheet (Brody, 2018, p. 51). While Traven was struggling before the midpoint, he was generally doing well. Past the midpoint, Traven negotiates with the terrorist while the bus circles the free airport forever, far from the dangers of the highway (De Bont, 1994). In both cases, the protagonist is mostly winning. The ending of the second act includes an 'all is lost' moment and a dark night of the soul, where Traven figures out how to save everyone (Whedon & Yost, 1994, pp.95-100). That seems to be the only similarity to Snyder's (2005) structure as act three presents two finales. In the first, Traven manages to evacuate everyone from the bus (Whedon & Yost, 1994, pp. 100-110). In the second, Traven confronts and kills the terrorist (Whedon & Yost, 1994, pp.110-124). Speed’s (1994) structure could be construed slightly differently. The first finale could be part of the second half of act two after the all is lost and dark night of the soul moments. Of course, that would go against Snyder’s (2005) principles, but the structure is not absolute. From this conception of the film’s structure, act one would be 31 pages, act two is 79 pages (42 pages before the midpoint and 37 after), and act three is a mere 14 pages (Whedon & Yost, 1994).


Screenwriting manuals and guides provide invaluable information on the relatively unknown art of screenwriting. However, no single author or researcher can offer the absolute truth about how to write a screenplay. They often propose story structures (Aristotle, c. 335 BC/2008; Field, 2005; Snyder, 2005; Trottier, 2014; Vogler, 2007), but films are not restricted to a single structure. A movie is made of images, characters, and dialogue, which are so much more than just structure. If there is something to be learned from these manuals, and this 101 series, it is the malleability of screenwriting and story structure. Snyder (2005) may not recommend deviating from his strict formula, but other authors do (Field, 2005; McKee, 1997; Trottier, 2014; Vogler 2007). The best they can offer, the best anyone can offer in this field are guidelines. Beyond that, the art of screenwriting still has much to be discovered. As Field (2005) writes: “I can't teach anybody how to write a screenplay. People teach themselves the craft of screenwriting” (p.8).

Bibliographical References

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


Bevis, K. (2017, March 29). Arch Plot, Mini-Plot and Anti-Plot. https://kaitlinbevis.com/2017/03/29/arch-plot-mini-plot-and-anti-plot/


Bont, J. D. (Director). (1994). Speed. 20th Century Fox.


Box Office Mojo. (n.d.). Memento. https://www.boxofficemojo.com/release/rl627213825/


Box Office Mojo. (n.d.). Miss Congeniality. https://www.boxofficemojo.com/release/rl3848439297/


Box Office Mojo. (n.d.). Speed. https://www.boxofficemojo.com/title/tt0111257/


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


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


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


Gender Spectrum. (n.d.). Understanding Gender.

https://genderspectrum.org/articles/understanding-gender


IMDb. (n.d.). Detention of the Dead. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1865346/


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


Nolan, C. (Director). (2000). Memento. Summit Entertainment.


Petrie, D. (Director). (2000). Miss Congeniality. Fortis Films.


Propp, V. (1968). Morphology of the Folktale (2nd ed.). University of Texas Press. (Original work published in 1928).


Rotten Tomatoes. (n.d.). Miss Congeniality.

https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/miss_congeniality


Rotten Tomatoes. (n.d.). Speed. https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/speed_1994


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


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.


The Numbers. (n.d.). Detention of the Dead. https://www.the-numbers.com/movie/Detention-of-the-Dead#tab=summary


Whedon, J. & G. Yost. (Screenwriters.).(1994). Speed [Screenplay]. 20th Century Fox.


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