It has been estimated that at least 50,000 scripts are written every year. Yet only a few hundred are bought and made. Why do so many writers fail?

Clearly, there is a limit to how many scripts the business can support. But in the vast majority of cases, scripts do not sell because the writer has not written a good script.

I have taught and worked with literally thousands of writers. Every one of those writers was an intelligent, dedicated and determined person. Those who failed did not lack brains, heart or will. In every case, failure was due to the lack of training and professional technique.

Anatomy Of Story With John Truby

Most writers have had no training at all when they try to write a script that will sell. Great screenwriting is more difficult than brain surgery, yet most people think that they can write a great script because they watch a lot of movies or they did well in school.

When they do decide to get a little knowledge, most writers go out and buy a couple of books on screenwriting. And what do they learn? Almost invariably, these books tell them about the so-called 3-act structure. These writers have just killed any chance they had of writing a script that will sell.

The so-called 3-act structure is the biggest, most destructive myth ever foisted on writers. I would like to call it obsolete. But that implies that it worked in the first place. It didn't. Let me explain why.

The 3-act structure exists for one reason and one reason only: a story analyst declared it into existence. He found that something important seemed to happen in some successful scripts on page 27 and on page 87. He called them plot points, said that based on these plot points every screenplay had three acts, and incredibly, everyone bought it.

Such has been the sad state of screenwriting training and the desperation of screenwriters themselves that no one noticed that the emperor was in fact naked. Instead, a lot of people who should know better joined in the chorus and wrote screenwriting books (over 100 to date) agreeing with this silly idea.

Some have gone so far as to say there are three acts in all fiction - there aren't - and insist that it was Aristotle who first "discovered" this "fact." In fact Aristotle never said anything about three acts. He said there is a beginning, middle, and end to every story, and that is the extent of your knowledge when you use the 3-act structure.

Using the 3-act structure to explain why one script was successful and another failed is like saying that most moneymaking scripts have a happy ending. Most do, but so do most films that fail and most scripts that don't sell in the first place.

Now anyone can divide anything into three parts. It is often the first step in taking a big mass of something and breaking it into a manageable process. In fact, I refer to the 3-act structure as the "Training Wheels School of Drama." It is a confidence builder for beginners to help them start writing. The problem is that thousands of people trying to write professionally are still riding around on their training wheels!

Why is it impossible for the 3-act structure to help you create a great script?

First, the concept of the act comes from theatre where we must open and close a curtain. Why would you want to take a relatively clumsy technique from theatre and apply it to the much more fluid medium of film?

Second, dividing a film into three acts is far too general and simplistic. The standard terms that this "method" uses - act, plot point, reversal, climax, resolution, etc. - are so broad as to be almost meaningless.

And that means these terms are difficult to apply to your particular plot and characters. For example, say your hero is being chased down a dark alley by some bad guys. Is that a plot point, a reversal, a climax, a resolution, or just another scene? Who knows? Our story concepts are our tools. If our tools are imprecise, we are bound to fail.

Fourth, the 3-act structure places no emphasis on character. Notice that none of the standard terms listed above has anything to do with character. Nor is there any mention of how character connects to plot. Not surprisingly, scripts written this way tend to have shallow characters.

Fifth, the 3-act structure almost guarantees that your script will have a weak plot. The 3-act structure says you need two or three "plot points." Big mistake. Especially in the last few years, Hollywood has been emphasizing tightly-plotted stories. Take a look at the film "Presumed Innocent." This film doesn't have two or three plot points, or story turns. It has no less than twelve! Imagine competing in the Hollywood sweepstakes against scripts like "Presumed Innocent" with your three plot-point story. Yet that is precisely what most writers are doing.

Finally, the 3-act structure doesn't work because it is arbitrary. Give a script to ten people and ask them to tell you where the plot points and the act breaks are. You will get at least ten different answers. And they will all be correct. Act breaks are wherever you say they are. Sometimes, writers reluctant to move beyond the 3-act structure ask: What will I say if executives ask me where my act breaks are? Tell them whatever you want. The executives won't know the difference, or care. They just ask the question to make it look like they know something.

Why not say that all scripts are really divided into four acts, or five or six? Preston Sturges, a far better authority than most on great writing, used to divide his scripts into eight acts, or sections, as he called them.

Using the 3-act structure to explain the success or failure of a script is like "experts" explaining why the stock market went down or an earthquake occurred when it did - after the fact. Notice the experts never predict successfully before the occurrence. Why? Because their tools are too inexact.

The key distinction here is: what tools will you use to create a script vs. what tools will a story analyst use to evaluate a script. Story analysts can use the 3-act structure if they want, although most of the good ones I know moved beyond this simplistic formula a long time ago. Sure, even the good ones may still use some of the old terms. But that's just a convenience. Their analysis and evaluation is based on a different set of principles for understanding plot and character.

But writers facing the blank page need a far more precise set of story tools to create compelling characters and tight plots. Here are some of the hallmarks of the training necessary to write professionally.

Professional writers are not members of some mysterious priesthood. They are masters of a craft, which, though complex, can be learned. Professional writers use techniques that are fundamentally different than other writers use. These techniques fall into two major areas: story structure and genre.

Story structure on the professional level doesn't involve a simplistic three-part structure. A professional script almost always involves a journey of learning by the main character. This journey covers a number of steps, and includes numerous false starts. To express this complex journey, professional story training doesn't involve imposing some false set of false plot points from the outside. Instead professionals always make sure that the character drives the plot. Indeed, the plot is simply the playing out of the character's actions and personal development.

Professional training in story structure, then, involves learning how to map the character's journey in a very detailed way. (By the way, this journey is usually not a mythical one.) I cannot emphasize enough how detailed this map must be for a professional script. Why do most 3-act structure scripts fail in the "middle?" Because the 3-act structure gives you absolutely no map to the middle.

Unlike the one-size-fits-all approach of the 3-act structure, this professional approach is always unique to your particular story because it uses a map that details your unique hero.

The other aspect of professional training that the 3-act structure completely disregards is genre. The first rule of Hollywood is this: Hollywood buys and sells story forms. If you want to succeed you simply must master your particular genre better than anyone else. Each genre has its own set of story beats - another map - that you must hit if you are to tell that story in a satisfying way. The trick is to hit those beats as originally as possible.

For example, you could say that "Tootsie" is a perfect case of the 3-act structure. But does anyone really believe that the tight comical spiral of "Tootsie" was created by writers using the one-size-fits-all approach of the screenwriting books? Or was it the result of highly-trained, professional comedy writers who knew their genres cold and tracked a chauvinist through a series of tightly-plotted farcical events leading him to his change of heart?

When you answer that question you are on your way to realizing what you need to write professionally in the brutal competition of the entertainment industry.

John Truby has brought his acclaimed "Anatomy Of Story Class" to Raindance London since 1995. He also teaches the all-importance of genre in a 3 Day Genre Event.

John Truby
John Truby is regarded as the serious writer’s story coach and has taught his Anatomy Of Story and Genre courses to sold-out audiences in Los Angeles, New York, London, Paris, Sydney, Rome, Toronto, and other far-flung locales.

Over the past twenty years, more than 30,000 students have taken Truby’s scriptwriting class and rave about the insights and direction it has given them.

His students include the writer/director/or producer for the following films:

Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Mask of Zorro, Nightmare on Elm Street, Outbreak, Scream, Sleepless in Seattle, Back to School, The Addams Family, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Beetlejuice, Valley Girl, The Negotiator and Star Wars

39 thoughts on “Why 3 Act Will Kill Your Writing

  1. Very interesting and useful point of view, but I still believe that a three-act structure means having a beginning, a middle and an end.

    One can decide for example to divide the middle act in more "minor" acts, but it remains the middle, the central part of a story. True, a "middle" act can be very general but there are things there that cannot happen in the beginning or the ending: one doesn't introduces a main character in the middle, as well as the main plot doesn't end in the central part of the story.

    I think it is not so wrong to suggest beginners to try and follow this structure, however simplistic it can be.

  2. What he is talking about is the "Hollywood Structure, a three act structure with set rules and principles and is most commonly used with action film in the 80s and 90s. The three act structure as well as the 5 and 7 have their places in writing theory. At the end of the day, however you break up a script weather it be acts, plot points, beats or any other buzz word you want to use it is a matter of structure and story telling which is unique to the artist, this rant is just away to sell tickets and is nothing more than a marketing stunt. That is not to say his lectures are not worth while but nor is mckee or Vogler who uses the three act structure among other techniques in their lectures.

  3. Sanity in the wilderness. Good stories are good stories and work not because they adhere to structures, but because they engage… and then hold the engagement of the viewer/reader. Learn the 'rules' – and then do what Picasso did… make your own. All they have to do is work!

  4. I think the point of this article is to say screenwriting is a very complex process and you really need to attend one of John Truby's expensive seminars to have any real chance of success.

  5. I agree Brandon. No new information in this article. I think the point of this article is to sell John Truby's class and book. I hope he is writing and selling scripts in between books and classes! And you are right Andrea, a film had better have a beginning, a middle and an end. My two favorite books are: 1) Save the Cat and 2) Writing for Emotional Impact. And my favorite favorite book has yet to be written: The Last Book You Will Ever Need to Learn Screenwriting containing every trick in every master's palette which will of course be followed by Absolutely the Last Book You Will Ever Need to Learn Screenwriting)).

  6. I don't agree with that article. It says that character is not central in a 3-act structure. Yes, it is: the two majors plot point are linked to the main character. And who said that a script should only have two plot points?!! The 3-act structure is a recall that every script should have a dramatic movement based on the desire-actions-obstacles dynamic.

  7. J'ai suivi une formation avec John Turby à NY. Il a tenté, tout le long, de nous vendre ses logiciels "par genre" pour écrire un scénario de film ( comme si c'était un logiciel qui ferait que l'on structure bien une histoire). Pendant tout le temps que j'ai pu endurer sa présentation suporifique, je me disais que c'était une attrappe-nigaud. Avec cet article, essaie-t-il de faire peur aux débutants en leur disant c'est beaucoup plus complexe qu'ils ne peuvent l'imaginer? La structure en 3 actes qui, de nos jours, a nécessairement plus de 2 revirements, est un outil utile pour construire une histoire. Et cela n'exclut pas, bien au contraire, la nécessité d'avoir un protagoniste bien campé et des revirements liés à la quête de ce dernier… Et c'est justement ce qui rend l'acte de création complexe; il faut penser à tout cela quand on veut écrire une bonne histoire.

    Quel point tente-il de faire avec cet article? Vendre ses livres et ses logiciels magiques? … Petite montée de lait matinal…

  8. Brigitte d'Amours · Works at Ecrivain, scénariste et dialoguiste

    I trained with John Turby NY . He tried all along to sell us his software " in kind " to write a screenplay (as if it was a software that would make it a good story structure ) . During the time that I could endure his suporifique presentation , I thought it was a catch- simpleton . With this article , he tries to scare beginners by telling them it is much more complex that they can not imagine ? Structure in 3 acts , nowadays necessarily more than 2 turnovers, is a useful tool to build a story. And it does not, on the contrary, the need to have a firm footing protagonist and reversals related to the quest for it … And this is precisely what makes the act of creating complex , we must think about all this when you want to write a good story.

    How he tries to do with this article ? Sell his books and magic software ? … Small rise in morning milk …

  9. This is a scare piece to sell you something. Scare people by telling them what they know is wrong, put doubt in their minds as to weather they know what they are doing then sell them something as a cure. And you can bet your bottom dollar Truby's idea will fit right in to three acts.. the only difference is he'll use different words and terms.

    The three act structure is an emergent property of writing stories, it is part of the craft. It's so vague and broad that it is borderline useless to complete beginners but it does give one an idea of the structure of a story. That is important. Because writing is like walking through a jungle. The three act structure is like the three terrains you must cross rather than spending your time circling through the bush. It provides an idea of where you are and what you should be looking for. Any additions to this, plot points etc are not an inherent part of the three act structure, they're someone else's addition.

  10. Truby's book Anatomy of Story is way more advanced than the simple child-like Save the Cat. He goes into moral and psychological needs, moral vision using well known films as breakdowns. He also details story world, character webs and a threefold opposition which attacks the moral flaw of the protag, from different moral standpoints. I suggest reading it.

  11. What John Truby is doing is sharing his gift for teaching story. Criticizing him for advertising his seminar is unwarranted. The question is, will it be value-for-money? Will we come away armed with new skills and techniques to write a story with more substance and more emotional impact? I suggest watching his interviews with Film Courage on Youtube and decide if he has integrity or not. His book is incredible value-for-money. His teachings on moral and psychological need not only apply to the characters in our stories, but to our own lives as well. Also, whether he is writing and selling screenplays is irrelevant. He is a teacher. He empowers storytellers to write. He is one of the most sought-after and respected story consultants in the world. We are fortunate to have such an generous teacher willing to share his insight.

  12. Brilliant and refreshing. You nailed it with referencing the vacancy of the middle of the story using the 3 act structure. Thank you sir!!!

  13. Just another boring opinion. To attempt to define what is art, what is true craft, is the trap. The 3 act, the ad-lib, the off the top of the tippity ideas … who can say what works but when it does, we know.

  14. I'm not a trained writer, whether for screen or any other format, I have an idea, I develop the characters, I begin the journey. I refine the story as I go along, with the whole thing running in my head like a movie. At some point I will be mentally casting the leads, adding music and so on, and like film making itself it is an organic process. I can't see how anyone can develop a process or system to accurately prescribe this. A very important point has been left out of this dialogue, this is a business, unless you are already contracted to a studio you will be producing scripts on Spec. and the chances of getting it read let only produced borders on zero.

  15. Hi, I strongly disagree with John Truby parochial view of the Syd Field's 3-act structure. If you actually read his book 'screenwriting' he explains precisely how each part of the narrative structure using examples of films such as Matrix, Pulp Fiction and Chinatown. Field demonstrates using his theory of 'plot points' that link together at the end of every act, along with his other term for the 'inciting incident' and 'crucial incident', and how these relate. It's true that the vast majority of scripts don't but that's to do with the lack of interest or representation on the part of the execs, or problems with the actual quality of the writing – NOT because the 3-act structure is superfluous, Truby's completely misunderstood the point Field makes.

  16. Field explains all about how the 3-act structure, plotpoints in the Act 1 and 2 is simply a rough guide and entirely arbritary on pages 162-163, which makes Truby's ideas redundant

  17. I wanted to believe this. Frankly I've always found the 3-act structure the most difficult part to conform to. I was hoping for some trendy workaround when I read this.

    What he said about not using theatrical conventions for the more 'fluid' format of film is absolute poppycock. You use that structure because it is the structure that viewers are most comfortable with. They know where they are in the story, know exactly where they stand, and get a feeling of story satisfaction when the resolution kicks in.

    Looking at the profile of the writer who wrote this on IMDB, it becomes more obvious why one should pay no heed to his words. He wrote a few episodes of 21 Jump Street in 1989, was the story adviser on some French film in 2010 and wrote a documentary in 2011.

    This is an expert? Apparently because the next thing he will feature in is called 'How 2 Make a Film: Billion $ Weekend' which sounds like a get rich quick scheme and is Directed by none other than Alan Smithee. For those who don't know, that is the name that is always used when a Director is so ashamed of what they're making that they ask for their name to be removed from it.

    This fella is a hack trying to lure you away from the right path with trendy unworkable ideas. Take my advice and pay him no heed.

  18. You really should do your homework a little better. He may have disadvantages, but calling John Truby a hack is synonymous to complete screenwriting ignorance.

  19. You touched a vital point here, opposing Truby's antithesis to the 3-act-structure. That is the fact that if you're not a produced screenwriter and a name already circulating and you are, as you aptly pointed out, writing specs, when you do NOT follow the 3-act-structure, or call it the Hollywood norm, or if you'd like, what the average Hollywood reader wants to read, is an instant guarantee to get you completely out of the game. So, yes, you need to follow at least the basic semblance of it, in order to stand a chance of a reader to not trash your work just by leafing through it.

  20. For movies, this could be true, since Hollywood writers can barely be called writers anyway. I find it astounding that Hollywood can spend a hundred million dollars on a movie and can't spare eighty thousand to have a decent novellist come up with their script. When you're writing actual books, the three act structure works just fine.

  21. You re welcome, Matt. Obviously there s no right or wrong. It s whatever your heart feels like writing. Finishing the novel will definitely help you during the screenwriting phase down the road. Write on!

  22. The three act structure came from plays. It's a valid and natural structure even if you have to think of it as "Beginning-Middle-Ending"…all the ways you divide your work are arbitrary to a certain extent, it's what helps you get the job done that's important.

  23. I love this rebelliousness. Write outside of the formulaic box and you'll have something original. Originality is the holy grail. Do what you do, fuck what they tell you to do. Master your craft through the lens of your own view of the world. Do what works for you, and discard the rest. Ignore the meaningless chatter and trust your talent, perspective and voice.

  24. With how the 21st Century movies are today, it is not possible to have a 3-Act movie/script; All the Marvel movies almost always have the "sequelled" ending. I call it a "Pause effect" …Notice how after the credits they are more and more adding that ending cliff-hanger that "bait" the audience for the next one to follow – thereby NOT ending the story, but with an invisible "To Be Continued…" tag!

  25. Articles like this used to confuse me because they fly in the face of so many great three-act films. Nothing is dead, just as there is no one set-in-stone way to format. As long as your story and characters are completely clear and entirely engaging it doesn't matter what structure you use.

    I once asked my literary agent what was selling out there, what should I be writing? His answer? Same thing that always sells, a great story.

    With respect, Mr. Truby is dead wrong in this instance, because he makes other "experts" dead wrong. Story structure is vital but it has to be the right structure for the story. Excluding a structure, calling it dead, flies in the face of logic. Is he going to declare parallel narrative dead in five years time?

  26. As an amateur blogger (Boomerbroadcast) and writer with little to no training, it seems to me they're trying to turn a right-brain creative work of art into a left-brain linear process. Understandable but doomed to failure.

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