Three Act Story Structure Will Kill Your Screenwriting

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? Most feature three act story structure.

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.

three act story structure

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 three act story 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, three act story 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 three act story 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 emphasising 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 three act story 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 three act story 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 three act story 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 realising what you need to write professionally in the brutal competition of the entertainment industry.