Great stories come in threes

THREE'S A CROWD The climactic scene of Thelma & Louise (Production stills: Roland Neveu).
THREE’S A CROWD The climactic scene of Thelma & Louise (Production stills: Roland Neveu).

THE three-act structure is essential to the toolkit for that great misunderstood 20th century phenomenon: the Screenwriter.

Truncated to suit a 90- 120-minute session at a cineplex, the three-act storyline is undoubtedly the one most people are most accustomed to, so it’s probably in a writer’s interests to know how it works.

The good news is that it’s simpler in one way, because there is less to it. The bad news is that it’s reportedly much harder to get right, but we’ll look at why.

Act One

Broadly, this act must encompass an exposition (explaining who is who, particularly the relationship between the protagonist, or ‘hero’, and the antagonist, or ‘villain’), remembering that with screenwriting, dialogue must work effectively alongside onscreen action. Film is a visual and aural medium, so screenwriters must write what the viewer will see and hear.

This act generally also contains a point of no return, which propels the characters forward on their journey. Here’s where the 3-act structure differs from the five-act structure more commonly employed in novels, where the point of no return is generally in the second half of the story.

TURNING POINT Things escalate quickly in Thelma & Louise.
TURNING POINT Things escalate quickly in Thelma & Louise.

You can see where this difference arose – producers sitting in screening rooms, shouting: “Get to the point faster!”. Think Louise (played by Susan Sarandon) gunning down the rapist in the car park in Callie Kouri’s screenplay for Thelma and Louise, around 15 minutes into the movie.

Act Two

This act is the longest in the three-act structure, akin to the rising action of the five-act structure, where the protagonist struggles to rise above the point of no return, but often digs their way deeper into challenges set up by the antagonist.

Around the halfway point, or ‘midpoint’, something significant happens to the protagonist, which might be so sudden as to change the course of the story. In Thelma and Louise, this occurs with the appearance of Louise’s boyfriend, who might just convince her to give herself up, especially when he asks her to marry him. The protagonist’s response to the midpoint decides what happens for the rest of the story.

WHERE TO FROM HERE? One of the finest movie examples of a surprise ending.
WHERE TO FROM HERE? One of the finest screen examples of a surprise ending.

Act Three

Purportedly the hardest-fought scenes of every successful Hollywood screenplay, and the most difficult for writers to get right, this act contains the climax of the storyline, at a point significantly later than the five-act structure, where the tension comes to a head.

In Thelma and Louise, the climax is the most visually and emotionally dramatic scene of the movie, and the one where the protagonists commit their first willful crime – blowing up the truck driven by a hapless and offensive driver who has bothered them along their journey. Previously, they had committed crimes out of self defence or need. The climactic truck explosion signals their graduation into true outlaws.

No movie executive wants much time between the climax and the end of the film – everything has been said, seen and felt, and so the storyline must wrap up pronto. True criminals by then, Thelma and Louise drive to a speedy conclusion which could never be defined as a denouement, but rather a surprise ending.

The Verdict

Screenwriter Callie Khouri, who won an Oscar for her first screenplay, got it so right that the studio: “Didn’t come in and re-shoot four times” (Susan Sarandon, in a 1991 interview).

Khouri set this up with a coincidental moment, when Louise waits for Thelma to rob another gas station, and sees an old woman sitting at a window, a bundle of contained compromise and regret. In that fleeting moment, the writer foreshadows her ending without the need for a single word of dialogue. Another reading of the dramatic structure might place this moment as the climax.

Thelma and Louise works in three acts, and it works in five, depending on how deeply you want to analyse it. The three-act structure is, to me, just nifty shorthand for non-writers (e.g. producers) to define the ‘big moments’ they feel all scripts need.

WRITE REGARDLESSIf a writer can craft a five-act storyline, which hits these ‘big moments’ of the three-act structure, they’ll probably have an excellent script.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

An extract from Write, regardless!

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