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Maurice May 2 2011 11:28 PM

Fan Film Writer's Primer
I thought about folding this into the Fan Filmmaker's Primer topic, but concluded that the filmmaker's thread should be about the film production end and that the topic of scripting and writing really needed its own topic.

So, to kick this off, let's talk about a topic that was brought up several times in other threads of late (such as this one)...

The Three-Act Structure
A structure which is the basis for most modern storytelling in the western world. It divides the story into three sections, each of which has a particular sort-of meta function.
  1. First Act = Introduction
  2. Second Act = Complication
  3. Third Act = Resolution
Here are some simple to peruse examples and descriptions:
As with any rules for a creative process there's controversy about if Three-Act Structure is always a good thing, or anything but arbitrary.

Personally, I think a lot of writers use the Three-Act Structure because adhering to it gives stories a logical flow and helps avoid problems that are rampant in fan films: like deus ex machina solutions and unfocused storylines. As such, I recommend applying it to your scripts until it's second nature. At that point you can make educated decisions about something that you might think works better.

Sure, rules can seem stifling to creativity, and they can sometimes lead to predictability. HOWEVER, if you don't really understand such rules you won't be able to make educated choices about when and how to break them.

I could expound on this topic for a dozen paragraphs, but I'll wait to read some of your comments and thoughts before diving deeper.

SIDEBAR: TV Script Acts v. Three Act Structure
The "acts" in most TV scripts have nothing to do with the Three Act structure and everything to do with commercial breaks. So, a TOS script would contain a TEASER and FOUR ACTS. A TNG or DS9 script would contain a TEASER and FIVE ACTS.

Despite these scripts having five or six or whatever act breaks, the stories generally will follow the rules of three act structure. What differs is that at each commercial break there must be a dramatic "hook" to keep the viewer from changing the channel.

For this reason, I'll try to be consistent and always refer to TV teleplay acts in the form of Act 1, Act 2, etc., and three act structure in the form of First Act, Second Act, etc.

BillJ May 2 2011 11:54 PM

Re: Fam Film Writer's Primer
This should be educational. :techman:

Ryan Thomas Riddle May 2 2011 11:56 PM

Re: Fam Film Writer's Primer
A fun exercise is to watch movies or read novels or comics and try to figure out how that particular piece uses the Three Act Structure. I often do it with novels. It can even been seen in novels that are considered "high-brow literature," such as The Life and Times of Michael K.

Doing so, allows you to see how the Three Act Structure is used successfully and how it may have been used poorly.

CaptainSerek May 3 2011 01:25 AM

Re: Fam Film Writer's Primer
I am sure this thread will be helpful to future fan film writers and other budding film makers.

Maurice May 3 2011 02:23 AM

Re: Fam Film Writer's Primer
Crap. Just saw a typo in the thread title! T'Bonz! Help! ;)

Admiral Buzzkill May 3 2011 02:49 AM

Re: Fam Film Writer's Primer
I'd like to see more fan films break out of the television structure. To some extent, what's being done is pastiche...which is fine, but it's also a crutch. Write ten pages and end on a little cliffhanger or dramatic line, rinse, repeat. Act Four, Oops, time to wrap this up...

Seriously, a number of experienced TV writers were perplexed by the TNG five-act thing because they were used to the network format. Both seemed equally arbitrary if you'd never written a TV script before.

I don't think Intrepid does the false climax/place nonexistent advertisement here thing, but they're properly educated - having grown up on British TV and all. :lol:

T'Bonz May 3 2011 06:25 AM

Re: Fan Film Writer's Primer

CaptainSerek wrote: (Post 4934453)
I am sure this thread will be helpful to future fan film writers and other budding film makers.

I've changed the original post's title, but am too lazy to do the other few posts.

Maurice May 3 2011 08:01 AM

Re: Fan Film Writer's Primer

T'Bonz wrote: (Post 4935131)

CaptainSerek wrote: (Post 4934453)
I am sure this thread will be helpful to future fan film writers and other budding film makers.

I've changed the original post's title, but am too lazy to do the other few posts.

Thanks! You're the best.

Maurice May 3 2011 08:30 AM

Re: Fan Film Writer's Primer
The Three-Act Structure via Script Analysis
While working on a TV pilot spec script I read a lot of pilot scripts to see how they were done. One thing I found particularly helpful and illuminating was to make a breakdown of each of the good scripts, listing significant events by page number.

What this does is let you see the underlying structure of the script without being lost in the story as a reader. What I do is list the page number, where characters are introduced, what happens on the page, and then what is going on re Plot and Theme.

Here's the one I did for for the pilot script to AMC's "Mad Men". Mind you, these are notes *I* made, and the act breaks are where it seems they are according to Three-Act Structure, and what I think the thematic beats and conflicts are. YMMV.

WARNING! If you've never watched the show and want to, the following is $poileriffic.

So, let's look at what Three-Act structure suggests versus what we see here.

Notice that almost ALL the characters are introduced in the first 13 pages (the first quarter of the script). In fact the entire regular but one are introduced here, as are the main problem vis a vis the Lucky Strike client. We also get introduced to how men treat women, which becomes a theme throughout the show (the decisions the men make and how it affects the women in their lives). This all is a textook example of the First Act, which sets up the characters, what they want, and what the problem is.

Notice that the character of Rachel Menken is intorduced a bit later, in what's clearly the Second Act. This might we technically wrong, but it's not really a problem, because she actually represents a "complication", which is what the Second Act is all about. Don's already stressed out about the main problem, and then this potential new client attacks his approach and he flies off the handle. It makes the main problem worse.

Other Second Act Characters are Greta and the Garners, but they are plot functions and not main characters, which is why it's okay that they come in as needed and exit just as quickly.

Notice that every scene in the Second Act reinforces or builds on some theme or problem set up in the First Act. This is what's called "Rising Action" as everything builds to the moment(s) of truth.

Now, what's unusual about this script is that the Main Problem of the story is resolved right on the cusp of the Second and Third Acts, rather than later in the Third Act. You might say that this is because the script is a pilot episode and it has a lot of loose ends to tie up, but one could also say that the "problem" set up in the plot isn't really what's being set-up to be resolved, it's something thematic or character related.

But the real climax of the story are the last two scenes, which twist our expectations. Peggy actually accepts Pete's advances, despite how repulsed she seemed earlier, leading us to wonder if she's accepted the "conventional wisdom" of the office girls and their roles, or if she really actually likes him.

The real kicker, though, is the revelation that Don has a wife and kids. The whole show has set us up to see him as not like the other men and their cavalier attitude towards women and even marriage, and then it yanks that rug out from under us by showing us ONE THING that changes our perception of the character utterly.

I hope this will be at least a bit illuminating to some of you.

USS Intrepid May 3 2011 12:22 PM

Re: Fan Film Writer's Primer

Dennis wrote: (Post 4934634)
I don't think Intrepid does the false climax/place nonexistent advertisement here thing, but they're properly educated - having grown up on British TV and all. :lol:

Probably has more to do with the complete lack of structure in my writing than anything else. ;)

CorporalCaptain May 3 2011 03:31 PM

Re: Fan Film Writer's Primer
OK, just to make sure I'm getting this, teach', can ya grade my homework here?

Star Wars (1977) Three Act Structure:
Main Character = Luke Skywalker

Inciting Incident = Luke hears part of Leia's message, "Help me, Obi-wan Kenobi. You're my only hope."

Plot Point #1 = Luke finds Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru with their flesh burned off. There's no going home.

Dramatic Question = Will Luke be able to help the Princess? (See below.)

First Culmination = The Millennium Falcon arrives at Alderaan's position.

Midpoint = But Alderaan is destroyed, and the Millennium Falcon is brought aboard the Death Star.

Plot Point #2 = Ben is struck down by Vader.

Climax = Luke destroys the Death Star.
The exact wording of the Dramatic Question, "Will Luke be able to help the Princess?" is from dialog of Ben's, right after Ben and Luke hear the whole holographic message:

Ben: I need your help, Luke. She needs your help. I'm getting too old for this sort of thing.
By "help the Princess," it is at first meant two items established more or less unambiguously in the First Act:
1) Deliver R2-D2 to the Princess's father on Alderaan, so that he can
2) Retrieve the plans to the Death Star in R2's memory.
When Luke and Ben find Alderaan destroyed, they see their original plan fall to pieces. Soon after the Midpoint, Luke discovers that the Princess is on board, so helping her now becomes simply:
3) Rescue the Princess.
Once the Millennium Falcon is away from the Death Star after the rescue, Leia reveals the purpose of accessing the plans. It is, as hinted at during the opening crawl and suspected by Taggi [sic] in the First Act, to find a weakness in the battle station. This sets up the climax, by revealing the final condition to helping the Princess:
4) Destroy the Death Star.

FalTorPan May 4 2011 04:24 AM

Re: Fan Film Writer's Primer
^ Based on your analysis, where are the breaks between acts?

CorporalCaptain May 4 2011 04:36 AM

Re: Fan Film Writer's Primer
According to what DS9Sega linked, the plot points are the breaks, are they not?

First Act and Second Act are separated by Plot Point #1.
Second Act and Third Act are separated by Plot Point #2.


Maurice May 4 2011 10:09 AM

Re: Fan Film Writer's Primer
Plot points aren't the same as act breaks. And act break is basically where the narrative shifts gears between, say, Introduction and Complication. In the case of Star Wars I'd say the first act ends either with Luke's decision to become a Jedi Knight or with the jump to hyperspace.

Act 2 does basically end with Ben's death, so you're right about that. It's the additional and greatest complication, because Luke loses his teacher (or so it seems) and must go on without him.

CorporalCaptain May 4 2011 01:31 PM

Re: Fan Film Writer's Primer
OK, then. I guess I'm still a little confused. This is from the first link you provided.

The "Plot Point"--According to Field, the three acts are separated by two plot points. A plot point, often called a reversal, is an event that thrusts the plot in a new direction, leading into a new act of the screenplay. Later screenplay gurus have built on Field's theory by stating that Plot Point #1, which leads into Act II, is the moment when the hero takes on the problem.
It seems not to differentiate between a plot point and an act break.

As for exactly when the first act of Star Wars breaks, I think I can agree with what you said. However, I'd like to point out that what you said and what I had said to begin with are within minutes of each other. In defense of what I said, had Luke not found his Aunt and Uncle dead, he might not have made the decision to become a Jedi, and his dialog had indicated he might not have.

Thanks for the feedback so far.

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