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The Four Act Structure in Film and TV

The Problem with the Three-Act Structure

Writing a script is a bit like a helter-skelter ride. All bumps and twists and no end to the dizziness.

Probably the most problematic part of any script is its structure, and more specifically, the three-act structure. Here we’ve got the second act, the murky midpoint where the writer’s expected to jam everything important–your conflict, climax and resolution–between page 30 and page 90. You can see the problem.

Act one is managed into a relatively easy 30 pages, ditto the third act. It’s the second act that can get tedious. If you’ve written a script using the third-act structure before, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Structure is heavy. You need those healthy intermissions every thirty pages.

Kristin Thompson, author of Storytelling in the New Hollywood, found severe flaws within the three-act structure definition, claiming that the three-act structure has a negative effect on films, as it’s more based on page numbers than dramatic logic.

This is what she says about the four-act structure: “A great many of these films — indeed, I would contend, the bulk of them — break perspicuously into four large-scale parts, with major turning points usually providing the transitions.”

What she believes is that the third act structure fails to explain how the bulk of Hollywood’s films are put together. Instead the four-act structure helps put everything into perspective.  She breaks it down into the setup, the complicating action, the development, and the climax.

The second act therefore, is divided into manageable, bite-sized portions, that can help you, as a writer, get through this murky wasteland.

The Benefits

There are major benefits to writing according to the four-act structure.  Number one, you get to really focus your second act on what’s important: the hero-flaw confrontation. This means your protagonist confronts his or her major flaw, which will then allow him or her to face their antagonist (and this flaw) in the third act. This gives room to make the final flaw or failure to overcome all that more powerful in the later act, because we’ve focused on the protagonist’s inner struggles beforehand. Using the three-act structure, you might have skimmed over this detail because you were too busy confronting the second half of act two, which, let’s face it, when squished together, is thoroughly confusing.

 

1. Set up

The set up (page 1-30) establishes the initial set up, introducing our character, their flaw, the antagonist and paves the way for the life-changing circumstances (the inciting incident) at the end of it. Much like the three act structure, the four act structure starts off pretty much the same in terms of initial action sequence, making use of the Typical Day in the Life of the character. This follows the daily routine of the main character, right up until the inciting incident disrupts life as they know it.

2. Complicating Action

The second act (30-60) then has to deal with the second set up, the life-changing scenario, the hero reacting to the inciting incident and seeking out the way in which they will eventually overcome this flaw of theirs (having already been established in the first act), the hero-flaw confrontation. Act two covers overcoming the problem presented by the inciting incident and this act will then end on imminent doom, as the character fails to overcome the antagonist/source of evil, ending on a cliff-hanger, with the major crisis revealed.

The Midpoint

One of the interesting components of Thompson’s four act structure is that she found there was a midpoint in films where act two and act three meet that often manifests itself in a particular scene. She argues that these sequences have a major turn where less effective films tend to sag, and this turning point effectively breaks Syd Field’s long-winded act two into two separate portions. This major turn (near the halfway point) takes the story into a new direction, a shift, and is based on the protagonist’s goal.

What does this mean? Basically, the character’s goal might be achieved and replaced with another, or the protagonist realises he/she needs a change of tactics to reach said goal and puts them into motion, introducing a whole new scenario.

This scene is not only the turning point of the story but where the goal of the protagonist or theme is articulated–here the scene portrays the film’s overall theme, or purpose, which can often go against the protagonist’s actual goal later on. The midpoint’s goal reflects the final act’s moral lesson. A character’s goal of revenge for example, might be thwarted by this same character’s realisation that something else much more important is at stake. But the point is, the midpoint needs to happen so that the audience can understand the character’s goal, it’s a breather, a pause where this is somehow outlined.

3. Development

The third act (60-90) will then see your protagonist fully accepting the flaw and working to overcome it alongside the allies. The development stage portray the obstacles and delays used as tools to further your character, action, plot, etc.

They have to accept the fact that their plan was shot to pieces, but there must be a new approach they then put it into action. Your hero will be ready to face the upcoming battle. This leads up to the climactic event at the end where your character will (or won’t) defeat their antagonist, but now your character has gone through a fully developed life-changing character arc; they are not the same person they were at the beginning of the script, having accepted their flaw and are ready to face the battle. But all hope is lost, or is it?

4. Climax

The fourth act (90-120) will then of course, cover the final battle, see your hero face the antagonist, and witness their victory or loss. Act four mostly covers the resolution and the final scene, so that your story can wrap up any loose ends, ending on a high note.

To put into visual terms, Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky is a very good example of a successful four-act structure. The first act introduces us to Rocky and his self-doubts, and the inciting incident, how Rocky has the chance to compete in the heavyweight championship. The second is Rocky reacting to the inciting incident. He’s training but he’s weighed down by his self-doubt, his major “antagonist”. In the third act, Rocky comes to accept his flaw and works hard against it, so that finally in the fourth act, he’s ready to overcome it and battles, literally, in the ring for victory.

The middle section of a script is a bit like a wasteland, and if you just try writing your script according to the four-act structure, you might find it a lot easier to navigate through the swampy, boggy bits. Also, in the middle you’ll be able to pause and concentrate on the heart of your story, focusing on what your story is about, your main theme. Using the four-act structure doesn’t mean adding any extra acts, you’d simply be splitting the second act down the middle, dividing it into two thirty-page chunks.

TV

In TV series, scripts depend on the four-act structure. Pick any and you’ll see this division is mostly noticeable thanks to the way the programme is separated by the advertisements, or commercial breaks. With hour-long episodes, there’s an ad every 15 minutes or so, breaking the episode into four perfectly even-timed chunks. You’ll be doing the same thing with your script. Buffy, Lost, House of Cards, they all run according to the four-act structure, so even if it’s just for peace of mind, to give you that little extra push as a writer, it’s well worth considering.

Flaws for Thought: Character Development

In a technologically geared world, where VFX and Motion Graphics are taking the film industry by storm, proper character development is sometimes left at the wayside. Complex antagonists and detailed backstories have also taken a hit, alongside emotional depth and realistic personalities.

The hero’s flawless. The heroine well-groomed. He’s cocky. She’s funny. They laugh in the face of death. They drop corny one-liners even though they’ve got a gun pointed at their heads. There are faultless explosions and unconvincing reactions and it’s all a bit…

Predictable.

If you’re flicking through your script as you read this, and realise that you can smell a happy ending from a mile off, it might be time to revise your characters, as he or she could be a bit too predictable, and a bit too picture-perfect.

The same goes for your antagonist. Most people in real-life aren’t evil for the sake of being evil–they don’t have trademark wicked cackles and devious master plans. People have complex backstories that make them the way they are–and this is in constant development. The human brain is a slimy network of grey matter (literally)—there really is no black or white. And that’s okay to portray in your characters.

Character Conflict

As I’ve said in other articles, conflict is the main driving force behind any story, and it’s the writer’s job to identify this and provide it through your character’s actions. Characters who don’t face conflict because they’re just so amazing at everything they do won’t make the audience worry about their outcome. A litany of failure and flaws is essential for keeping our interest in the film alive, and makes the protagonist’s eventual success that much sweeter. Perhaps it’s because we identify with their flaws, as we see our own shortcomings reflected back at us.

Character Building

A good example of character building is in Lost, ABC’s drama series. Through a series of flashbacks, we can see how Jack Shephard is emotionally scarred by his father’s expectations, and how this shapes his entire thought process, fostering his exaggerated hero complex. Even his surname represents his position of leadership amongst the other crash survivors.

Charlie, on the other hand, is the ultimate underdog. Battling against drug addiction, through his flashbacks we come to understand how he used to protect his brother against it. The same goes for Kate: she may be manipulative and a murderer, but if you delve into her backstory, you come to realise she killed her stepfather to save her mother.

A sign of good character-building is when your audience sympathises with their plight because their backstory is realistic, detailed, and ultimately touching. It’s the Walter Whites and the Tom Ripleys of the world that cause a reaction within us. Characters with messed up minds and real-life human flaws.

Give your character a history. Think about what it was that made him the way he is. If he’s going to be cruel, what event-or sequence of events pushed him over the edge? If you can create a character which draws up mixed feelings–someone who we hate and pity and admire all at the same time, then you’re well on your way to creating multi-dimensional protagonists.

Empathy

Being a good writer is also about empathising. We’re all shaped by our past; our thoughts and actions are guided by our backstories. So will your character’s. It’s up to you to help this shape your script. Stepping into your character’s shoes and attempting to see what the world looks like from their point of view will add this layer of much needed realism. You can’t convincingly write about your character’s phobia of bouncy castles unless you really understand that while comical, this phobia is as real to them as is your fear of a paper boat-pinching, gutter-dwelling clown…

Character Questionnaire

What were your character’s parents like? Did she/he have a positive/negative relationship or is your character an orphan? Where did he or she grow up? What was the environment like? Did they grow up poor, wealthy or comfortably middle-class? How has this had a psychological effect on him or her?

Do they laugh easily? Andy Dufresne barely cracks so much as a smile all through Shawshank Redemption, yet all Harley Quinn does in Suicide Squad is smile, one is endearing, the other vaguely psychotic, yet both are equally interesting.

No two people are truly alike, and that is the beauty of character building–you have complete freedom to create as you will.

The same goes for the way your character speaks. Think of two people you know, and listen closely when they speak. Just as their accents might differ, one might drop the F-bomb five times in one sentence while the other might laugh too loud, a bit like a hyena. Is this endearing, or annoying? What reaction does it cause?

Think about your characters, emotionally. What scares them?

What is your character’s biggest regret?

Is there something missing from your character’s life?

Character Introductions

First impressions always count and are a great opportunity for writers to show just exactly what is special about the protagonists.

In American Beauty, screenwriter Alan Ball introduces us to Lester Burnham via a voiceover. “This is my neighbourhood,” he says, as the camera pans down onto a suburban street. “My street. This is my life. I’m forty-two years old. In less than a year, I’ll be dead.”

We sympathize immediately because he represents the middle-class monotony of suburbia. There’s an almost claustrophobic feel to the way Ball introduces him to us. As readers, we feel just as trapped as Lester does.

Juno Macguff, from Diablo Cody’s Juno, is pretty charming for a sixteen-year-old, and her quirky way of introducing herself gets us hooked from the get go. The first few minutes even include a flashback with backstory. We see Juno staring with rapt attention at a battered-looking leather recliner dumped on the side of a curb. It all started with a chair, she tells us. And then we immediately jump to a flashback, featuring the real chair in question. Note the creative way of linking a present object with the story line?

When we meet Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean, however, no flashbacks are needed. He comes storming over the seas like a pro, with background music rising impressively, only for the shot to reveal his sad, sinking boat. His comic timing and debonair style are both portrayed within a matter of seconds, and the audience can’t help but like him the moment he steps onto the pier.

Remember, making characters people find relatable, someone to root for, is a big part of what makes a script successful. This doesn’t mean that you’ll spew out everything you know about your character in the first five minutes of your screenplay. You’ll have to reveal snippets as you go along, using different techniques.