Four Act Structure (Nobody Knows Anything – pt.2)

typewriter_keyboard_01or: why Syd Field can kiss it.

Go into a bookstore and take a look at the shelf of screenwriting books.

I can’t believe I’ve just told you to do that, but… what the hell…

On that shelf, there’s a name you’ll see again and again: Syd Field.  Now, I’ve already taken a pop at this turd-polishing hack in an earlier post.  If you’re not familiar with his odious ouvre, go read that post – I’ll wait here until you get back.

Ok.  DingDing.  Seconds out. Round 2.

Cutting straight to the chase…

Will you all please stop obsessing about story structure!

These formulaic out-of-the-box structures are nothing more than tools to help you build the spine of your screenplay. You’re the tool if you think these ‘tips’ have any meaning or relevance, of if you think they’ll make you write a better screenplay.

Sure, if you haven’t got the first clue about narrative structure, then they’ll improve your screenplay, but then so would reading John Irving’s The 158-pound Marriage twice or watching Taxi Driver three or four times.  You’ll also learn things about character from those two that you’ll never learn from the loathsome Field.

Let me quickly slaughter the sacred cow for you.  Lemme just destroy the basis of Field’s unfathomable success:

The Three Act Structure ‘Paradigm’ is a lie.

Slavishly follow that structure and you will write nothing of any importance or artistic merit.

The first plays ever written were one-act jobs. The idea of multiple-act structure was only invented out of sheer practicality.  Quite simply, it’s unreasonable for you to expect an audience to sit still for three hours without a break, so you split your play in two.  How do you stop them walking out during the intermission?  You leave them with some kind of cliffhanger or unexpected shift in story – leave them with a question that needs answering and they’ll be back in their seats in under 20 minutes.

Now do you see how Field has made an entire career out of baloney?

Oh sure – there are loads of movies that you can point to and say “buy Mike – this is surely written in a three act structure – so much so that you can set your watch to it.”

I’ll give you that – the barn-raising scene in Witness happens bang on half-way.  Time it and see.  You can go to a bazillion screenwriting courses and they’ll all tell you that this is the classic “Middle of Act 2” scene.

Or take Star Wars -that’s a genuine three-act story – FACT. I should know – I’ve seen it eleventy gajillion times and the trilogy took up half of my college thesis.

But Field himself thinks that The Millenium Falcon blasting off from Mos Eisley happens in act 2, when it’s clearly in act 1, just because Star Wars’ first act lasts longer than the Field-prescribed 30 minutes (it’s Tatooine, Death Star, Yavin IV – the location shifts are a dead giveaway).  It’s like the guy doesn’t even understand his own theory.

And then there’s the problem with Witness.

That classic “Middle of Act 2” barn-raising scene is the link between Act 2 and Act 3.

Witness has a 4-act structure.

I’ll say that again.

Witness has a 4-act structure.

As do pretty much all of these so-called “3 Act” Hollywood movies.  The 4-Act-ness of them has become increasingly obvious to anyone who cares to pay attention.  Check out Transformers.  It’s the very epitome of 4-Act structure – and it’s sticks to the 10-minute action rule pretty rigidly too.   It’s two hours of celluloid entertainment cut into 4 equal pieces.

It’s screenwriting-by-numbers.

I’m not knocking Transformers – I’m a massive fan of Michael Bay – this movie totally rocks me to the bottom of my popcorn bucket, but it’s not exactly Seven Samurai, is it?

If you want to write better screenplays, stop worrying about story structure and just tell us a story!

Stop thinking – stop reading these poisonous books – stop worrying about structure – start writing

I’m nearly all out of ranty for the day, but I’ll leave you with this jot of advice:

Next time you’re in the screenwriting section of your local bookstore, ask yourself what the hell you’re doing considering wasting your hard-earned cash on that shite.  You might as well be in the yoghurt-knitting self-help section for all the good these books will do your writing.

Get yourself far away from that mind-rotting crap and visit the Literature section.  Buy some Irving or Dickens.  Read The Great Gatsby or Rum Punch.  Or, if you really must read a script, try the Theatre section and pick up some Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman has 2 acts, BTW) or David Mamet (there’s a great collection with Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed the Plow).

Once you’ve read all of those, if you’re still not convinced, I’ll let James Bonnet try to convince you. I’m not saying he’s the guru you’ve been waiting for, but this article of his makes a lot of sense.

Now I’m off to write some freeform beat-poetry. Sod strucure.  Let’s jam.


~ by mchawk on 7 December, 2008.

2 Responses to “Four Act Structure (Nobody Knows Anything – pt.2)”

  1. Hey great advice. My big problem with reading your blog was those damn snow falls!!! (lol) Please for the love of Star Wars take those forsaken liitle annoying white powdered chaos creating drops off your amazing rant! (smile)

  2. Thanks! Glad you like it.

    Good call on the snow – it was starting to get on my nerves, as well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: