I’m really tired of the three act story.
I’ve always been fascinated with film and the medium of visual storytelling. It is (along with music) the most accessible form of art we have. Unlike music, however, there’s also a great sense of community. Your enjoyment of music may vary slightly when you hear your favorite song in a crowd or make a connection with someone based on your mutual admiration of some obscure indie band, but the experience of seeing a movie is complete when you see it in a crowded theatre, the audience laughing, gasping (yawning) together. You have to wait months or travel miles to see your favorite band play live, and even then the experience may be sub-par. There is a lot to be said for the serendipity of live performance, and I certainly don’t think that movies come close to being the best artform, but it certainly is the most accessible.
Seeing a painting is a singular and potentially spiritual experience, but that only comes from seeing the painting itself. Seeing a reproduction of Sunday at the Grande Jatte is like hearing Led Zeppelin over an old telephone; you get the gist, but all the subtleties that make the painting what it is can only be experienced in a single room in a building in Chicago between the hours of 10:30am and 5:00pm (8pm on Thursdays.)
Seeing a film as it was intended is just a matter of buying a ticket. Much like Andy Warhols’ opinion of coke, a movie delivers the same experience whether viewed in New York or Knoxville, Tennessee. But because film is so accessible, we should start demanding more from our movies. I’m not thinking about the acting, celebrity culture, or even gimmicks like 3d, though they’re certainly deserving of harsh criticism. My issue is with the fundamental building blocks of story, specifically the three act story structure.
The three act story structure has been around a long time. Most hero legends use some form of this. You’re probably familiar. An unsuspecting slightly out of the ordinary person has their world turned upside down by an ‘inciting incident.’ The hero then works with a mentor, often through the ancient art of montage, to become ready to take on the villain. Once they meet for the first time, the hero will lose, must redouble his efforts, faces the bad guy again, almost wins, ultimately loses, loses hope, gets advice from an unlikely source (think Morgan Freeman), rallies to defeat the bad guy once and for all—or at least until the sequel. You can read more about this in The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, or from less skilled authors hocking their ‘how to write a screenplay’ books.
Working within the the strictures of any given form is part of the art. Freeform poetry is often more angst than substance, whereas the villanelle or the sonnet have produced some very iconic works. Often, as a graphic designer, being given a brief and rigid guidelines for delivery allows freedom of exploration. A blank page of any size with a client that thinks they’re doing you a favor by telling you “just do whatever, I trust you” is far more daunting.
As liberating as structure can be, relying too much on it is the death of the good. With price-tags upward of $20 million, the tendency to fall back on these old reliable tropes are less an indicator of creative bankruptcy than the overabundance risk averse business majors masquerading as movie producers. On top of all the investment, the bar of success is being raised ever higher. Your movie has to play well to residents of Chicago, New York, Los Angeles as well as citizens of Dallas, TX or Reston, VA. It’s difficult to craft a quality message with such a large audience…but if it were easy, everyone would be doing it…wait…everyone would be doing it well.
If you’ve been to the movies recently and thought to yourself “something about this experience feels…over designed” you aren’t wrong. There are companies in hollywood that will analyze your script for a hefty fee, and suggest changes that will help you ‘connect’ more with your audience.
There’s nothing wrong with editing or revising, having test screenings to see what plays and what doesn’t, but this is evil. Not Hitler evil, or even Sean Hannity evil. It’s worse. It’s Hallmark Evil—the kind of lowest common denominator pandering to tug at your heartstrings in order to take your hard won disposable income. And you know it.
Just like the tuna sandwich that is one day too old, when you see these films there’s something that feels just a little off. You can spot a disingenuous story, and it leaves a slightly bad taste in your mouth, but not enough to make you spit the entire thing out and demand your money back.
Go watch a well made movie from the 90s—still a product of the modern studio system, but Forest Gump, Apollo 13, Pulp Fiction, American Beauty seem more unique while still being accessible. 2014’s Birdman, while conceptually stronger and arguably more ground breaking, is seen as—and sold as—an art film with limited appeal. It’ll win awards, but the award that truly matters is the dollar amount that was grossed during its’ theatrical run.
And therein lies the catch 22—when the film is marketed as an art film, there’s a certain expectation from the movie going public that makes them want to buy a ticket to the next Marvel epic or Will Ferrel comedy. Good filmmaking is still taking place, making money and earning awards. I recently saw Wolf of Wall Street and it’s a great example. Memorable characters, deep performances, big special effects, a message that resonates but doesn’t preach, and not a single cliché storytelling device in sight. It’s not some unicorn that Scorsese found, it’s a result of hard work and high standards that prohibit him from accepting “what audiences are used to.” And there are more than 3 acts.
Sometimes, the Three Act Structure is appropriate, especially when well hid, but much like autotune it’s overused, easy to spot and a little insulting when you know you’re capable of appreciating nuance and true talent.
If you’re a filmmaker, try to break the mold, staring by tossing out well worn convention. Standing on the Shoulders of Giants doesn’t mean regurgitation. And when you go see your next film, don’t settle for the visual equivalent of fast food. You wouldn’t buy a Big Mac for $18, so why pay that for Transformers 6: Optimus Prime Goes to Camp?