Updated: Nov 24, 2019
What is your favorite film act structure?
Three, four or five?
I’ll quickly go through them all
and explain why my favorite is four.
And don’t fool yourself to think
That theory is number one
It’s all about the poetry
Where ideas can easily fly.
Or you can also think of it as home
Where all rooms chant their most comfortable tone.
Everyone in the world knows about the three-act structure, “the beginning, the middle and the end” paradigm, proposed by Aristotle. Throughout the world, students of dramaturgy and screenwriting learn about it, while they take their first step towards understanding storytelling architecture.
Blake Snyder takes it from Aristotle and in Save the Cat he says: “I like to think of movies as divided into three separate worlds. Most people call those three acts. I call them thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.”
If you want to use the three-act structure for your short film, please have in mind:
Act One stands for pity: the part of the film where you have to feel with and relate to the character, obviously because, a problem or wound is introduced
Act Two stands for fear: where you are afraid for the character because he/she is now fighting and might lose, and he/she is afraid as well
Act Three stands for catharsis: the suspension of tension – the character resolves the problem, something/someone wins
I think I spoke about this already, when I was explaining how to write a short synopsis. This is how: write those three sentences and you’ll have your story.
You have also probably heard of Freytag’s Pyramid or dramatic structure. In his book Technique of the drama, the German novelist, Gustav Freytag, laid out the underlying structure of every Ancient Greek tragedy and Elizabethan drama. This model has remained predominant till this day and John Yorke uses it for the five-act film structure in his book, Into the Woods.
4. Falling action
Here you can see three acts, corresponding with the Jungian theory of individuation. We can also call this one a mythological structure:
Act One: Departure, Separation
Act Two: Descent, Initiation, Penetration
Act Three: Return
After, in his book, Vogler splits three acts into four:
Act One: Departure, Separation
Act Two A: Descent
Act Two B: Initiation, Penetration
Act Three: Return
While he defines:
Act 1 and Act 3 as the “Ordinary world”
Act 2A and Act 2B as the “Special world”
Pilar Alessandra also teaches the four act model (Act1, Act2A, Act2B, Act3) where every act is 25 pages long (for 110 page long feature film screenplays) and she brings four “T’s” into this equation. Those Four T’s stands for:
Middle Part 1: Training
Middle Part 2: Trials
This is quite useful and accurate but I don’t believe she mentions it in her book, The Coffee Break Screenwriter. Nevertheless, you can check this book out if you want simple explanations and quick 10 minute guidance on how to structure your feature film.
While having all that in mind (honestly not just in mind, somewhere deep down in my subconscious all of those structures are playing out all the time), let me show you:
My Four Act Story Structure – or better yet, the Intuitive Screenwriting Wheel Four Elements Transformational Structure:
ACT 1. FIRE. BIRTH:
Warrior (Exposition of a wound/ego),
Creator (Inciting Incident – ray of hope, idea, invitation),
Explorer (Hero decides to go on a quest) - First Act Turning Point
ACT 2. EARTH. MANIFESTATION:
Lover (beginning of a relationship story),
Sage (healing is possible, let’s make it better, let’s make it pure with Self-love/but fear in the form of Self-destruction kicks-in )
Ruler (First Culmination/Midpoint – the Hero thinks he is on the top of the world— controlling/false belief)
ACT 3. AIR. STRUCTURE:
Fool (This is the “fun and games” part, but the Hero can also realize his foolishness to think it’s going to be easy. This is the upside-down part of the story — a twin archetype actually, where Hero realizes that he is being fooled by others or by himself).
Orphan (relationships are not working – Hero has to balance between his wishes and his needs)
Magician (Finally it’s clear that the Hero has to transform himself – suddenly lightning strikes, “magic comes from the above,” an insight- the Hero suddenly sees). Usually, we call this 2nd Act turning point, I can also call it “the last act turning point” and usually it comes in two strikes, the Caregiver is as well part of this turning point.
ACT 4. WATER. PARADISE/ASCENSION:
Caregiver (Emotional breakdown)
Destroyer (Death of an old ego, old self or old belief can finally create space for the new self. Resurrection. Usually, we call this: The main culmination/ Climax
Innocent (Ascension into a new world, the Hero is now wise and can begin anew, clean and innocent, new knowledge is ready to be shared).
Do you see what I’m trying to demonstrate? My claim is that the Intuitive screenwriting wheel is a clock, in which consciousness also develops in time through archetypes as stages. THE INTUITIVE SCREENWRITING WHEEL is a structure system and a genre system, but it’s also A JOURNEY - A TRANSFORMATIONAL WHEEL!
The archetypes progress in counterclockwise direction (just like the zodiac wheel) STEP BY STEP = STAGE BY STAGE = ARCHETYPE BY ARCHETYPE
Every archetype, while changing itself with its opposing archetype, is actually going through all the archetypal phases (inside the cross structure means that while one is changing forward, the other is changing backward – below you’ll see what I mean) .
Of course variations are possible, but the point is that the wheel represents the course of the change for every archetype. You can also see on the graph below how the outside arrow (in gray) shows progression in time. So inside the cross, you have the circle. The cross is the outside structure of your film, while the circle is the inside structure.
This is also going to be clear when you see the example.
Amazing or not/?? And again, logical when you accept that no structure is actually linear – even though some appear that way.
I think this is quite revolutionary in storytelling to have proof or a ‘clock’ for the hero’s transformation inside and out. Campbell sure did it, Vogler, as well and Hero’s Journey is of course a milestone for mythological structure, but neither of them had the wheel to mathematically/geometrically, and astrologically, if you will, prove the journey, especially not on so many levels at the same time.
To quote C. Vogler: “I am retelling the myth of a hero my own way and you should feel free to do the same.”
I feel free, indeed :)
And before I explain the whole story structure through archetypal stages (in my next posts in depth) and also make a comparison with the outline and terminology in The Writer’s Journey structure by Christopher Vogler, let me first explain the meaning, purpose and energy of every act/element.
First, let’s presume that a story or a myth is a hero.
ACT ONE: Birth of the story – The idea of transformation is a seed.
ACT TWO: The manifestation of the story – What once was a seed is now real.
ACT THREE: Structure of the story - And it’s growing and influencing others as well.
ACT FOUR: Paradise - Once experienced, it can become part of the collective.
Now let’s see what that means for a HERO himself –
(please always have in mind that for now, I am referring to both male and female heroes since transformation is a universal part of every life of every human being).
1. Birth of a Hero – Initiation, “born from fire”.
The idea of who I can become in the world.
When the fire goes out, what remains is the earth– ground zero, the real beginning -->
2. The manifestation of a Hero
Exploring reality – discovering ones’ appetites, what’s pleasurable and what’s not, what I need so that I can become solid (earth) in this world –
A glimpse of what is worth fighting for.
Which then leads to relationships -->
3. Structure of the Hero’s World
Exploring relationships and learning how to influence others (WISH VS. NEED)
Who I am not. What needs to go, who needs to go?
From this point on, everything becomes emotional -->
4. Hero’s Paradise
We enter into an emotional realm, where things are more fluid, emotionally unbearable, the Hero is either drowning or letting it all go, death can mean a rebirth. Ascension.
(WISH OR NEED; WISH AND NEED)
Who I am.
How can I meet my own needs and serve the world at the same time? -->
STORY OR JOURNEY (TRANSFORMATION) ELEMENTS:
ACT 1: Birth comes out of the fire. Initiation. The hero is invited to change himself because he is ready.
ACT 2: Manifestation can happen only on earth; it is tangible. What you smell, taste, and own are what you can hold on to. But can you really hold onto anything without knowing what’s the above?
ACT 3: The structure of the world is built upon people and communication: air. But as soon as communication starts, emotions kick in.
ACT 4: And only through mastering our emotions (water), and letting go of control, completely, can you transcend. This is always the death and resurrection part.
STORY OR JOURNEY (TRANSFORMATION) THEMES/LESSONS:
ACT 1: BOUNDARIES – me vs. others
ACT 2: SENSES – me and others
ACT 3: RELATIONSHIPS – me against others
ACT 4: EMOTIONS –– new boundaries: no boundaries.
Ok, let’s now see how we can actually use this structure. I will analyze Fish Tank (2009) starting with the logline: This is a story about Mia, a 15 year old girl who falls in love with her mother’s boyfriend. You will now see how important is to know your logline because just from there, playing with one sentence, you can layout the whole structure. The goal of the story of Fish Tank is to grow up, to be free from the past, from her mother, from the Shadow Caregiver – so then one day she can become a positive Caregiver, and have a family of her own.
CAREGIVER (SHADOW)-->LOVER (POSITIVE) line of the story
ACT ONE – BIRTH/FIRE/A WISH (Caregiver shadow)
Mia has a huge problem with her mom (Warrior)
Mia meets her mom’s boyfriend; a spark lights up her heart (Creator)
Mia falls in love with her mom’s boyfriend (note here that film is always about the First Act turning point, actually about the Explorer in us. THIS IS OUR STORY!!!!!! (If you would only know what genius proof this is that the wheel is accurate, but I need to save something for the book!!!)
ACT TWO – MANIFESTATION/EARTH/EXPLORING REALITY/NEED (Lover positive)
Mia is flirting with her mom’s boyfriend. He is flirting with her. (Lover)
Mia has sex with her mom’s boyfriend, loses her virginity (wish fulfilled – false ending – but who is the Ruler?)
ACT THREE – STRUCTURE/AIR (WISH VS NEED) (Lover shadow)
Her mother’s boyfriend is gone, Mia looks for him. (Orphan)
Mia discovers he has a family of his own, a wife and a daughter. The end of an illusion. (She takes his daughter/he slaps her!) (Magician)
ACT FOUR – PARADISE (I need to free myself from my mom) (caregiver positive)
Mia realizes her mother is wounded and cannot take reasonability for her life. She forgives her. (Caregiver)
Mia takes responsibility for her own life. She is ready for a new adventure. Wise and innocent again.
LOVER (SHADOW)-->CAREGIVER (POSITIVE) line of the story with the young (horse) guy
ACT ONE - BIRTH (lover shadow)
Mia meets young (horse) guy and his friends. Mia wants to free their horse. They take her stuff. (Warrior)
Mia returns for her stuff, she gets into a fight them. The young guy is nice to her.
ACT TWO - MANIFESTATION (caregiver negative)
Mia is drinking and fooling around with the young guy. (Lover)
Mia lies to her mom about sleeping with him.
ACT THREE - STRUCTURE (caregiver positive)
Mia has more important stuff on her mind, she meets a young guy, but doesn’t have time for him. (Orphan)
Mia cries over a dead horse (herself), the young guy invites her to go on a trip with him.
This is where the second story line takes over the structure!!
ACT FOUR - PARADISE (lover positive)
Mia is leaving with the young guy. (Innocent)
As I already explained – when you cross two-story lines that develop as counterpoints to each other, between two opposing archetypes, and at the same time, rotate the archetypal wheel by following the archetypal stages all the way to the end, you have your feature film structure.
For you who are writing the script with me, your homework for this week is: break your film into four acts.