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Posts Tagged ‘three act structure’

“I write dialogue fairly easily. Plot is a big pain in the ass.”
David Mamet

If you like discussing screenplay structure, and praising or blasting three act structure, then this post is for you. I’ll start out with an exchange between writer/director Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) and writer/director Sean Baker (The Florida Project) taken from The Director’s Cut podcast that the DGA produced.

Paul Schrader: This film The Florida Project, which is really amazing, is part of a larger trend that I first noticed four or five years ago. And I called it at that time the exhaustion of narrative, because we see so much plot—so much narrative—in our lives, hour upon hour upon hour, that we’re growing tired of it, so we’re much more open now to things that amble and are anecdotal because they feel more real. We’re so tired of seeing those rusty gears of the three act structure crank, and you start to say; Okay, rising action, falling action, boom, boom, boom. Robert McKee has done none of us favor. So you saw it with Dunkirk, which is a big historical action piece but it’s done anecdotally. And you saw it with Detroit which meanders. And you see it here [with The Florida Project]. And I think that audiences find this more interesting than that heavy plotted stuff that we used to have 25 years ago. I don’t know if you agree with that.

Sean Baker: Well, read Twitter. I don’t know if that’s exactly true. First I just want to say Paul, thank you so much for doing this. You’ve been an inspiration and an influence on my entire career so thank you. Regarding [structure] my co-screenwriter Chris Bergosh actually comes from—our sensibilities are slightly different. He’s really is actually very structured in his writing, he likes the three act structure. I come from the other side of the spectrum where I can have a 10-minute Tarkovsky tracking shot that I’m intrigued by. We sort of meet somewhere in the middle. With this film in particular we kept saying—we’ve written three films together Starlet, Tangerine and [The Florida Project]—and I kept saying on this one, if there is a plot I want it to be disguised, I want it to be buried. I want the lines of our three act structure to be blurred, so it would be hard to figure out where the second and third act begin. And make this film more about character. We wanted the audience to spend a summer with this children. And if you think about your summers of your youth, it wasn’t exactly plot driven. There wasn’t a three act structure to your summer. So that’s how we approached it. 

Now we did take some precautions by writing scenes that didn’t make it into the final film, but we did it just out of safety sake. We actually had scenes that had more exposition, that actually did focus on just the adults, especially the ending it was much more procedural in the script. Hoping that it could come out, but shooting it for safety sake. And end the end we did remove a lot of that stuff and put back in what you might call extraneous scenes back in. For example, the kids dancing on the bed,  that’s not exactly something that pushes the plot forward or the story forward. …Almost like vignettes to a degree. Some people do have an issue with that, but for me ultimately I thinks it’s about connecting with these characters and having spent real time with them and not having every scene about exposition. 

There’s a lot to unpack there, but let me just defend traditional three act structure (and by association McKee since Schrader brought him into the discussion). Three act structure is simply a time proven tradition that’s been around for arguably decades of film, and hundreds (or even thousands of years) of theater. And it will be around forever. Even if it means some work being in four or five acts. (McKee, Syd Field, and others just pointed out what was common in many great films. It’s like blaming the hero’s journey on Joseph Campbell.)

No one is calling Pixar films or Spotlight and dozens of other recent solid traditionally structured films rusty.  Good story telling is good storytelling. Period. Paul Schrader has a brilliant mind and has had a long love affair with movies. But with that said he, like the critics who love The Florida Project, want to see something new. Baker and Bergosh delivered.  You only get that experience in cinema a few times a year. The Florida Project is the poster child for new and different this year.

The Florida Project deserves the praise it’s getting. But it was a risk to make because it is a character driven film that is mini-plot at best. It does build to a climax. But there is no major dramatic question in this movie. No stated goal. Just survival tactics. But there is plenty of what I’ve said are three of the most important things for a script/movie to have; conflict, and emotion. And they toss in several interesting characters who are a part of the end of the rope club.

They ride that train from the opening to the closing scene. And they can downplay the narrative because they made the film for “well under $2 million.” They weren’t going after a Titanic box office. They were going after a small audience. To date the film has made $3 million so they’re doing quite well.

It will do well at the award season and open new opportunities for Baker and Bergosh. But the death of three act structure is greatly exaggerated.  We need structure in our films, because so much of life is not structure. To get the broadest audience you have to wrap in a why that is accepted by the widest group of people. The three act structure (or any structure that works) is not going anywhere.

I think McKee once said something like 80% of all films fall under traditional structure, because it helps give the film a chance to making back its money. The Florida Project falls into that other 20% of films that are made. Heck, it’s hard for any film to find an audience—but even harder for those other 20%. The Florida Project is getting a welcomed standing ovation. (But with that said, I understand why someone would wonder five, ten, 20 minutes into the film, “What is this film about?” They may leave the theater before the movie is over.) But not all films need to be neatly explainable. When The Florida Project was over I felt like I got punched in the face. And it was a great feeling. And it’s way that movie is getting the hype it’s getting and will be remember for decades.

There’s not too many movies you can say that about.

One of my all time favorite films is Tender Mercies which could be considered mini-plot. But 30 years later that film still haunts me. Tender Mercies was directed by Australian Bruce Beresford and I’ve called it an American foreign film. My guess is that though Baker and Bergosh are Americans that one or both of them have had a steady diet of foreign films in their lifetime.

Let me close this with a graph from McKee’s book Story that touches on archplot, miniplot, and antiplot. There is no one way to make a great movie. And in the book he goes even deeper covering non-plot.

Mckee.jpg

P.S. Movies that are well structured but lack meaningful conflict and emotion tend to be boring and lifeless. No one is going to call The Florida Project boring and lifeless.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

 

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“The ‘rules’ of structure ensure that a huge reversal happens every 30 minutes, a big one every 15 minutes or so and some sort of smaller one every single scene.”
Writer/director Rian Johnson (Looper)

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I pulled the following excerpt from an article by Rian Johnson that I found in a stack of articles I wanted to included on my blog someday. Here it is— just five years after it was published:

“As a writer I understand the instinct to bristle at ‘S’ word. Structure seems antithetical to the free-wheeling creative process we associate with creating fresh art. But it’s essential to understand structure. You don’t need to learn it as a rote set of rules or a diagram of blanks to fill in with your ideas, but to simply understand it, and to wrap your head around why a three-act structure works. 

My own bottle of snake oil, for what it’s worth? Traditional screenplay structure is a tried and true method of keeping you, as a writer, lashed to the mast of the one and only hard and fast rule in all of screenwriting: Do not be boring….As a writer, the rules of a good script, keep you honest.

Can you write a good script without following a structure? Yes. In fact, some of my favorite scripts have nothing at all resembling three acts. Can you write a good one without following the principles that drive a traditional structure? Maybe, sure. But I have yet to read one.”
Rian Johnson
MovieMaker/Complete Guide to Making Movies 2011

P.S. Back when that was first published Johnson was best known for his indie film Brick (2005), now he’s best known for writing and directing a film that won’t be released until next year—Star Wars: Episode VIII (2017). Does that give a little more gravitas to the above quote?

 

Related post:
Screenwriting’s One Unbreakable Rule
There are No Rules, But…
Screenwriting & Structure
Analytical vs. Intuitive Writing
What’s Changed (Tip #102)
Screenwriting with Brilliant Simplicity

Scott W. Smith

 

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