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  • Hi, I'm Michael.

  • This is Lessons from the Screenplay.

  • A couple months ago, while promoting his new Netflix show, Mindhunter,

  • director David Fincher made a comment about the limitations of the Marvel superhero films,

  • and the potential of new platforms like Netflix.

  • Look, there's a very large talent pool of people who

  • don't feel there's much for them in terms of sustenance working for Marvel.

  • And I think that if we can make a playground for them

  • that is thoughtful, adult, interesting, complex, challenging

  • there's a chance at something that isn't lassoed and hogtied by three acts.”

  • This last part of his comment has stuck with me.

  • I've been thinking about it a lot.

  • In fact, it's become a kind of obsession.

  • It's led me to revisit screenwriting books,

  • re-read some Shakespeare,

  • and re-watch every movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

  • All in search of an answer to a question:

  • What is the most useful way for a writer to think about act structure?

  • I want to bring you along on the journey I took to find the answer in two videos

  • starting by figuring out what an act even is.

  • So today I want to useThe Avengers,”

  • a well-known and well-structured film,

  • to explain the details of conventional three-act structure.

  • ...To explore its history, as well as its classical alternative, five-act structure.

  • And share a new way I've decided to think about the acts in a story.

  • Let's take a look atThe Avengers.”

  • The idea of a formal three-act structure for a screenplay

  • was popularized in Hollywood by Syd Field,

  • when he described it in his 1979 book, ”Screenplay.”

  • According to him, it looks likes this.

  • Three acts, two plot points.

  • Act One should make up the first twenty-five percent of a script,

  • providing all the set up for the story.

  • So let's see if this is true forThe Avengers.”

  • In the film, the first half of Act One shows Loki's arrival and reveals his evil plan.

  • The second half of Act One is all about S.H.I.E.L.D.

  • recruiting our heroes to join the fight against Loki

  • Security breach!”

  • and raising concerns about bringing them together, thus setting up the story.

  • At the end of Act One comes the First Plot Point,

  • during which the protagonist makes a difficult choice and enters a new world.

  • Because there are so many characters inThe Avengers,”

  • this moment plays a bit differently than in most scripts.

  • Iron Man commits off-screen, and Thor joins up later.

  • Nonetheless, this is where we see Captain America and Bruce Banner

  • commit to helping S.H.I.E.L.D.

  • The Helicarrier lifts them up into Act Two,

  • exactly 25% of the way through the film's run time.

  • As a side note, act breaks are oftenbut not alwaysaccompanied by a change in location.

  • The middle 50% of a script forms the second act,

  • where the protagonist struggles to achieve their new goal.

  • Since 1979, this section has somewhat evolved.

  • It's now common to include a midpoint

  • a big turn that comes exactly half way through the screenplay.

  • This midpoint splits the second act into two halves,

  • often referred to as “2A” and “2B.”

  • InThe Avengers,” the first half of Act Two is all about our heroes

  • trying to stop Loki's plan while struggling to trust each other.

  • At the midpointalmost exactly half-way through the film

  • our heroes learn that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been keeping secrets from them.

  • During this apex of tension, Loki's men attack,

  • and the momentum of the story swings in a new direction.

  • The second half of Act Two is about our heroes failing to stop Loki,

  • taking losses and ending up scattered.

  • This leads to the Second Plot Point.

  • A moment of crisis, which forces the protagonist to make another big choice.

  • Our heroes realize what's at stake, put aside their differences,

  • and come up with a plan to stop Loki once and for all.

  • They gear up and fly off into Act Three.

  • In Act Three, the protagonist knows what they need to do,

  • but must overcome their weaknesses to do so.

  • In learning to work together and by defeating Loki,

  • our heroes become The Avengers.

  • The rest of Act Three is about resolution and tying up loose ends.

  • This is the three-act model that has formed the foundation

  • of what we considerproperscreenplay structure for almost forty years.

  • So what's the problem with thisparadigmthree-act structure?

  • Well, it's a bit vague when it comes to the second act.

  • Acts one and three have specific functions that are understood intuitively:

  • set-up the story and resolve the story.

  • But Act Two, the bulk of the narrative, is pretty bare.

  • And even with the midpoint, there are only three turning points put forth in this model.

  • A lot happens inThe Avengers”—this doesn't really seem to cover it all.

  • So what are the alternatives to three-act structure?

  • The most commonly discussed model, famously found in Shakespearean plays,

  • is the five-act structure.

  • In 1863, German novelist Gustav Freytag published his bookTechnique of the Drama,”

  • and introducedFreytag's Pyramid.”

  • He had analyzed classic Elizabethan drama,

  • and declared there were five stages in every tragedy.

  • Let's go through these five stages and see how they align perfectly withThe Avengers.”

  • The first stage, Exposition,

  • is all about setting up the world, the conflicts already in place,

  • and the protagonist.

  • As we've already discussed, this is the first 25% ofThe Avengers,”

  • where we learn about Loki's plan and meet our heroes as they are pulled into the drama.

  • During the second stage, Complications,

  • tension mounts and momentum builds as the intricacies of the drama are established.

  • Now assembled, our heroes go to work tracking Loki.

  • They find him, confront him, and capture him.

  • Along the way, Iron Man and Thor make their entrances,

  • and we see the beginnings of conflict between our heroes.

  • They are not good at playing nice with each other.

  • The third stage is The Climax.

  • This may seem like a strange name,

  • because we usually refer to the final showdown in a story as the climax.

  • But I feel this conveys the appropriate amount of weight this section should have.

  • Freytag wrote of this middle stage:

  • The development of conflict reaches its high point,

  • the Hero stands at the crossroads, leading to victory or defeat, crashing or soaring.”

  • InThe Avengers,” this third stage begins once Loki is on board the ship.

  • The conflict between our heroes that was hinted at in the second stage reaches its highest point.

  • Everything we've seen so far has been building to this...

  • and at this very moment, the antagonists attack.

  • (explosion)

  • This section ends in defeat.

  • The fourth stage, Falling Action, is all about reversals,

  • as the protagonists reacts to the consequences of the climax.

  • Our heroes, now having tasted defeat,

  • are no longer bickering about their differences.

  • They reverse their behavior,

  • and commit to working together to destroy their common enemy.

  • By the end of this stage, they become The Avengers,

  • conveyed in a single, now-iconic shot.

  • Finally, in the fifth stage, Catastrophe,

  • the conflict is resolved, either through the downfall of the hero if it's a tragedy,

  • or through victory and change.

  • InThe Avengers,” this stage begins immediately following the iconic shot, as Loki commands:

  • Loki: “Send the rest.”

  • Our heroes have changed for the better and become a team,

  • but now they're about to be truly tested.

  • The Avengers fight and sacrifice and win the day.

  • And get schawarma.

  • These are the five stages of Freytag's Pyramid,

  • which form the basis of a classical five-act structure.

  • So what are the major differences between a five-act structure and a three-act structure?

  • As it turns out, if we take Freytag's Pyramid

  • and place it on top of Syd Field's three-act paradigm, it fits quite nicely.

  • As John York writes in his book, “Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into Story”…

  • It's important to underline that a five-act structure

  • isn't really different to a three-act structure,

  • merely a detailed refinement of it

  • Simply put, five acts are generated by inserting two further act breaks

  • in the second act of the traditional 'Hollywood' paradigm.

  • The first and last acts remain identical in both forms.”

  • So using a classic five-act structure satisfies the demands of the three-act paradigm,

  • while also providing a more detailed take on the middle section of a story.

  • But if we compare these two structures as we just applied them toThe Avengers,”

  • we see that they don't fit exactly as John Yorke described.

  • The fourth stage where The Avengers reunite

  • doesn't occur during theparadigm's” second act, but rather the third.

  • So why doesn't it line up perfectly with how the screenwriting book said?

  • Did we put the act breaks in the wrong spot?

  • Well, maybe.

  • But more importantly,

  • does any of this really matter?

  • Here we arrive at the heart of my obsession,

  • where I was left pondering how to define an act.

  • Perhaps the most common criticism of the three-act structure

  • is that it leads to formulaic stories.

  • The argument goes:

  • won't all movies be the same if they follow this three-act paradigm?”

  • I think this misses the point of what makes a story good or bad.

  • To use an analogy, almost all popular songs use a verse-chorus structure

  • But we don't love our favorite pop songs just because they're structured

  • verse, chorus, verse, chorus, chorus.”

  • We love them because of the content within the verses and chorus,

  • what is put into the structure.

  • The same goes for screenwriting.

  • Knowledge of act structure helps you organize your story,

  • but it's not a shortcut to quality.

  • And when a writer has something random happen on a certain page because a book told them to,

  • instead of it being an organic result of the story events,

  • that is the misuse of structure that leads to frustrating, formulaic movies.

  • So can we come up with a definition for an act that is more useful

  • during the actual writing process?

  • One that isn't based on placement in a story, but rather function?

  • Film Crit Hulk, a film critic who writes in all caps and as if he were the Hulk,

  • released a blog post several years ago railing against three act structure.

  • In it, he offers a definition:

  • THE END OF AN ACT IS A POINT IN THE STORY WHERE A CHARACTER(S) MAKES A CHOICE AND CAN

  • NO LONGER 'GO BACK.'”

  • I like that this definition is character-centric,

  • focusing on a specific action that affects the momentum and direction of a story.

  • Another similar but more detailed definition is by John Yorke:

  • “...acts are bound by dramatic desire,

  • with a turning point spinning the character off

  • in pursuit of a new goal...

  • A course of action, defined by one single desire,

  • will be completed, whether successfully or not.”

  • I think this is a really useful definition,

  • again because it is based on what is actually happening in your story

  • the desire of the protagonist.

  • But the definition that has helped me the most came from combining the two,

  • and taking John Yorke's advice when he wrote...

  • Sometimes it's easier to think of the structure in question-and-answer form.”

  • So now, I think of an act as the dramatic question it introduces to the story,

  • persisting until the question is answered

  • and the protagonist has made a choice that sends them in a new direction.

  • This was what I was looking for when I began my investigation into act structure.

  • When you describe an act with a question, it becomes actionable.

  • It is the writer's job to design a series of events that will answer this question,

  • force the protagonist to make a choice,

  • and send them in a new direction.

  • So now, for the fourth and final act of this video,

  • let's define the Acts ofThe Avengersusing questions and answers.

  • Act One begins as Loki appears and reveals his evil plan.

  • The dramatic question posed is:

  • Will Nick Fury be able to recruit our heroes to help stop Loki?

  • This is answered when they say yes...

  • even though we don't see them all commit on-screen.

  • Captain America and Bruce Banner choose to start searching for Loki,

  • which brings us to...

  • Act Two: Can they track Loki down and catch him?

  • Answer: Yes, but it feels like it was too easy.

  • Despite disagreement amongst the team about what should be done with Loki,

  • they choose to bring him back to S.H.I.E.L.D.

  • Act Three: Now that our heroes are finally united,

  • will they be able to get along and trust each other?

  • No.

  • Distrust leads to failure, and Loki escapes.

  • Realizing their errors, they finally choose to work together.

  • Act Four: Will our heroes unite to become The Avengers?

  • Yep.

  • By the end of act four they choose to face Loki's impossibly large army together,

  • in a coordinated effort.

  • Act Five: Will The Avengers be able to stop Loki's army from destroying New York City?

  • Yes, through a concerted effort that shows

  • that this new team is greater than the sum of its parts.

  • Having grown, the characters choose to go their separate ways,

  • knowing they will have each others' backs when the time comes.

  • You can analyze a film and apply any structure if you try hard enough.

  • Whether it's three-act structure, eight-sequence breakdown, or the Blake Snyder beat sheet,

  • it's just an intellectual exercise unless it helps you improve your writing.

  • In the end, all screenwriting books are essentially talking about the same thing,

  • it's just about finding what clicks with you and makes you a better writer.

  • But what about that David Fincher quote?

  • Are Marvel films reallylassoed and hogtiedby three-acts?

  • What is an example of a film that doesn't follow theparadigmstructure?

  • And what happens when we zoom in closer to dissect the anatomy of an act?

  • I'll examine all of this in my next video,

  • next week.

  • I recently used this question and answer method of identifying acts