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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,

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

This last part of his comment has stuck with

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

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

So today I want to use “The Avengers,”
a well-known and well-structured film,
to explain the details of conventional three-act

...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 at “The 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 for “The

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

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

Because there are so many characters in “The

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 often—but
not always—accompanied by a change in location.

The middle 50% of a script forms the second

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

often referred to as “2A” and “2B.”
In “The 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 midpoint—almost 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

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

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 consider “proper” screenplay
structure for almost forty years.

So what's the problem with this “paradigm”
three-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 in “The Avengers”—this
doesn't really seem to cover it all.

So what are the alternatives to three-act

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

is the five-act structure.
In 1863, German novelist Gustav Freytag published
his book “Technique of the Drama,”

and introduced “Freytag's Pyramid.”
He had analyzed classic Elizabethan drama,
and declared there were five stages in every

Let's go through these five stages and see
how they align perfectly with “The 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% of “The 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

They find him, confront him, and capture him.
Along the way, Iron Man and Thor make their

and we see the beginnings of conflict between
our heroes.

They are not good at playing nice with each

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.”

In “The 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.
This section ends in defeat.
The fourth stage, Falling Action, is all about

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

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.
In “The 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

And get schawarma.
These are the five stages of Freytag's Pyramid,
which form the basis of a classical five-act

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

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'

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 to “The Avengers,”

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

The fourth stage where The Avengers reunite
doesn't occur during the
“paradigm'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

Perhaps the most common criticism of the three-act

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:

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

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

let's define the Acts of “The Avengers”
using 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

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

which brings us to...
Act Two: Can they track Loki down and catch

Answer: Yes, but it feels like it was too

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

will they be able to get along and trust each

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?

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 really “lassoed and hogtied”
by three-acts?

What is an example of a film that doesn't
follow the “paradigm” structure?

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

in a blog post I wrote about The Last Jedi.
Friends had been asking for my thoughts on
the movie,

so I decided to write them up and post them
to my website.

While writing the article took some time,
formatting it and making it look nice was
fast and easy because I use Squarespace.

When I created my website it was simple to

by tweaking one their beautiful designer templates,
and updating the site is so much more convenient
than any other service I've ever used.

What this translates to, for me,
is a stress-free relationship with my website—
something I didn't think could exist.
And if you're creating a website to showcase
your new project,

or sharing your experiences with an eye-catching

a stress-free relationship with your website
is exactly what you want.

So go to today for a free

and when you're ready to launch go to
to save 10% on a website or domain.
Thanks to Squarespace for sponsoring this

Hey guys, I hope you enjoyed this video.
I have links in the description below for
all the books that I mentioned,

and my blog post about Star Wars,
and the Fincher quote—all that's down

as well as a link to an excellent video about
act structure by Lindsay Ellis

that you should definitely check out if you
want to learn more about how to structure

your stories.
If you want to help me make more videos,
please consider supporting this channel on

or by become a sponsor on YouTube by clicking
on the big sponsor button

next to the subscribe button.
Thank you for watching,
and I will see you next week!
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The Avengers-Defining an Act

169 Folder Collection
張博然 published on February 13, 2019
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