No personal blog crapola.
Just one guy's quest to unlock the mysterious art of storytelling on screen.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The 4-Act Story Diamond

Update: new version of the 4-Act Story Diamond graphic here.

I don't believe in the three-act screenplay story structure. It's four acts, plain and simple. I said so ten years ago on Jack Stanley's Scrnwrit list, and nothing has changed since. Four acts, no more, no less.

I'm sorry those screenwriting gurus sold you on three acts and then five acts and then seven acts or -- what are we up to now? Nine? Twelve? Look, we're all grasping for the magic template that will reign in the chaos and tame our wild stories, so I don't blame you for listening to those guys.

The four acts were there all along and the screenwriting gurus knew it, or at least sensed it. Certainly Syd Field knew it, although he failed to make a clean break from the dogmatic Aristotle three-act structure.

I swear, if I hear once more that line about "Get your hero up a tree, throw rocks at him, then get him down"... It's a god-awful illustration of the three-act structure and an even worse representation of storytelling. I wouldn't be surprise if every time he hears it, looking down on us from his heavenly pantheon, Aristotle gets the itch to hurl a lightning bolt at the speaker. I've yet to learn of any working screenwriters struck by real lightning, so I'll go ahead and assume Aristotle's patience runs a lot deeper than mine.

So what on earth does that pithy gem describe, really? I get that the 'up a tree' part stands for Act One: the inciting incident, the trigger, the destabilisation of the hero's world, jeopardy. And I get that the 'rocks' represent Act Two and conflict. It's not mentioned but it's a given that the rocks get larger and meaner with each throw, to create rising conflict.

... then get him down... ?? Is it just me or is that just a teensy bit anti-climactic? As a third act that simply will not do. Not around here.

Having exhausted our supply of rocks, it's time to get serious about making tree-guy suffer. Remember that chainsaw you stole from the set of Evil Dead: Army of Darkness? (Yes, I know about that; No, I never told The Chin, but I think he suspects.) Go get it. Because the writer's job is not to get the hero out of the tree. Your job is to make your protagonists suffer to the point where they have only one way out, where only one thing can transform the suffering into a solution: change.

I'm talking earthquake-fault-line-sized change. I'm talking about straddling the abyss with one foot on either side as it groans and cracks and widens beneath your hero, forcing a decision to go left or right, zig or zag, one way or the other, or do nothing and perish. At that moment, for the hero, standing still is no longer an option.

Change.

Get him down
, indeed. Replace this with Get him to change and I'll be partially happy about the whole sordid tree affair.

OK, we were talking about screenwriting modelers. Some of these guys hedged their bets with their three-act structures by introducing little fudges to the middle of the second act, to help explain that amorphous thing dogging them near page 60, that annoying lump under the carpet they couldn't beat down -- the 'tentpole' or 'midpoint' in guru speak. They wanted their models to have the semblance and effect of a four-act structure without needing to chop in two that long middle act. They wanted page 60 to behave like an Act boundary without having to acknowledge it as an Act boundary.

Here's some advice: forget the screenplay gurus and their pet theories. Instead of paying $200 to sit on your ass and be lectured to by some guy in a tweed suit whose name will never appear on IMDB.com under a Writer - filmography title -- instead of that, go out and figure it out yourself.

Yes, teach yourself. Find a list of the 20 top-grossing movies of all time, pick five titles, and go buy copies of the screenplays or download them off the Net. Don't spend your $200 to have some guy tell you about the gold; go buy the gold!

And don't think you can get away with only referencing electronic copies of scripts. Get copies of the real deal, the stuff you can hold in your hands and thumb through and fold the corners and curse at when the front-cover brad holes tear away and you have to sticky-tape them back together. Out of all the scripts on my shelf, my favourite is not the Revised Fourth Draft March 15, 1976 of The Adventures of Luke Starkiller as taken from the "Journal of the Whills" by George Lucas; my favourite is my own 147-page draft of an unfinished script titled Oblivion. At some point long ago, my daughter mercilessly scribbled all over the cover. There's black pen and red marker, green and purple and orange pencil, some indecipherable shapes, creases, smiley faces, and my kids names scrawled here and there, among other doodles. Magic stuff. So, novice scribes, work with electronic copies of screenplays, yes. But as soon as you can, get your hands on paper copies of scripts that were actually used in movie production. Reading a screenplay on your computer monitor gives you very little sense of page layout, for one. More importantly, you don't get the buzz of excitement that comes from holding an actual screenplay, a screenplay identical in all respects (except for the atoms it's built from) to the one that Spielberg or John Ford or Hitchcock or [insert favourite movie director here] held when making the movie! That's the gold: screenplays. For the novice screenwriter it's the only currency you need to deal in (after you've learned the craft of writing and storytelling).

So you've got your five screenplays culled from the list of 20 top-grossing movies of all time.

Read them. Again.

And again.

Now, break down those scripts in terms of conflict and change. With practice you'll get good and fast at it.

Look at the elements in conflict and determine which realm they belong to:

  • Protagonist against self
  • Protagonist against family, friends, lovers
  • Protagonist against own society
  • Protagonist against another society
  • Protagonist against nature
  • Protagonist against god (links back to 'self' conflict)


Having identified the major hotspots (points of conflict) in a script, next identify which ones lead to transformations in character or situation. If you're looking at a well-told story, all conflict leads to some measure of change, but for our purposes we want to identify the most significant, dramatic instances.

In a moment we'll go through a couple of produced screenplays and do exactly that. But first, and without further "procrastibation" (skip dictionary.com and go ask Craig), here is the one true screenplay structure:

Act One, 1–30
One Ring to rule them all
Act Two, 30–60
One Ring to find them
Act Three, 60–90
One Ring to bring them all
Act Four, 90–120
And in the darkness bind them

For these leaner times of idealized 100–105-page screenplays, those act boundaries fall roughly every 25 pages, with a couple pages more at the end to handle your post-climax denouement.

For those ready to flame me for being an arrogant s.o.b. for claiming the one true screenplay model, I was kidding. Of course there's no single method for structuring a great screenplay. And yet, did I just hear some of you utter a heartfelt sigh of relief?

I'm not surprised. Gone is that crazy, elastic, pace-sapping 'middle' section running sixty loooong pages. That midpoint/tentpole is still there at page 60, but now we're allowed to give it the same importance as the other 'turning points.' It's now a fully fledged Act boundary.

Go examine the Story Diamond (click on the thumbnail at top right). Spend a few minutes studying it -- in fact, print it out and jot your own notes all over it as we work through some examples. Every act ends with a turning point, where the story direction swings around sharply, whipping off in a new direction. All four turning points are critical story moments that affect the characters deeply and yield significant consequences. They are moments of no return, where something is changed forever and there's no going back to the way it was before. Plans must be drastically altered, allegiances are forged or broken -- that sort of thing.

As promised, now we'll play with some real-world examples and see if they fit the four-act paradigm.

Aliens

You probably saw that coming -- if you've read one of my earlier posts. Just a terrific action script with some solid character foundations.

Script length: 105 pages.

Let's look for the first turning point that marks the end of Act One. Where does the story first take a sharp turn due to an action that cannot be revoked? Where is the first significant change in the protagonist, Ripley?

Bam! Page 18, no doubt about it.

RIPLEY
Burke, just tell me one thing. That you're going out there to kill them. Not to study. Not to bring back. Just to burn them out... clean... forever.

BURKE
That's the plan. My word on it.

RIPLEY
All right. I'm in.

...

CUT TO:

EXT. DEEP SPACE - THREE WEEKS LATER

An empty starfield. Metal spires slice ACROSS FRAME, followed by a mountain of steel. A massive military transport ship, the SULACO. Ugly, battered... functional.

Ripley is now committed. She accepted her new Call To Adventure. There's no way she can back out and return to Earth. She has crossed over from her Home domain into the Netherworld.

Moving on, let's root out the Act Two turning point. This is the half way marker. We can expect to find any of several key events: a near-death experience, a reversal in some aspect of the story, a new approach, etc. Let's look at the script...

HUDSON
Movement!

APONE
What's the position?

HUDSON
Can't lock up...

APONE
Talk to me, Hudson.

HUDSON
Uh, multiple signals... they're closing!

APONE
Go to infrared. Look sharp people!

...

Dietrich, standing near a wall of the structure, grips her flamethrower tightly. She doesn't see the nightmarish figure emerge from the wall behind her. It strikes, seizing her. She FIRES, reflexively, wild. The jet of flame ENGULFS FROST, nearby.

Crowe and Wierzbowski turn, horrified, to see the human torch drop his flaming satchel full of pulse-rifle magazines. They run. VOOM! They are catapulted forward by the blast, with Crowe striking a pillar head-on.

...

RIPLEY
GET THEM OUT OF THERE! DO IT NOW!


This is about as good as it gets for turning points, at least for action stories. We have a big confluence of conflict and change:
  • Reversal: the marines have just discovered what happened to the colonists. The mission was supposed to be Search and Rescue. That mission has abruptly turned into Get the hell out of here, alive! The hunters become the hunted.

  • Near death experience for the marines.

  • Ripley's worst fears are now realized: she's face to face with not just one but a whole nest of aliens.

  • As shown on the Story Diamond, they have crossed over from the Netherworld to a very Evil Domain.
And all this happens on page 50, at the halfway point in the script.

The final turning point, at the end of Act Three, is likely to lie around page 75 or so.

I think we have a winner at page 79:

RIPLEY
Sssh. Don't move. We're in trouble.

Newt nods, now wide awake. They listen in the darkness for the slightest betrayal of movement. Ripley reaches up and, clutching the springs of the underside of the cot, begins to inch it away from the wall.

...

She snaps her head around. A SCUTTLING SHAPE LEAPS TOWARD HER. She ducks. The obscene thing hits the wall above her. Reflexively she slams the bed against the wall, pinning the creature inches above her face. Its legs and tail writhe with incredible ferocity.

...

A figure appears at the observation window, a silhouette behind the misted-over glass. A hand wipes a clear spot. Hick's eyes appear. He steps back. WHAM! A burst of pulse-fire shatters the tempered glass. Hicks dives into the crazed spiderweb pattern and explodes into the room. He hits rolling, and slides across to Ripley. He gets his fingers around the thrashing legs of the vicious beast and pulls. Between the two of them they force it away from her face, though Ripley is losing strength as the tail tightens sickeningly around her throat. Hudson leaps into the room, flings Newt away from the desk to go skidding across the wet floor, and blasts the second creature against the wall. Point-blank. Acid and smoke.


So we have Ripley and Newt experiencing near-death. We have another massive revelation (Burke's treachery) that spins the plot in a new direction. Lump on top of this a new crisis with the aliens breaching their perimeter and forcing them to hightail it out of their stronghold. Clearly we have begun the final dash for the home plate and the final conflict.

We are into Act Four, and Ripley has entered her Martyr phase (RIPLEY: We're not leaving!).

Well, this article is getting long, so I'll leave further script-act analyses for future posts. Have a play with your favourite screenplays and see how many easily fall into the four-act story model.


END.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I very much enjoyed reading what you had to say, and was thrilled to be invited to print the "diamond"... however, the diamond is designed so that no matter how it's twiked all of the information i.e. the complete diamond and all the information surrounding it will not be printed. Not nice; but thanks for the thought

Belzecue said...

Hi there. Re printing -- yes, the 'save page as PDF' button does not work well. I'll try to tweak the CSS to give better printing results. Another possibility is switching to a different template. I'll see what I can do. Thanks.

Michael said...

Aristotle does not mention any three act structure, at least in the Poetics. Indeed, he seems to be talking of the Iliad, not a play.

Tara Browne said...

Bezelcue, I I am reaching out because I would like to I crude your 4 act story diamond in a workshop I will be presenting next month via Facebook Live, and would like to know what attribution you might want for my use of your college tent. Thank you, Tara Browne

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