Updated: Aug 11, 2018
By: Jess Canty
I am trying to get better about posting my weekly wrap-up at the end of the week, not on Sunday at 9PM at the very last minute. I was a super-procrastinator in school. Clearly still haven't quite gotten over that one. ANYWAY...
It has been a minute since I posted on this directly, but I have been thinking a lot lately about story structure, because there is just so so so much "content" out there. And as you advance in your career you are going to have to learn to navigate this new world of "peak content" we live in.
One small advantage to the old days when there were just 4 networks and a few cable channels that were doing original programming? There was a HUGE filtering system that ensured that for the most part, if something was produced it was at least following the basics of story structure.
Not so today. Yes. It is fantastic that the Internet has democratized this industry and YES it is incredible that we are finally getting to hear from voices who were never able to break through that filtering system. Trust me, I wouldn't go back.
There is a lot of shit out there. And people are getting money to make it. So what is an actor to do? You want to work. You want to be on screen. You want the practice. You want to be able to make connections. So how do you know if something is going to be worth your time and your talents?
I promise. It will NOT fail you. But you have to know what it is in order to know if a piece of material is employing its use well. If it is a) following the rules or b) aware of the rules and purposely breaking them or c) completely unaware of the rules.
So as Maria says "let's start at the very beginning"
90% of Film scripts have a 3-act structure that is split into 4 parts.
Act I - Page 1-30 Act IIa - Page 30-60 Act IIb - Page 60-90 Act III - Page 90-110
Basically 1/4 - 2/4 - 1/4 is the rule if you are adding or subtracting pages.
TV operates a bit differently but the concept is generally the same.
Act I presents the world as it IS
Act IIa takes the protagonist into a new world based on a want that is expressed in Act I. I like to think of this as going UP the mountain. Usually things are pretty fun UNTIL...
The Midpoint where the Protagonist gets what they "want" but they don't yet have what they "need" and so we take them...
Down the mountain in Act IIb - everything goes wrong. Things are terrible. What they wanted isn't what they need! Will they survive? Yep. Because...
in Act III they now go get what they need.
So here's a game I want you to start playing. The next movie you watch on Netflix - can you hit pause when you think each Act break is? The midpoint? If you roughly shoot a page a minute then the page numbers above can equate to screen-time. So... can you recognize the midpoint when it happens? I bet it is happening at 55-60 mins (in a 110 minute movie).
The next commercial you watch - does it follow the same structure? (Hint, A LOT of them do).
The next podcast you hear. Are they taking you on an emotional journey up and down the mountain? You bet they are.
Guess what? AWARDS SHOWS follow this structure. You think it is a coincidence that the "In Memorium" usually comes about 2/3 of the way through the show? Just before the big awards?
Even this Stella add does it beautifully... check it out HERE:
WATCH THE LINK BEFORE CONTINUING TO READ... its ok, i'll wait...
CUT TO: 30 SECONDS LATER
GREAT! You're back.
Act I - the world as it "is" 1seconds - 7seconds - we see the guy with the phone and the contrasting dancehall. Our hero is overworked and wants a beer - some respite from the phones in his hands.
Act IIa - The phone guy walks into the dancehall. This happens at 7seconds or - 1/4 of the way through! The equivalent of page 30 of a 110 page script. He has entered a new world the complete opposite of the "status quo."
Midpoint - The bartender shows him the answer to his problems - by putting her tool in her pocket. AT 15 seconds exactly.
Act IIb - Now we see shots of EVERYONE else with pockets. This is what the guy NEEDS - to put his phone away and enjoy life like everyone around him is doing. At 20 seconds he puts both his phones in his own pockets.
Act III - at 22 seconds we hear the announcer start to speak - about enjoying life (what the guy needs) and we see our hero turn around from his Act II (the bartender) and join the dancehall king on the dance floor. They are having the time of their lives ignoring their phones that are tucked safely away. And of course drinking their Stellas.
The goal over the course of my next few posts will be for y'all to never look at a commercial, movie, TV show or podcast the same way again. To know story structure so well that simply sitting back and enjoying something will be nearly impossible for you because you know how the sausage is made and you will see it at every turn.