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3.2. alternative screenplay structure

Nothing is more central to the manuals than their structural approach to screenplays, in particular, the importance of the three-act paradigm.” — J.J. Murphy1

Outside of the world of film, many possible contributory factors might have helped shape this surging trend in unconventional narration: the fragmenting ‘postmodern condition’ and its revolt against master narratives; the ubiquity of shorter narrative media forms such as music videos; video games, which stress multiple kinds of interactive narrativity, require various sorts of player strategies including role playing and team building, and repeatedly take players back to the same situations; the branched experience of surfing the net; and hypertext linking that allows users to create a personalized sequence of disparate types of artifacts that might include text, image, video, and sound. In the U.S., the rise of independent film and the need for product differentiation are surely important factors. But whatever the causes, even a cursory survey of films from the last decade and a half reveals that many tell their stories in some non-classical way.” — Charles Ramirez Berg2

3.2.1. Overview.

In the previous section, we explored classical structure rules for Hollywood screenwriting. Here we will critique certain classical views and examine alternative views of script structure.

Page Topics:

  • 3.2.1. Overview
  • 3.2.2. Criticism of the Three-Act Model
  • 3.2.3. Alternative Plot Structures
  • 3.2.4. Discussion Topics
  • 3.2.5. Footnotes

3.2.2. Criticism of the Three-Act Model. [Back to Page Topics]

Unlike teleplays, which do contain explicit act breaks, feature-length screenplays exhibit no obvious act structure. “A two hour feature film shown in a movie theatre is a continuous action,” argues James Bonnet. “There are no intermissions. It’s one continuous act-less event which revolves around a problem.”3 For this reason, the a priori notion that all screenplays must contain three-acts has recently come into question by some, including Rachid Nougmanov, as “missing some crucial, vitally important points.”4

Perhaps most notably, Kristin Thompson’s Storytelling in the New Hollywood attacks Syd Field’s three-act Paradigm as arbitrary and not reflective of the way scripts are really structured. In particular, Thompson critiques the Paradigm’s out-of-proportion second act, which many writers find “protracted and difficult to write.”5 While Robert McKee endorses the three-act structure model, he proves more flexible than Field in acknowledging certain second act difficulties. “How then does the writer solve the problem of the long second act?” he asks. “By creating more acts. The three-act design is the minimum.” McKee goes on to describe examples of four, five, and eight-act structure.6

Thompson argues that most mainstream Hollywood screenplays “break perspicuously into four large-scale parts,” usually followed by a short epilogue, “with major turning points usually providing the transitions.”7 Thompson calls her four parts the Set-Up, the Complicating Action, the Development, and the Climax, and to illustrate her inductive approach to screenplay structure, Thompson offers a persuasive case study of 10 major Hollywood pictures.

Nougmanov describes a five-act paradigm with a ten page Setup that culminates in a Plot Question, twenty pages of Intrigue, thirty pages of Learning, another thirty pages of Trouble, and finally thirty pages of Confrontation.

Even Robert McKee, who elsewhere embraces the three-act structure, argues that a “story is a design in five parts” comprised of the Inciting Incident, Progressive Complication, Crisis, Climax, and a short Resolution.8 This is nearly identical to Thompson’s model (the brief epilogue she describes correlates with the short Resolution described by McKee), and both conceptions along with Nougmanov’s recall the five-act structure of Freytag’s Pyramid (Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Denouement), which predates Field’s Paradigm by almost a century.9

Ken Dancyger and Jeff Rush have critiqued the ideology of “restorative three-act structure” as dishonest and non-reflective of real life experience. “Recognition comes in time to stave off tragedy; this is the key to the feel of restorative three-act stories — there is a second chance, personal redemption and restoration are more significant than events, and actions are less important than motives.”10 Field’s Paradigm, they suggest, is an insufficient structure for storytellers who wish to write with greater realism and nuance.

In another departure from the paradigm, Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley’s Dramatica describes a four-act structure of Learning, Understanding, Doing, and Obtaining. In order to reconcile their own model with the three-act tradition, they refer to each of their own acts as sign-posts (A, B, C, and D) connected by three journeys.

When Aristotle saw a beginning, middle and end, he was seeing Signpost A, all three journeys lumped together, and Signpost D. When successive generations of writers evolved a three act structure, it became very difficult to determine, ‘What happens in Act 2?’ as all three journeys and two of the signposts were simply blended into ‘the middle.'”11

Indeed, contrary to claims of an Aristotelian origin for restorative three-act design, Aristotle actively critiques plots in which heroes succeed and villains are vanquished, attributing the popularity of such narratives to the “weakness” of the audience. The tragic plot strongly favored by Aristotle is a movement in two parts: a desis, in which tensions are built through the knotting of complications, and a lysis in which everything unravels, leaving the protagonist’s world in tatters.

Others have suggested act divisions of any kind are meaningless to the structuring of screenplays. “The three act structure is not a story structure. You can’t find it in myths and legends or other great stories of the past and you can’t find it in nature,” argues James Bonnet, another writing guru and former member of the WGA’s Board of Directors.3 Bonnet goes on to suggest that “it makes much more sense when you’re creating a story to be thinking in terms of the natural structure of the problem which has two main parts: the action that created it and the action that will resolve it.”

3.2.3. Alternative Plot Structures. [Back to Page Topics]

Robert McKee places the Archplot at the top of what he calls “the story triangle.”13 At the triangle’s other two points are what he terms the Miniplot (minimalist plots featuring open endings, internal conflict, and multiple or passive protagonists) and Antiplot (anti-structure plots featuring loose causality, non-linear narration, and inconsistent realities). That McKee is happy to lump all non-Archplot films into one of two structure categories may hint at his Archplot prejudices. As J. J. Murphy has observed, “McKee clearly sees miniplot and antiplot as lesser structures that are subserviently dependent on the archplot.”14 Are Miniplot and Antiplot really adequate descriptors for the plurality of films that have bucked classical structure rules, and are non-classical plots truly subservient?

Charles Ramirez Berg’s expansive survey of contemporary plot structures, “A Taxonomy of Alternative Plots in Recent Films,”2 seems to suggest that McKee has grossly oversimplified the potential for variety in cinematic storytelling. In his essay, Berg counts no less than a dozen plot varieties, which he classifies in three groups: plots that diverge from the Archplot in terms of the number of protagonists; plots that diverge from the Archplot in terms of the ordering of story events; and plots that diverge from the Archplot in terms of breaking classical rules of subjectivity, causality, and self-reference.

The plots that diverge from the Archplot in terms of the number of protagonists are:

  • The Ensemble (Polyphonic) Plot: Any story structured around the experiences of numerous protagonists centered in a unified place and time. Often used as a device to explore cross-sections of society. E.G. Most of Robert Altman’s films, Magnolia, Crash.
  • The Parallel Plot: Similar to the Ensemble Plot, but in this case multiple protagonists are separated by time and/or space. Limited to four protagonists. E.G. Traffic, Syriana, Babel.
  • The Branching (Multiple Personality) Plot: A single protagonist branches into two, either via technology, magic, multiple personalities, or simply as a plot device. E.G. Back To The Future Part II, Sliding Doors, Fight Club.
  • The Daisy Chain Plot: The story jumps from one protagonist to the next, never to revisit a previous protagonist. Sometimes tied to a prop, sometimes random. E.G. Slacker.

The plots that diverge from the Archplot in terms of the ordering of story events are:

  • The Backwards Plot: A story told backwards. E.G. Memento.
  • The Repeated Action Plot: A protagonist is stuck in a repeated loop. E.G. Groundhog Day, Run, Lola, Run.
  • The Repeated Event/Multiple Perspective Plot: A single event or series of events is replayed or retold from multiple perspectives. E.G. Rashomon, Elephant.
  • The Hub-and-Spokes Plot: Numerous protagonists and storylines converge on one event. Different in that the “hub” in question is the dramatic fulcrum of the story. E.G. Amores Perros, Go, 21 Grams.
  • The Jumbled Plot: Stories that present a scrambled sequence of events motivated artistically, by filmmaker’s prerogative. E.G. The majority of Tarantino’s films, Out of Sight, Following.

The plots that diverge from the Archplot in terms of breaking classical rules of subjectivity, causality, and self-reference are:

  • The Subjective Plot: Stories told from the protagonist’s internal, filtered perspective. E.G. 8 1/2, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Donnie Darko.
  • The Existential Plot: Stories with minimal goals, causality, and exposition. E.G. The works of Terence Malick and Sofia Coppola.
  • The Meta-Narrative Plot: Narration about the problem of movie narration. E.G. Adaptation, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.

Of these many categories, the Subjective and Jumbled Plots comes closest to McKee’s Antiplot and the Existential Plot to his Miniplot. The rest demonstrate the rich tapestry of structural approaches McKee fails to fully appreciate in his own taxonomy. Others have compiled similar taxonomies to Berg’s. Murphy’s study on independent (non-classical) screenwriting looks to Problematic Protagonists (Stranger Than Paradise, Safe, and Fargo), Multiple Plots (Trust, Gas Food Lodging, and Me and You and Everyone We Know), Temporal Structures (Reservoir Dogs, Elephant, and Memento), and Noncausal Structures (Mulholland Dr., Gummo, and Slacker), and Ken Dancyger has studied counter-structures and anti-narratives in multiple writings.

We needn’t settle on one set of alternative structures to appreciate that alternative structure exists. What is interesting of Berg’s survey is that, despite its focus on recent films, it also proves that few of these structural approaches are recent innovations. In fact, filmmakers and screenwriters have always experimented with structure. Though the Archplot may be utilized more often than any other individual approach, it is as likely that a majority of films exhibit one or more of the alternative plot types to one degree or another.

3.2.4. Discussion Topics.

Key Terms:

  • Kristin Thompson’s Large-Scale Parts Structure
  • Freytag’s Pyramid
  • Miniplot
  • Antiplot
  • Ensemble (Polyphonic) Plot
  • Parallel Plot
  • Branching (Multiple Personality) Plot
  • Daisy Chain Plot
  • Backwards Plot
  • Repeated Action Plot
  • Repeated Event/Multiple Perspective Plot
  • Hub-and-Spokes Plot
  • Jumbled Plot
  • Subjective Plot
  • Existential Plot
  • Meta-Narrative Plot

Questions:

  • Why are Archplot screenplays considered more commercially viable than Alternative Plot scripts?
  • Does the Three-Act Structure model make sense and accurately describe the way a screenplay’s plot is
    patterned?
  • If there are no actual act breaks in feature screenplays, what is the usefulness of discussing acts at all?
  • Does Berg’s taxonomy of Alternative Plots account for all varieties? Is his list exhaustive, or can it be
    expanded further?

3.2.5. Footnotes.

  1. Murphy, J.J. Me and You and Memento and Fargo: How Independent Screenplays Work. NY: Continuum Int’l, 2007. Pg. 16.
  2. Berg, Charles Ramirez. “A Taxonomy of Alternative Plots in Recent Films: Classifying the ‘Tarantino Effect.'” Film Criticism. Vol. 31, Issue 2. 22 September 2006. Pg. 5.
  3. Bonnet, James. “What’s Wrong with the Three-Act Structure.” The Writer’s Story eZine. http://www.writersstore.com/whats-wrong-with-the-3-act-structure
  4. Nougmanov, Rachid in Screenwriting for a Global Market: Selling Your Scripts from Hollywood to Hong Kong. Edited by Andrew Horton. Berkeley: U of California P, 2004. Pg. 143.
  5. Thompson, Kristin. Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2001. Pg. 24.
  6. McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. NY: Regan, 1997. Pg. 220-221.
  7. Thompson, Kristin. Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2001. Pg. 27.
  8. McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. NY: Regan, 1997. Pg. 181.
  9. Freytag, Gustav. Technique of the Drama. Translated by Elias J. MacEwan. Chicago: S.C. Riggs & Co., 1896. Pgs. 114-140.
  10. Dancyger, Ken and Rush, Jeff. Alternative Screenwriting: Writing Beyond the Rules. Boston: Focal, 1995. Pg. 25.
  11. Phillips, Melanie Anne, and Huntley, Chris. Dramtica: A New Theory of Story. 4th Edition. Burbank, CA: Screenplay Systems, 2001. Pg. 134.
  12. Bonnet, James. “What’s Wrong with the Three-Act Structure.” The Writer’s Story eZine. http://www.writersstore.com/whats-wrong-with-the-3-act-structure
  13. McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. NY: Regan, 1997. Pg. 45.
  14. Murphy, J.J. Me and You and Memento and Fargo. NY: Continuum, 2007. Pg. 14.
  15. Berg, Charles Ramirez. “A Taxonomy of Alternative Plots in Recent Films: Classifying the ‘Tarantino Effect.'” Film Criticism. Vol. 31, Issue 2. 22 September 2006. Pg. 5.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.screenplayology.com/content-sections/screenplay-form-content/3-2/

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  1. Kristin Thompson - Struktur del 43 | Element X

    […] och att det inte finns något som säger att det måste vara just tre akter. Fields andra problem, menar Thompson, är att akt 2 är så lång, drygt halva texten, att den är otymplig att skriva. Istället går […]

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