The End of the Three-Act Structure

The time has come to obliterate Aristotle’s stranglehold on narrative fiction. With the amount of information and different perspectives available to Audiences today, a simplified beginning-middle-end approach simply doesn’t cut it anymore.

Complete stories consist of four major movements, not three. Sure, it seems simple enough to assume that because a story has a beginning, middle, and end that there must be three movements to define these sections. But is that really all there is to an Act? A superficial take on the events within a story based upon their moment in time?

Perhaps there could be something more there, something more closely related to the thematic material buried deep within the story itself.

2A, 2B or Not 2A, 2B

Unlike Hamlet, the answer presents itself clearly.

The current standard in modern screenwriting paradigm calls for splitting up the Second Act into two halves, labeling them 2A and 2B. For all intents and purposes, as long as everyone on the production agrees with this naming convention, there really isn’t anything about this approach that could prevent the successful completion of a film. The question becomes whether or not the final product finishes with a glorious and well-celebrated run or peters out over the first weekend, adding weight to the already great discarded landfill of pointless stories.

How to avoid this unfortunate result?

Don’t assume that both halves are dealing with the same thematic material. Don’t assume that this “Special World” somehow carries with it some intrinsic meaning because of its position between the beginning and the end.

Because it doesn’t.

Why the Act?

In a recent article on The Myth of the Three-Act Structure film critic Hulk defines the true end of an Act as something that creates propulsion, something that changes narrative value and has the characters moving forward towards some new reality/situation (loosely translated from the Hulkspeak–you’re welcome).

This is good stuff.

But something more important lies further down. Diving even deeper into what that new reality or situation is, one eventually discovers that this dramatic movement represents a shift in focus–a different context from which to appreciate the central problem of a story.

Examining All Sides of an Issue

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. This familiar understanding provides an excellent starting point for any discussion surrounding the thematic makeup of Acts within a story.

A story begins with the creation of an inequity–a problem to be solved. If one were to simply follow one perspective, one point-of-view on how to solve the issue at hand, one would simply see the terrorist. Great stories, and the Authors who write them, take in all the different ways of looking at a problem. Using the different perspectives offered both objectively in the main plot and subjectively within the Main Character, these Authors offer a greater understanding of the conflict in question.

But it’s not enough to simply include those different points-of-view, they must be laser-focused on what that problem truly is. One perspective will see the problem as an activity. Another will see it as a situation. Another a fixed attitude, like a prejudice or a biased opinion. And yet another will see it as a problem of psychology. Together, these perspectives combine to provide that better understanding, that appreciation of who really is the terrorist and who really is the freedom fighter.

Four Sides to Every Problem

With the individual perspectives established, the attention shifts towards how each will explore their own take on the problem at hand. Take for instance the perspective of the problem as an activity. There are four separate areas an activity can fall into. An activity can be defined as Obtaining something, like a map or a new country. It can be defined as Doing something, like swimming the English Channel or writing a dissertation. It can fall under the category of Understanding, like appreciating the motives of a serial killer or why an alien race fights for survival. And finally, an activity can be seen as Learning–gathering information or educating the next generation of lion hunters. Regardless of what that problematic activity is, it will always fall into one of those four categories. One cannot think of an activity that does not fall along one of these four lines.

The purpose of an Act is to explore one of these four areas. Once it has been significantly examined, that perspective shifts into the next area and a new Act begins. When speaking of changing “narrative value”, these are concrete instances of what that value truly is. Once a new area, or Act, has been thoroughly exhausted (that feeling of “we get it already”), the next one takes over. This is why there is that sensation that the characters cannot go back–they won’t because they’ve already covered that area.

Four areas for each perspective. Four acts per story.

Any additional Acts would simply be a rehash of a previously examined context. That’s why stories end when they do. All sides, all contexts have been explored.

How to Train Your Dragon begins with the dragons and Vikings at odds with another, one side stealing and the other side hunting (Doing). It then shifts into an examination of the problems encountered in training the next generation of dragon killers (Learning). That movement exhausts itself when they discover the presence of an even bigger threat and Hiccup reveals his new relationship (Understanding). His father responds and that final Act revolves around good and bad battling for survival (Obtaining). At that point the story ends because it has to. There is nothing left to cover as all perspectives on an activity have been examined.

Same with The Terminator. Problems begin when a robot from the future arrives and mistakingly shoots the wrong Sarah Connor (Understanding). These misunderstandings persist (trust the police, trust the scary guy in the overcoat?) until Sarah has no other choice but to take Kyle at his word. From there it’s a race to see how quickly Kyle can convince Sarah of her importance and the reality of their situation (Learning). The second half of the film focuses on the chase–beginning with the shootout at the police station and ending with the destruction of the Terminator (Doing and then Obtaining). It almost feels like one Act because Doing and Obtaining are so closely related, but it’s not. There is a meaningful shift from the running away (Doing) to the purposeful attempt to destroy (Obtaining). That final movement becomes essential in a story exploring problems of activity. Leave that final Act out and the story would feel incomplete. The reason the story works rests in the fact that the Author explored all sides. Sarah rises to the occasion and defeats the robot menace once and for all.

Why the Need for an Act

There may be some who see more Acts within a story–some say five, some say twenty, some forty-two–but most likely what they are seeing is something other than the true function of an Act. When seen within the context of a well-balanced argument, the reason why Acts exist becomes clear. Regardless of how an Author decides to divvy up their work, psychologically speaking the story can only function as the result of four movements.

Four acts. Four ways to explore a single point-of-view.

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

Dramatica presents Authors with the tools necessary to explore all sides of an argument. By infusing their work with the meaningful application of distinct throughlines, an Author can ensure thematic balance, both objectively and subjectively. Modern audiences know better than simply black or white. They deserve stories that respect that wisdom.

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