Monday, June 16, 2008

The Flexible 4 Act Structure

Howdy campers, don't forget your booties cause it's cold... uhh wait, that's not what I meant. I guess I write too much while reading.

Anyway, today's topic was inspired by our good friend UNK.
He is a stickler for using a 4 Act structure rather than traversing that long second act in the 3 Act structure. I whole-heartedly agree.

Especially since the 2nd Act midpoint is always desirable. I like to look at the movie(script - but we are writing movies) from the end to the beginning and back so that I can map points of interest(conflict - whether it's setup, build up or payoff) to the desired ending. This actually helps maintain tone and theme, I find.

To help me look at it abstractly, I borrowed from The Hero's Journey to develop a more flexible course through the circle (nearly all movies are circular arcs in that the hero usually ends up at or near where he started in the regular world). Of course the negative arc doesn't, though (Leaving Las Vegas).

Rather than using four sections, I use 8 so that you have more chances for change, disruption, conflict and resolution and also because this abstraction doesn't tie you to page numbers.

The first section is "At Home or Work," which is where every story starts. Sometimes this is as simple as a character preparing for her day or rescuing someone from the bad guy or hell even going to sleep after a hard day's work. This is the chance to START to intro your main characters (the order isn't as important as the reason for it). I say start because giving too much info too quickly will come out on-the-nose and expository. It's best, in my opinion to show a few images that show mind-set or social status and move on to the "problem at hand."

As you can see, it doesn't start at 0 degrees because this is reserved for the hero and you may intro the villain first. Sometimes, it increases the tension to imagine who will stand up to "Villain X who is so heartless and cruel." This section more so establishes location, genre, etc. rather than in-depth personality traits(that should come with the various conflicts). Some stories don't have an actual McGuffin so the goal is an accomplishment rather than a possession(graduate Cum Laude, break the hot dog eating record, get married before next week, etc.)

The next section is "Start Of Decision." This section usually begins the trip to the "new world of conflict" and includes the incident which moves the hero to take on the challenge or not. By this point, you have intro'd what the villain wants and it should be perfectly juxtaposed to what the hero wants(graduate Cum Laude, break the hot dog eating record, get married before next week). Of course those are simplified cases but they speak to the abstract notion of "implied conflict." You aren't the only student, hot dog eater or person desirous of marriage). Here we really expand on the hero's personality and show the contrast between their perspective allies\enemies. The Act 2 incident will be what cements the relationships whether they be for the better or the worse and should occur in this section.

The next section is "Meeting Allies and Discovering Enemies." This is where the rubber hits the road so to speak and the hero is truly in the midst of conflict. After the answer of the call, those who want to help and those who want to hinder are brought into view. Depending on the genre and story they could be peers, underlings, or just intimate with the hero or villain. Of course, the McGuffin becomes the total reason for everyone's existence by this point, no matter what it is. This section takes you around the halfway point as everyone jockeys for position and feels out their adversaries. Once again this flexible structure means that things aren't exact time-wise as scenes\sequences take as long as they take.

This section gets us even closer to the inner-desires and conflicts of the hero and villain and their supporting cast. Again, never give to much too fast. Let it happen in conflict. It may never be relevant that the hero is afraid of dogs or cheated with his best friend's wife while drunk. I guess that's an extension of it's "on the page" that I'd call it's "in the story."

As an example, if a story takes place on a boat, the hero should be unable to swim. Or if it takes place in the desert, the hero should have trouble in the sun, etc. Let the story find the flaws rather than developing them in what I think is a vacuum. Any back story is well-placed here but again, be careful as you don't want to tell whole stories. So if the hero is afraid of dogs, have them walk by one that startles them or even tries to sniff them.

Ex: Indy falls into the pit near Marion. The hissing rises with him as he grabs is torch. His eyes light in horror as the moving ground reveals itself.

Not snakes. God, anything but snakes.

I had to use that example with the Darabont Indy 4 script making waves lately.

What I like to do with back story is to use a dream. That way you can be "abstract" and very visual without the usual, "When I was young" technique.

But I digress. The next section is called "In the thick of things" and carries through Act 2 into Act 3. This section brings most of the twists, big reveals, and sets up the final Act. More enemies reveal themselves in the build-up from their intro. This section is where sub-plots and story threads are concluded (depending upon their "closeness" to the goals of the hero) The lead supporting character usually continues their story\arc beyond this point, but underlings get wacked here A LOT. Never to return.

By a lot I mean, multiple underlings, be they on the good guy's side or the bad guy's. The level of their "destruction" is also story and genre-dependent though as poignant dramas don't work well with murders just as action movies don't have people flunk out of school(unless it's a "SEAL" movie).
This section also elevates the conflict between the main characters and will contain the 2nd Act midpoint so used in 3 Act structure.

The next section is called "Give up or go on" and occurs near the end of Act 3. It's when the hero is becoming weary of the fight after others are "wacked" out of the story and the villain just keeps coming. You can really show what your hero is made of here as this is also a good time for a "duplicitous reveal" or double-cross if you will. You are grinding closer towards the McGuffin and the villain usually gets it by this point but can't manipulate it without the help of the hero. Kidnappings or threats to those close to the hero usually happen here as the desperation of the villain becomes greater. "Why didn't she give up?" syndrome. The hero normally will have to accomplish some feat to retrieve the McGuffin and\or ensure the safety of those closest to her. Again, this is story and genre dependent and has no exact structure, just an abstract idea. (If you really want abstract read "Deleuze on Cinema")

The next section is called "Bleak as night" and usually occurs when the hero has the most personally destructive thing happen to them. Their HQ is bombed; their dog is killed; they get kidnapped, etc. and it is the point where we all think the hero is a psycho for enduring all of this (you could have given up in the other section), but this is also where we find out why this person is a hero. They handle this in stride, though obviously their heart is heavy.

The last section is called "The final battle" and usually happens because fo the kidnapping, dead dog, etc. The hero's back is against the wall and they usually "flip out" becoming for a moment like the villain and doing something against their code. This is also the final straw for the villain and the villain's last chance to win the McGuffin. This section can be a surprise in terms of who the real villain is or it can just be the natural progression of the struggle. Thrillers pull the twist, action and comedy usually doesn't and drama can go either way.

Here we determine once and for all who gets the McGuffin and who is the last person to be wacked. This is usually the villain but movies like "No Country" break the mold (OK it's not really a mold, more like a "mold concept."). This is also the point where everything in the hero's arsenal is required as many times it's tiered (in the vein of Game of Death) where the hero has to get by the last of the underlings (like a lot of video games) before confronting the lead villain. Sometimes they must face both at once. Again this will be story\genre-dependent and to some extent character-dependent. Back to the flaws, it takes place on a boat when the hero can't swim. There are dogs everywhere. It's really cold or too hot. Perhaps an old friend who was turned long ago is the last underling. It's up to you. BE CREATIVE.

The battle with the villain must have more at stake than any other, so that's why I write from the end so that I don't go above the ending in the beginning or middle. Continuity is a bitch.

That brings us to the EIGHTH and final section, "The return to life at home." This is just when the hero settles back into her routine to wait for her next challenge or just to continue living life, having retrieved the McGuffin, protected those closest and vanquished the villain. This is the place where you set up a continuing franchise or just a sequel. You can have some mysterious stranger show up with some startling info or have something happen in the home life.

An example is the ending of Iron Man where Nick fury mentions the Avengers. A lot of franchises rely on standalone stories but the ending of Matrix Reloaded made certain everyone would see the Revolutions. In other words, leave a string untied or a thread hanging. Stand alone features should realistically tie up all loose ends and close out all threads.

Anyway, that's our description of the 4 Act flexible structure. If anything the key is don't count pages count events, emotions and images. Most viewers don't realize "structure" in the movie, they just expect certain things to happen at certain times. Though by that I mean in relation to other events.

Example: The killer appears in the mirror, we expect a murder. Or the villain can't get the McGuffin to work, he kidnaps the hero.

This of course all goes to the duree and the Six Movement Images which imply that all images should relate to all others and all actions should be extensions of others.

Wow, this is fun. I wish I had decided to do this years ago. It's truly invigorating to be able to use everything I've noticed in my travels.

So remember
Keep Writing as Writing is the Revealing of the Soul


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