Skip to content

June 3, 2012

The Three Act Structure: a Creative Straightjacket

by Howard Suber

There are those who claim that a film must have a three-act structure, and they often claim that Aristotle gave this “rule” to us. In fact, there were no acts as we define the term today in Greek drama, and Aristotle did not talk about acts at all because the plays he analyzed were all presented in a single continuous performance.

Nor, for that matter, is the five-act structure that many people associate with Shakespeare something he was hung up on. While he did use a five-act structure occasionally, it wasn’t until nearly a hundred years after his death that a publisher imposed a consistent five-act structure on his plays.

In the theater, the audience is aware of acts because the curtain comes down, the house lights come up, and they get a chance to go to the bathroom. In film, the curtains don’t come down, the houselights don’t come up, and anyone who goes to the bathroom has to miss whatever keeps running on the screen.

Thinking in terms of acts is similar to erecting a scaffold to build a building: it may be a useful tool for the craftsmen during the construction phase, but it obscures the view of the work itself, and the people who gaze on the finished project will not know or care what kind of scaffold was used.

If the Greeks and Shakespeare had no need to worry about acts, maybe we have no need to, either.

from: The Power of Film.  Copyright (c) 2012 Howard Suber

Comments are closed.