The three act narrative
The most popular narrative form in mainstream cinema is the three act narrative. This is, in a sense, a simple expansion of the beginning, middle, end principle.
Act 1 The beginning. It establishes the background to the story, sets the scene and introduces the characters. Typically Act 1 will represent the world of the main characters in a state of stability. The climax of Act 1 will be an event that upsets this stability. This climax will typically come about a quarter to a third of the way into the film.
Act 2 The middle. The protagonists seek to resolve the problems created as a result of the first climax. The story may diverge, becoming more complex. The climax of Act 2 brings all the threads together presenting the possibility and anticipation of a resolution. This will often be the highest point of tension within the film. Typically this occurs about two thirds of the way through.
Act 3 The end. The final resolution plays out, the characters are returned to a state of equilibrium, their world is stable again.
You can do this with any films you watch. Try designing these charts with some older Hollywood classics for a solid three act structure, and then compare these with more recent films. As you watch films, pay attention to the narrative structure. Try and identify if the film conforms to a three act structure. If it does, can you pinpoint the beginning of Acts 2 and 3? Can you identify any other narrative structures?
Try to sketch out a diagram of the structure of the film. Upload a scan of your diagrams and notes to the blog. Invite comments.
Do other students agree with your analysis of structure?
Psycho ( dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1960 )
Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Psycho has an interesting structure. Although still a three act film, the film uniquely changes protagonist from act one to act two. The first act follows Marian Craine ( Janet Leigh ) as she impulsively steals her client’s money rather than take the $40,000 to the bank on her bosses request. She is in love with a man who wont commit to her because he is broke and she decides this will be their ticket to happiness. Setting off on a journey from Phoenix to LA, she tires and decides to rest at the Bates Motel, owned by the psychotic Norman Bates ( Anthony Perkins ), a character that murders her and also takes the throne for the movie from the beginning of act two until the end of the film. (1)
The Dead Zone ( dir. David Cronenbourg, 1983 )
Sweethearts John Smith ( Christopher Walken ) and Sarah have their marital plans dashed as John has a car accident resulting in a coma for five years. Upon waking it emerges that John has released a dormant gift of second sight as he goes through his rehabilitation plagued by visions of other people’s futures. He meets an increasingly popular right wing politician Greg Stillson ( Martin Sheen ) and he becomes aware that this man will one day become president of the USA with drastic consequences. Therefore he decides to assassinate him and save the future of mankind.
Although very episodic in its formula*, this Stephen King adaptation by Jeffrey Boam still follows a three act structure, when stripped down to the character arc of John Smith and that of the antagonist Stillson. As the movie industry advanced it is clear that although many films still followed the three act pattern, further options were being explored that blurred the edges of the particular template. (2)
* The Dead Zone was later adapted into a TV series, exploring in greater depth the visions of fate that John sees upon meeting various characters.
Ex_Machina ( dir. Alex Garland, 2014 )
Caleb ( Domhnal Gleeson ) is an employee of Nathan’s ( Oscar Isaac) corporate BlueBook Enterprises, a fictitious Google-like search engine. Nathan lives alone in his “Jurassic Park” island hideaway. Caleb wins a staff lottery to spend some time with Nathan. This soon reveals to be an experiment, in which Caleb is the human element of the Turing test as Nathan has developed an AI robot called Ava ( Alicia Vikander ).
Ava and Caleb get to know each other and using her programmed sexuality, she secretly persuades Caleb to help her escape the imprisonment, which in itself is pre-staged as part of Nathan’s experiment, however this leads to disastrous consequences.
Still three-act in its narrative, in a contemporary cinema that is more experimental ( post “Pulp Fiction” ), I selected this film for its impressive example of excellent story-telling. The three characters are superbly developed, and the Turing test is flipped upon the audience, as we all know she is an actress, but we fully submerge in the character of an AI, leading the audience down pathways of philosophical introspection. (3)
Do you agree with other students about their structures?
I looked at both Chloe and Ashley’s structures. Chloe had written a detailed graph based diagram to show the narrative of the 007 film The Living Daylights. She had successfully used the formula to display the flow of the film. Whilst it was easy to follow and was well presented, I had chosen not to use a graph for my structures as I felt that this could result in being unnecessarily complicated, although Chloe’s example was not. However in a structure that is episodic such as The Dead Zone, it could easily be the case.
Look at different ways people have attempted to represent the structure. Try some alternative approaches yourself. Do these different ways of representing a film structure change the way you think about it?
As with the previous question, my flow chart version below proves how complex the diagrams could become. I much prefer the examples I had posted above for Psycho, The Dead Zone and Ex_Machina.
(1) Obituary of Psycho screenplay writer Joseph Stefano, by Ronald Bergan, The Guardian September 2006. – accessed April 10th 2017.
(2) The episodic structure of The Dead Zone, stripped down to the classic three act- formula in Jeffrey Boam’s screenplay. Blog post in Cult Projections by Bryn Tilly, April 2016. – accessed April 10th 2017.
(3) Ex_ Machina in Magic of Story blog September 2015 by Selin Sevinc Bertero
http://magicofstory.com/beat-sheet-alex-garlands-ex-machina-screenplay-breakdown/ Bertero – accessed April 10th 2017.