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Three Acts?

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script prep 1I’m currently in the middle of plotting out the story for Chasing Shadows (working title) my final Doctoral output, a sprawling graphic novel that will be somewhere between 150 and 500 pages. What I do now will decide which end of the page count spectrum it will fall in. I have the raw materials for the story and a sizeable script, now I’m working on how to structure the story. The first port of call was the Restorative Three-Act structure. A tried and tested recipe for satisfying character driven stories (particularly in mainstream Hollywood cinema), the Three-Act Structure that has been around since old Aristotle said (and I paraphrase) “every story should have a beginning, middle and end.” I would argue that yes, these components of narrative are usually found within a movie, but not necessarily in that order. Anyway. I’m somewhat reluctant to take my story and shoehorn it into some neat little box, but it’s definitely worth looking at how the Three-Act Structure might apply to Chasing Shadows.

I found a great book in the library called Alternative Scriptwriting: Successfully Breaking the Rules. Stick the word alternative in front of anything and you have my attention. Written by Ken Dancyger and Jeff Rush it really explains the Three-Act structure clearly and in an interesting way, before looking at other ways of script writing. I’ve made notes along the way and will go into it briefly here.

The Three-Act Structure has three acts. Yes, that makes sense. Act One is the setup. We are introduced to the story, the character and situation. In my own story this will focus on the protagonist dealing with the breakup of a major relationship. His ex-fiancee and her new partner work in the same building as the protagonist and he sees them on a regular basis. In order to cope he engages in drug use, while still maintaining his full-time job, attending night school, and exploring rebound relationships. Of course, all seems to be solved when he is accepted into university, which will enable a major life change. He believes with this he will be able to remove himself from all of his current problems. This is referred to as a false solution– he believes this is the solution to his problems. Of course, it isn’t.

Act Two involves confrontation and conflict; and manifestation of implications of the false solution. This is where I put the protagonist through seven shades of shit. External events involve different jobs, share houses, university, affairs and rejections. This chapter would focus on the protagonist’s struggle to maintain a high level of discipline while consistently tempted by women and substances. At the end of this act the character should feel lost and exhausted. However in this case he has also been recognising certain patterns of sabotage which will provide the key for his eventual transformation.

Act Three is the resolution. The character leads the reader through displays of insight and resourcefulness. He faces himself and triumphs. He resolves internal conflict first. This internal conflict refers to moral and psychological problems; in this case, his  womanising, ongoing substance abuse, and an inability to say no. The remainder of the Third Act then plays out whatever external conflicts exist. In this case the external conflicts refer to tying up ends of sabotaged relationships and ongoing fruitless romantic pursuits, finishing study, and being there for a family member when they need it. For instance, after the character goes on a life-changing road trip he recognises patterns of discipline and sabotage and learns to resist them. He finishes a script for University entitled Redemption, which enables catharsis. He takes up an internal martial art and applies for Honours. He learns that his ex-fiancee is being married and is finally forced to let go properly. He spends time with family and friends and gets his life a little more sorted. Things seem to be on the up for our protagonist.

Binary Character Psychology 

“In order to be distinct, acts tend to inflict extreme choices. Since the strength of the restorative three act structure is its use of progressive acts to chart a progression of character we see the either/or quality transposed onto character.” (p.33)

What would these choices be? There is a scene in the script where the character is forced to choose between partying with a girl he is interested in, and going to training. This kind of scenario is certainly a one or the other kind of choice, but is it extreme enough?

History as backdrop 

“The underlying assumption in a restorative three act script is that the character is restrained by her conflict, her flaw, her psychology. Even though the conflict is externalized (that is, there is a real dramatic problem), the problem expresses an internal conflict. Once the character stops fighting herself (usually in the beginning of the third act), she tips the plot in her favour and eventually triumphs.” (p.34)

The character is restrained by a need for fulfilment through inebriation, passion, or that of physical exertion. The externalization of these needs is easy to portray, and many of the events are already scripted. The problem will be visually expressing the internal conflict. I want to explain this as visually as possible. Between positive actions of physical exertion and disciplined output and negative actions of escapist behaviour. The realisation will then come at the beginning of the third act and allow the character to undergo the change necessary to make their narrative journey worthwhile.

Motives outweigh events 

“Action in restorative three act stories services, and gains importance as an expression of, character conflict. The physical world and the force of history are subordinate to their roles as reflections of the characters personal redemption. The effect of subordination is to coddle the character, to make the consequences of action less important than motives.” (p.35) This type of story places more focus/importance on the internal conflict and eventual change of the protagonist than the fate of the external world.

Conclusion (Alternative Scriptwriting p.37)

“The pattern of transgression, recognition, and redemption makes the restorative three act structure a very comforting form. It allows us to identify with the characters who have gone beyond acceptable behaviour, while at the same time remaining aware that they will be forced to confront their behaviour…. If the feel of transgression, recognition and redemption is what we want, then there is no better way to express this than by using the restorative three act structure. But to create a different feel, to find a way to respond to the arbitrariness and indifference of the contemporary world, we have to look elsewhere.”  (p.37) Upon quick inspection the Three-Act Structure appears to be a good fit for the story I’m looking to tell. However, are there more relevant/interesting ways to tell this story?

One last thing. On page 94, Alternative Scriptwriting lists a number of characteristics of the biography genre. The characteristics of biography are as follows:

  • The central character has a particular talent and a nonconformist personality
  • The central characters talent develops in conflict with the conventions of society
  • The antagonist is not physical, rather, it can be time, ignorance, or conventional thinking
  • There is a sense of mission that is religious in its overtone
  • Personal relationships often fail, but this only adds to the spiritual side of the central character
  • The critical moment, whether it is a discovery or a religious or political conversation, is the most important point in the story, far more important than the public acknowledgment of the character/s achievement.

One of the things that really grabbed me about this was the statement the antagonist is not physical. In the graphic novel The Playboy Chester Brown narrates the story from the present in the form of a tiny, bat-winged version of himself, as a way of narrating in a way that would present less distance between author and reader. Perhaps I could use something like this to represent my character’s inner struggles? The challenge will be to do so in a way that avoids the obvious, as well as religious icons. There will be no angel or devil on the shoulders of this character.