Anne Bean

I make delicious words. // I make words delicious.

Three Act Structure Quick and Dirty

So, one Sunday afternoon I get a serious text message along the “I need to talk” lines from a friend. I give him a call, and he’s in a world of confusion and uncertainty and is feeling really weird because he’s halfway through the Fountainhead by Ayn Rand and doesn’t know what to think of it. I go on a long rant about how Objectivism is, in my estimation, a crock of shit, and Ayn Rand’s highly masturbatory novel makes being selfish and clever attractive and puts down other things like feelings, service, or giving a shit about anyone other than yourself. I also tell the story of how Rand’s lover left her for a young blonde dumb thing and she about exploded ’cause it didn’t make sense in her Objectivist worldview.

…My point here is that I am the person my friends call when they have literature quandaries. I have become the Ayn Rand Crisis Line, among other things.

Like yesterday, out with brunch with friends, one of them asks, “Can you explain three-act structure to me?”

I did, and then we got into the age-old discussion of “Are all movies screamingly formulaic, and is that bad?”

“What about The Big Lebowski?” my partner pointed out. “The Coen Brothers specifically made that movie about nothing.”

“It totally has three-act structure, though.”

“No way.”

Way, my friend. Way.

Three-Act Structure, the Over Brunch Version

The structure of most western film is based on myth. Check out the Hero’s Journey, check out Aristotle’s Poetics, check out a traditional screenplay beat sheet…they all add up to three-act structure.

Act I, which is the first quarter of the movie, establishes the hero’s world and then has something go terribly wrong in it so that they are plunged into bizarro-world, i.e. Act II. In the Wizard of Oz, Act I is in Kansas. In Star Wars Episode IV, Act I in on Tatooine with whiny Luke the moisture farmer (And with Princess Leia captured up in space).

Act II plunges the hero into bizarro-world. Dorothy goes to Oz. Luke’s Aunt and Uncle are dead and he has no choice but to move forward and go with Obi-Wan. Smack in the middle of Act II is the midpoint, where the hero’s mettle gets tested, but the overall dramatic question of the story does not get answered. Luke rescues Princess Leia at the midpoint of Star Wars: The question of her fate is temporarily answered, but the larger issue of Evil Warlord in a Planet-Sized Death Star is not. Dorothy gets to Oz and talks to the Wizard, and it turns out that all her problems are not solved and she now has to go confront the Wicked Witch of the West.

Act III, the last quarter of the film, is about somehow bringing the world of Act I and bizarro-world of Act II together. Sometimes this looks like going home, or bring peace to the galaxy, or getting the lovers together at last. During Act III, the major dramatic question of the work will be answered and the big bad will be defeated or at least there will be some kind of showdown. Exactly how these elements play out depend on genre. In Star Wars, Luke blows up the Death Star, ending (for now) Vader’s reign of terror. In Wizard of Oz, Dorothy defeats the Wicked Witch of the West and is able to return to Kansas. In Requiem for a Dream, on the other hand, there is no clear antagonist that is defeated, but there is a sense of resolution. Each character is forced to deal with the consequences of their drug use, and their commonalities are highlighted for the viewer, giving us more of a sense of resolution than the characters do internally.

Aristotle calls Act I “Thesis,” Act II “Antithesis,” and Act III “Synthesis.”

The Big Lebowski‘s Structure

So what about The Big Lebowski?


Since it’s been a hot second since I’ve seen the film, I turned to this excellent article about the structure. Below is one part paraphrased from that article, one part me matching up the film to Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet.

1. Opening Image: Western-style scrub and titles.

2. Theme Stated (minute 2): “Sometimes there’s a man–I won’t say a hero, ’cause what’s a hero–but sometimes there’s a man, and I’m talkin’ about The Dude here, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there.”

3. Set-up: We see the Dude in the grocery store, wearing a bathrobe and writing a check for 69 cents for cream. We hear the rambling Western narrator talk about how lazy he is. This is all within the first five minutes; pretty dang efficient characterization.

4. Catalyst/Inciting Incident: Thugs attack The Dude in his home and pee on his rug. The rug (“It really tied the room together!”) will be the main external motivation for the first bit of the movie.

5. The Debate: The Dude literally debates with his friends at the bowling alley whether or not to go after the other Lebowski and demand recompense for his rug. (“I’m talking about drawing a line in the sand, Dude!”) I think that Walter and Donny both embody aspects of the Dude’s struggle, if not his personality. They are such delightfully opposing characters.

6. Break into Act Two/The Decision to Move Forward: The Dude decides to go see Lebowski pretty quickly (“They peed on my fucking rug.”) Furthermore, he steals a dang rug, setting up the continued interaction with Lebowski.

7. B-Story: Bunny is the B-story, I think. Specifically, Bunny’s been kidnapped and the Dude and Co’s attempts to get her back/figure out what happened/abscond with her ransom money is the main external motivation for the rest of the film.

8. Fun and Games/Overcoming Smaller Obstacles: (“Smokey, this is not ‘Nam, this is bowling.”) Walter has more struggles here that The Dude. The Dude just floats along until the whole deliver the ransom for Bunny thing starts. The Dude actually just passively figures out that Bunny probably kidnapped herself; it’s Walter that has the chutzpah to act on it.

8.5. Approach to the Inmost Cave: Walter replaces the ransom money with his dirty underwear.

9. The Mid-Point/False High: The Dude and Walter do a botched hand-off; the Dude’s car gets stolen. Maude Lebowski contacts the Dude, and tells him she ordered his rug stolen. She reveals Bunny’s pornography career. The Big Lebowski confronts The Dude, who tells him that Bunny kidnapped herself. Bunny’s severed toe shows up.

10. Bad Guys Close In/Sudden Defeat: Nihilists! With weasels! The Dude’s car is recovered, all fucked-up. The Dude thinks he has a clue in the form of the homework found in his car, but when he and his posse track down the kid, Walter goes nuts and smashes what he thinks is the kid’s car. It’s not.

11. All Is Lost/Death Moment: I’m thinking this is either the moment of car smashing or the weird dream sequence where The Dude surrenders to Maude Lebowski. I like the car smashing as death sequence, though. (“THIS IS WHAT YOU GET WHEN YOU FUCK A STRANGER IN THE ASS!”)

12. The Mourning Period/Dark Night of the Soul (The character is given an easy out which they decide not to take.): The Dude and Walter are on the outs; The Dude goes and visits Maude Lebowski and learns that the Big Lebowski is not a real millionaire, and that Bunny is a big McGuffin (red herring).

13. Break into Act Three/A Plan is Formed: The Dude and Walter confront Big Lebowski (who seems to turn up when the act changes) about the missing money. Lebowski turns out to also be a McGuffin, more or less.

14. The Finale:

a. A New Plan: Walk away. Go back to bowling.

b. Stuff goes wrong: The Nihilists show up, looking for trouble.

c. A New New Plan: Confront the Nihilists!

d. Final Showdown: The Dude, Walter, and Donny beat up the Nihilists once and for all. Well, by that I mean Walter beats up the nihilist. The Dude sort of swings his bowling ball bag around a little, and Donny dies of a heart attack, unrelated to the activity.

e. Resolution: The Dude and Walter manage Donny’s death.

15. Closing Image (traditionally an inverse of the opening image): The Dude in the bowling alley, abiding. The Stranger comes in as a direct narrator once more.

So ARE All Movies Screamingly Formulaic, and Is That Bad?

Film structure usually gets even more specific than the three-act structure. Blake Snyder, author of Save the Cat!, has outlined an extremely specific beat sheet that many fiction writers will cringe at because it is incredibly specific, down to someone saying the theme within the first twelve minutes, and a symbolic or literal death moment at minute 75.

While I think many fiction writers go “eugh” at the idea of a story that’s so closely structured, I think poets might actually get it. Because they deal with forms. I haven’t heard a lot of poets complaining about the existence of a sestina or a ghazal. But then, poets have the choice to ignore all form if they so choose. And to an extent, screenwriters do not.

I don’t think screenplay structure is necessarily formulaic, although I think we’re culturally hardwired to respond well to the above structure. Robert McKee, in his excellent book Story, says that “Story is about eternal, universal forms, not formulas.” He outlines micro-principles of what makes stories tick rather than giving out a beat sheet that is supposed to apply to all film ever. Even within a very traditional structure, like the Snyder beat sheet, it’s possible to have a conversation with the form, such as the Big Lebowski, above. The hero does pretty much nothing during the climax; there are characters that have nothing to do with the plot that are nonetheless our favorites. (“Nobody fucks with the Jesus.”) I personally have to problem with form. For one thing, the more I know about form, the easier it is to mess with it.

1 Comment

  1. My screenwriting teachers described the midpoint as “the goal-change,” because often at that point in the story the hero will achieve the goal initial set out upon–Dorothy gets to the Emerald City, Luke rescues Leia–only to discover that there is actually a larger, far more difficult task ahead. It’s a moment of success that quickly gets over-shadowed by a bigger challenge.

    I love knowing movie 3-act structure because I can use it to trick people into thinking I’m psychic about movies. I was watching Atlantis with my friend the other day, and I saw the fun-and-games coming to a close and was like “oh, Milo is going to win their respect in a couple minutes, using his skills from the outset of the movie–probably his boiler room abilities.” And I was right. It’s not magic, people–it’s plot structure!

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