Building Rosebud before you can imagine it: The architects of cinema

I am a screenwriter. Screenwriters are the architects of a film—our script is the blueprint from which the film is built. Therefore, we set the stage for what happens when a film goes into production, even though many other elements are introduced into a film once it is in production, such as the music and directional style.

In a recent article in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, James Cutting provides an extensive theoretical analysis of a large corpus of movies produced during the last 75 years. A recent post on this website provided a summary of Cutting’s work: you may wish to read that first to make sense of the discussion below.

As Cutting discusses, the most widely-used structural format in film is the three-act structure. Let me just make something clear here—when people say three-act structure, they usually mean four acts. As Cutting notes, the second act is often divided in half with a “turning point”. This is the scene in Jaws when the police chief has so far been unsuccessful in catching the shark and decides to enter the water to get it.

Despite this turning point being a feature in most traditional film narratives, screenwriting books and dialogues usually call this the “second-act mid-point” rather than divide this middle into two separate acts. For the sake of this discussion, I will continue this tradition and talk about the three-act structure when strictly speaking it can usually be understood as four acts, which was also Cutting’s conclusion.

Although critics may say that the three-act structure is derivative, the reality is that your favorite film probably adheres to this formula. Let’s look at one of the most critically acclaimed films of the past few years—the Academy Award winner for best picture in 2014, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).

This is the story of an actor who wants to put on a play (set-up in act one), but this is difficult not only because of the various characters in the production creating challenges, but especially because of his internal struggle to prove himself as a serious, relevant artist as opposed to the trashy, popular actor associated with the superhero films of Birdman (act two). This struggle leads to disaster when a respected critic tells him he’ll never be a serious actor and that whatever happens she’s going to destroy his production with her review because she hates people like him. This leads to his Birdman hallucination (end of act two, when the protagonist hits rock bottom). Act three is typically when the hero has to change in order to achieve their goal. In this instance, by embracing his persona as a trashy, popular actor, our protagonist ensures the critical success of his play, and also resolves the rocky relationships in his life. And by doing all this, the screenwriter—in the case of Birdman an entire team led by Alejandro González Iñárritu—is able to make a comment on modern movies, the nature of happiness and the meaning of life. That’s the power of the three act structure!

There are a variety of theories concerned with why a three-act structure is so successful, but essentially it’s because a coherent story has a beginning, middle and end—three acts. But it is also more intricate than that. For example, for a story to be interesting you’re going to want to see the protagonist fail in pursuit of his goal. That failure is the end of act two. Will we ever collectively recover from the trauma inflicted upon us by the end of act two of Toy Story 3? When our heroes careened towards the flames of the oven (read: hell), we all held our breaths, and cinema history was created:

The screenwriter is in a unique position when converting the fabula to the syuzhet, as s/he is the first person to do so, before the rest of the filmmaking team comes on board. The fabula is the whole story, in all its complex (and essentially infinite) detail. The syuzhet is the organisation of this information to tell the screen story.

I agree with Cutting’s assertion that the fabula is essentially formless, and this is certainly true from the screenwriter’s perspective. Each character has their own story, their own life, and ordering those parallel threads to create meaning is the process of creating the syuzhet.

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman explores this hilariously in Adaptation, which is the story of a screenwriter (named Charlie, it’s all very meta…) trying to adapt a book for the screen. How much of a character’s backstory should be included? Spiralling into an existential crisis as he’s faced with choices such as these (i.e., as he converts the fabula to the syuzhet), Charlie goes further and further into a character’s backstory, right up until the moment of the creation of the universe.

The screenwriter’s job is one of making choices. And the ultimate question, poised each time a choice must be made, is: “what will tell the most compelling story?”

That’s why the results of the study reported by Cutting that looked at where characters are introduced in a film was not surprising. Cutting found that nearly 98% of all protagonists are introduced within the time-frame of the setup (i.e., early on), and that those few who had not been introduced were usually in movies with more than one protagonist.

Both logic and intuition suggest that the protagonist is introduced in the set-up of a film. As Cutting explains, this is where the story foundations are laid, as we begin our journey with a character. He notes that his studies reveal that the set-up is not identified with the introduction of locations: just under half of the locations have been seen during the setup, and the remainder are then introduced fairly uniformly throughout the rest of the movie.

This is because a film is about a character going on a journey. Sometimes this journey is purely internal or metaphorical, in which case the film doesn’t need a variety of locations. For example, many dramas about families are primarily set in the family home (for example, American Beauty) and this is usually established in the set-up.

For films where the journey is literal, the set-up is used to introduce the character’s “ordinary world” (classically, this is the village that the hero must leave in pursuit of their goal). After the inciting incident, the hero leaves home, or their ordinary world, and their journey begins. Films such as The Lord of the Rings and other adventure/action or fantasy films are the most obvious examples of this. Frodo leaves the Shire and his journey begins, taking him to a variety of magical lands (even if it was Elijah Wood standing in front of a green screen).

In one of his analyses, Cutting reveals that conversations are most prevalent in the second-half of the first act of a film (immediately after the inciting incident), and that the first half of act three (the climax) is when a film has the least amount of talking.

From a practitioner’s perspective, this is not surprising. After the inciting incident the character will be deciding whether or not to take action, whilst the purpose of the climax is to show the character taking action. If it were the other way round, then the film would seem uneven and disjointed—why is the protagonist talking when they should be taking action, fighting the biggest battle they have to fight, putting everything on the line as they face their final test?

Most films have three acts. That’s not a groundbreaking sentence. What is interesting is how this structure—created by the screenwriter—influences the rest of the production team as the script is imagined for the screen.

Article focused on in this post:

Cutting, J. E. (2016). Narrative theory and the dynamics of popular movies. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, DOI: 10.3758/s13423-016-1051-4.

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