Syd Fields Three Act Structure Paradigm
“Structure is the prime element of film.” (Miller, 1984) “Screenplays are structure; that’s all they are. They are structure.” (Goldman, 1981) But, while the importance of structure is clear, interpretation is often less so. Syd Field’s ‘three-act-structure’ model is a perfectly natural device; not one that can be avoided by screenwriters. It is no more than a variation on the ‘start, middle and end’ model of all narratives. Using two films, Network (Lumet, 1976) and Magnolia (Anderson, 1999)it can be demonstrated that Field’s three-act structure; set-up, confrontation and resolution, is unavoidable and inevitable regardless of screenwriting and filmmaking techniques.
Network and the vast majority of Hollywood output are films with a classic linear story structure; send hero to battle, fire missiles at him, get him home dead or alive; it is a simple model, logical, chronological and embraced by the majority of film makers. The beginning, middle and end is the trusted template which defines American cinema. However, “a distinctly nonlinear structure has crept into Hollywood’s cinematic repertoire.” (Smith, 1999/2000) The emergence of films such as Pulp Fiction, Lone Star, English Patient and Magnolia do not use linear structure. But the question remains can the three-act formula be avoided?
Screenwriting expert Professor Robert McKee once described a story as a human being living a life that is more or less in balance; then comes the “inciting incident. The protagonist reacts, his life falls out of balance, and he now has had aroused in him a conscious or unconscious desire for whatever it is that will restore balance; “launching him on a quest for his object of desire against the forces of antagonism.” (Parker, 2003) McKee nailed the concept of the three-act structure that was the basis of debate initiated by Syd Field, an American writer and popular screenwriting guru.
Syd Field argues “The nature of the screenplay is as it has always been; a story told with pictures, dialogue and description, and placed within the context of dramatic structure” (Field, 2005). Field’s popular paradigm of three-act structure consists of set up, confrontation and resolution. Act 1, set up, we are introduced to the situation and characters and guided through ‘rising action’ into the main conflict of the story. Act 2, confrontation, is the continued rising action or conflict leading to the act conclusion or second plot point flagging the beginning of the falling action of Act 3, the resolution.
The three-act structure provides a framework to promote the story. Syd Field articulates, if you know the three-act paradigm, “you can simply pour your story into it.” (Field, 1982) Two narrated films demonstrating the paradigm are the linear plot of Network and the non-linear plot of Magnolia. In Network the sole-protagonist, a suicidal manic depressive desires to depose his network and is assassinated as he preaches the insignificance of individuality (Network, 1976). In Magnolia, a montage of several interrelated protagonists with ‘paternal issues’ are in search of happiness (Magnolia, 1999). Both films, with multifaceted plots, are ‘poured’ into Field’s model.
In Network Field’s paradigm functions logically; Act 1’s inciting incident is Beale’s dismissal and threatened on-air suicide resulting in increased ratings. Beale’s reinstatement by exploitative employers is plot point one. In Act 2’s confrontation, individual vs. establishment, rising action remains evident as Beale’s sanity deteriorates. He denounces television and encourages viewers against it; “…I’m not going to take this anymore!” (Chayefsky, 1976) Plot point 2 is Beale’s discovery of UBS’s acquisition whereupon he demands public intervention. Act 3, resolution, falling action, Beale is manipulated into believing in business not individuality. He broadcasts this ‘propaganda’ and is assassinated as a traitor.
Magnolia, a non-linear mixed-genre melodrama using multiple characters, camouflages variations on Field’s model. The fragmented narrative leaps through characters subverting structure expectation. Eight troubled characters have similar goals (restoration of happiness) and occupy the space of the protagonist; “The plot poses questions; what to do and what is outcome?” (Dancyger & Russ, 2007) In Act 1 each character is haunted by their past; “We may be through with the past but the past isn’t through with us” (Magnolia, 1999) the first plot point is a montage of conflict scenarios brought to conclusion in plot point two leading to final resolution.
In both films conflict is an inherent incompatibility between objectives of protagonists and antagonists; “Conflict creates tension by adding doubt about outcome.” (Roberts & Jacobs, 2010) Both films appear opposites which is not the case. Environment’s destructiveness is the target of both films; protagonists are guides through complex antagonistic situations. In Network the antagonist wins and in Magnolia the protagonist(s) win, as with all stories; “One side wins in the end, but the film’s closure reconciles the two” (McBride, 1996). The structures of both narratives are almost indistinguishable and outcomes are inverted. Field’s model works equally well in each scenario.
The elements of Field’s model are evident in both films. The films are bookended with prologue and epilogue. The prologue sets tone, introduces concepts and pulls the audience into the story. True to Field’s model Act 1, in both films, establishing ‘main tension’ sets up characters, dramatic premise and situation. The first plot-point; “anchor of the story line” (Field, 2005), moves narrative forward; in Network when Beale is reinstated his journey begins. All the major plot-points in Magnolia revolve around parents; the first plot-point is a montage of events beginning a series of complex emotional obstacles which characters must overcome.
A classical narrative is structured around scenes; “In a tightly structured script, each scene has a mini goal or plot-point that leads the audience into the next scene” (Garrand, 1997). Although we don’t always know what is going to happen; “the structural patternings set us up for how it is going to happen” (Blumenberg, 1990). The plot-points yield tension and maintain interest in the story. They take place in major or minor form throughout the story with “reversals tending to be major plot-points opening up the story and providing a broader spectrum of options for characters.” (Dancyger & Russ, 2007).
The context of Act two is confrontation; “what the character wants to win, gain, get, or achieve during the course of the screenplay” (Field, 1982). In Network there is relentless confrontation as Beale becomes “the mad prophet of the airwaves” at odds with himself, his audience and ultimately with his superiors; “You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and you will atone!” (Chayefsky, 1976). In Magnolia conflict occurs as the protagonists attempt to silence their inner demons. Deviating from Field’s model a resolution is achieved in Magnolia in Act 2 climax, the second plot-point, and creates new conflicts.
In Act three paces pick up and no new elements are exposed. Resolution is achieved by story twists. In Network Beale commits suicide but does not pull the trigger. The narrator reappears to explain; “This was the story of Howard Beale…killed because he had lousy ratings.” (Chayefsky, 1976) In Magnolia the protagonists witness and casually accept a ‘frog rainfall’ with one protagonist observing ‘these things happen’. The prologue, a pastiche of ‘chance-events’ makes sense. Happiness is achieved through coincidence and chance. The narrator explains; “In the humble opinion of this narrator these strange things happen all the time….” (Magnolia, 1999).
There are other tensions in both movies. The subplots have tensions that can be mapped in three-act formula and beats; “pauses in dialogue altering how the protagonist pursues a goal” (Decker, 1998) which predict outcome. In Network most beats are unhappy; “I’m going to blow my brains out…on the air…in the middle of the seven o’clock news.” (Chayefsky, 1976) In Magnolia there are happy beats as when one protagonist announces; “I gotta clean my brain of all the shit I’ve done that I shouldn’t have done” (Magnolia, 1999). Within the beats are clues as to the outcome of the goal.
Both films have a complex plots. They interweave characters to demonstrate the strangeness and inexplicableness of life. Events, as depicted, may be strange but they can and do happen; “the events of the plot have to be not only plausible, they also have to echo real life events” (Dancyger & Russ, 2007). In 1974 an American television news reporter, Christine Chubbuck committed suicide during a live television broadcast (New York Times, 1974). Science has offered tornadic explanations for the phenomenon of frog rainfalls. (New York Times, 1901) The implausible becomes plausible by the conceptual scheme of the three act structure.
Both movies remain true to Field’s model; the main tensions are posed in the set-up, embellished in confrontation, and resolved in resolution using appropriate plot-points throughout the journey. The foreground and background stories are fully resolved there are clear winners. In Network victory goes to the antagonist and in Magnolia it belongs to protagonists. To sum up, the two films differ considerably. Network is a plot intensive story and never veers from the three-act structure while Magnolia uses background story over plot, creates believable characters and explores difficult emotional issues using a more complex, less obvious but parallel three-act structure.
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Smith, E., 1999/2000. Thread Structure: Rewriting The Hollywood Formula. Journal of Film And Video, 51(3/4), p. 88.