3 Acts? Aristotle said What-?! (When-? Where-??)
A Question: What did Aristotle really say, about 3-Act structure? In Poetics (circa 335 BCE) or – in fact, as far as we know, anywhere?
Answer: Absolutely nothing…
I have made close readings of various translations of Aristotle’s Poetics (Aristotle et al. 1997), (Aristotle and Butcher 2012), (Aristotle and Heath 1996) – and there is no reference to “3-Act structure” for ancient Greek plays in there, anywhere.
He actually says there should be 2 Acts. `Before’ and `After’ the tragedy strikes (as in, the very very old play, Oedipus Tyrannos… aka Oedipus Rex, Oedipus The King, etc)
See also this post for more on `Aristotelian 2-Act structure’: Why Aristotle is so very, very wrong…
In fact in Poetics, Aristotle prescribed 12 acts. – Seriously.
So: Why do we even have the term “Aristotelian 3-Act structure”?
On the one hand – it’s an easy way to `divide up’ a film story (and, also makes it easier for critics.) And, fair enough.Also David Bordwell found some evidence for it, in Hollywood movies.
David Bordwell is actually my favourite film theorist – see his amazing work in Poetics of Cinema (2008).
And also, see his 2 (amazing) chapters in Evolution, Literature and Film: A Reader (2010).
But – on the other hand, there is also, no such thing as `3-Act’ film structure; it is possibly actually a myth, a misconception, a misnomer, a misinterpretation, and a made-up mystery.
It’s likely actually: a meme that has gone viral…
(Important Note: As the legendary Susan Blackmore noted in `The Meme Machine’ (1999), a meme does not have to be true, to go viral! See, for example: Religion.)
For more on memes – and how they really work, go here: The Structure of the Meme, the Unit of Culture – and how Cultural Evolution works.
See also the online article, A hierarchy of Memes. (It’s only short, takes about 3 minutes to read, and may even possibly change your entire worldview. Seriously! i.e. It’s just systems theory. – Everything is in fact a system, and, a holon-parton. i.e. It seems, the philosopher Heraclitus was right-! See Sir Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations, 1963).
Moreover, using so-called “Aristotelian 3-Act structure” in narrative, is, possibly, a dangerous idea.
– It might possibly waste your time, your life, your storytelling / screenwriting career…
I am being totally serious now.
In “Why Three-Act Will Kill Your Screenplay” (2012) John Truby’s findings are exactly the same:
`Some have gone so far as to say there are three acts in all fiction – there aren’t – and insist that it was Aristotle who first “discovered” this “fact.”
In fact Aristotle never said anything about three acts.
He said there is a beginning, middle, and end to every story, and that is the extent of your knowledge when you use the 3-act structure.
Using the 3-act structure to explain why one script was successful and another failed is like saying that most moneymaking scripts have a happy ending. Most do, but so do most films that fail and most scripts that don’t sell in the first place.’
(Truby 2012 – emphasis mine)
So – wait – where did this myth (i.e. this misleading meme) of “three-act” structure (let alone `Aristotelian 3-Act’ structure!) come from?
Most likely, from lots of places, but – one of them was probably from Syd Field… In Screenplay (1979) Field stated that a selection of film screenplays he had examined, had three acts. (Field 1979: passim) *
Now don’t get me wrong, Syd Field has done some (really) great things for the study of film screenwriting.
But – in examining certain films, did Syd also examine also, the least successful films? (…Not really.)
(For that matter, did Aristotle do a consilient empirical analysis of the top 20 and bottom 20 ancient Greek plays? No. – Was his method in analyzing drama scientific and empirical? No! Which is quite bizarre – as the guy basically invented most of Western Science. Still, there it is.)
Because – what “3-Act structure” (not that, it is even a real thing) `teaches’ is – one way, how to make `a movie’, and not: how to make a successful movie. (Or even – a game, or a TV show, or a novel, etc.)
And: If 3 `Acts’ = Beginning, Middle, End, then – everything has 3 `Acts’…?
Consider the humble house-brick:
`3 Acts’ are not all that useful in film – and they certainly are not Aristotelian…
Obviously, the key issue in `linear narrative’ is: Time.
Even leaving `Cause and Effect’ aside for a moment: If something in the story happens first, then another thing happens later, and even later still, something else happens, we already have: a beginning, middle, and end.
(So – the `Backstory’ is what happened before Act 1. Act 2 happens after Act 1, and I guess by the same logic, Act 3 should come last.)
The big problem is, as Truby states above – films that fail, also have three “acts”…(!!!)
All films can have three `acts’, if you want to divide them up into: a beginning: middle: end. But that is not really a useful way to divide the structure of a story/plot.
Much more importantly: We all need to know, what the difference is, between the films (i.e.: film stories) that succeed – and those that fail (to find an audience).
So – “3 Act structure” – as a `concept’ – is possibly, rather like `training wheels on a bicycle’… It’s a thing that `beginning screenwriters’ are often told, so they aren’t daunted (overwhelmed) by the actual complexity of plot structure in a (successful) feature film story… (And so, maybe it’s a `useful fiction’… maybe.)
But instead of “Aristotelian 3 Act structure” you may want to see, what happens when we place 8 x major screenplay guru `story structures’ all together:
So – are there clear alternatives to this `Aristotelian 3-Act structure’ (which – is not actually `a real thing’, anyway?)
Yes. For example, the structure of The Top 20 RoI (Return on Investment) Films. (ie: The StoryAlity Structure Syntagm.)
And, if you choose to use it (i.e. – free will is always good like that, see this post on Agency and Structure), you will be using the same story structure that the 20 most successful films (in terms of: virality) use.
See also, these posts, for more on why, most people are somewhat unclear on what Aristotle actually said:
i.e. And for another thing – Aristotle, as wonderful as he was, was also writing about Greek plays around 2000 years before film was invented. If you know about Cultural Evolution, and how it works, it doesn’t take long to realize that 2000 years later, current-day films are not very much like Ancient Greek plays. Films, as an art form, have evolved. They are only about 100 years old, as a medium. We certainly don’t (usually) have a `Greek chorus’ singing the plot at us between the `Acts’, and we don’t have `stasimons’ and `parodes’ and all those forms in feature films any more. We have gone past all that.
`Tragedy’ actually means “goat-song”. From Koestler, in The Act of Creation (1964)
`Dramatic art has its origins in ceremonial rites – dances, songs and mime – which enacted important past or desired future events: rain, a successful hunt, an abundant harvest.
The gods, demons, ancestors and animals participating in the event were impersonated with the aid of masks, costumes, tattooing and make-up. The shaman who danced the part of the rain-god was the rain-god, and yet remained the shaman at the same time.
From the stag-dances of the Huichol Indians or the serpent dances of the Zuni, there is only one step to the goat-dance of the Achaeans, the precursor of Greek drama.
`Tragedy’ means `goat-song’ (tragos – he goat, oide – song); it probably originated in the ceremonial rites in honour of Dyonysius, where the performers were disguised in goat-skins as satyrs, and in the related ceremonies in honour of Apollo and Demeter.
Indian and Chinese stage craft have similarly religious origins. Etruscan drama derived from funeral rites; modern European drama evolved from the medieval mystery plays performed on the occasion of the main church festivals.
But though the modern theatre hardly betrays its religious ancestry, the magic of illusion still serves essentially the same emotional needs: it enables the spectator to transcend the narrow confines of his personal identity, and to participate in other forms of existence.’
Also – Film (cinema) is not: ancient Greek drama. Film is film. – It absolutely evolved out of drama/theatre/`goat-songs’ (and yes, a few of the principles of `drama’ still certainly hold, e.g. conflict, problem-structure (see: Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal, 2012, and On The Origin of Stories by Boyd 2009), etc – but – a lot of the ideas from ancient Greek drama, do not really apply…)
Here is how – over time – Film (i.e.: cinema) resulted from being a hybrid of (1) theater, (2) photography (i.e. cinematography), and (3) literature.
And perhaps for some more on bisociation, and creativity, and cultural evolution – and how it works, see these posts:
- StoryAlity #6 – What is Creativity and How Does It Work?
- StoryAlity #7 – On “the 10-Year Rule” and Creativity
- StoryAlity #8 – More on the 10-Year Rule” and Creativity
- StoryAlity #9 – How To Be More Creative
- StoryAlity #9B – Creativity in Science (and – The Arts and Film)
- StoryAlity #10 – About The Creative Personality
- StoryAlity #11 – Wallas and the Creative Process
- StoryAlity #12 – Combining Practice Theory and the Systems Model of Creativity
- StoryAlity #13- Creativity and Solved Domain Problems
- StoryAlity #14 – On Romantic Myths of Creativity
Note also that – none of the top 20 RoI films are `adaptations’…
None of them are adaptations of plays, novels, etc. (Possibly: a remarkable fact.)
i.e.: Below then is, what we possibly need to do with a lot of (incorrect) assumptions about Film/Screenwriting/Storytelling (such as perhaps: the idea of “Aristotelian 3-Act structure”)…
See also Brütsch, M. (2015). `The three-act structure: Myth or magical formula?‘ Journal of Screenwriting, 6(3), 301-326.
Here is the abstract:
`Since Syd Field published his book Screenplay in 1979, the three-act structure has become a dominant tool for analysing screenplays and films. While the formulaic nature and constricting effects of this ‘paradigm’ have often been criticized by adherents of independent films, until now its explanatory suitability to classical and mainstream filmmaking has rarely been questioned as such. After commenting on the history of the concept, the article examines how well the model works in practice by statistically evaluating a large number of studies by different authors. This comparison reveals that there is a surprisingly low consensus on how to divide films into three acts. The discrepancies seem fundamentally due to the imprecision and vagueness of the paradigm’s core ideas, and thus neither the functions ascribed to acts nor the concept of plot points appear to be valid tools for ensuring consistency in analysis. Hence mainstream film needs to be seen as more complex – and structural analysis more a matter of interpretation – than the model allows for.’ (Brütsch 2015)
Also, for more information on `paradigms’, please see:
…Thoughts, Comments, Feedback always welcome. 🙂
Also – What most people don’t realize is that: Creativity works the same way in the Arts and the Sciences.
Of genes in Biology, and of memes (ideas, processes, products) in Culture.
PS. See the PPS below.
P.P.S. – There is a pretty long P.P.P.S. down below.
This article was cited in: http://www.scriptmag.com/features/why-spec-scripts-fail-aristotle-part-1
PPPS – I see the great Werner Herzog agrees with me (that’s why he’s so great) and wails on “3-Act structure”, and also “Character Arcs” here. These are 2 x things you don’t need in your script for a movie with a high RoI.
“It’s really brainless to structure yourself in it,” says Herzog in an exclusive IndieWire video.
Using his 1972 classic “Aguirre, Wrath of God” as an example, the great director rails against the concept that screenplays need to be structured around a character arc in which the protagonist becomes someone different by the end of the film.”
Having said all that, there are definitely some excellent points made (and examples given) here on structure: (not sure I agree they are the BEST structured, but certainly, GOOD 🙂
For more see:
- StoryAlity #53 – The StoryAlity High-RoI Film Story & Screenplay Checklist
- StoryAlity #54 – StoryAlity Screenwriting Guidelines – for any aspiring Writer of High-RoI Films
Actually maybe even see the whole blog.
And – actually, on another note, I also see, Charlie Kaufman says he blew it.
High-RoI Story/Screenplay/Movie and Transmedia Researcher
The above is (mostly) an adapted excerpt, from my doctoral thesis: “Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema”. It is presented here for the benefit of fellow screenwriting, filmmaking and creativity researchers. For more, see https://aftrs.academia.edu/JTVelikovsky
JT Velikovsky is also a produced feature film screenwriter and million-selling transmedia writer-director-producer. He has been a professional story analyst for major film studios, film funding organizations, and for the national writer’s guild. For more see: http://on-writering.blogspot.com/
P [x 3]. S. – * Don’t get me wrong: to be fair, Syd Field (and McKee – and all those `guru’ guys) has really actually done a lot to advance the ABC (art, business and craft) of screenwriting. But – I still do not believe “3-Act” Structure is that helpful – at all – for screenwriters, and – I certainly don’t believe, it is (or was ever) Aristotelian. – If you are reading this, and you have found any translation of Poetics (or – anything by Aristotle) where Aristotle says that ancient Greek plays should have `3 Acts’ – then, please Comment below, with the exact reference.
In fact… It is actually, a scandal that the phrase “Aristotelian 3-Act structure” even exists. Seriously!
By all this I mean – it is good to question assumptions. We often assume that “quotes from authority” are correct. But – when we (empirically) examine their claims, those “authorities” are sometimes, wrong. – Don’t just take my word for it, as that would be making the exact same mistake. – Look at the evidence for yourself. Read Aristotle’s Poetics. Read as many versions of it as you can find. (It’s only about 50 pages long, anyway – It’s not even like, it’s `hard work’. And he makes a few really good points.) Yet, most people just accept it when other people (in `authority’) say “In Poetics, Aristotle said `good Greek plays should have 3 Acts”.
– He never said that. Seriously. – Check it for yourself-!
And – speaking of possible nonsense (ie – things that are totally wrong, like say, the concept of “Aristotelian 3-Act structure”), and even `Oedipus Rex’… Most of what Freud said 100 years ago, is now regarded by most psychologists as nonsense.
For one thing, it turns out that Freud’s whole idea of “the Oedipus Complex” is nonsense.
See these 2 x posts for details:
- StoryAlity #90 – Freud was wrong about Oedipus (Sugiyama)
- StoryAlity #94 – Freud was wrong (Easterlin)
Anyway, question everything, I say…
For more on all this, see `About Consilience, or: doing Science in the Arts/Humanities’:
- StoryAlity #71 – On Consilience in the Arts/Humanities
i.e.: Consilience is a revolution that is still occurring in the Arts – it started around 1998, with E O Wilson’s book, Consilience. – It’s a `paradigm change’ (as per Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions). It means, most of the old knowledge is wrong, and has to be thrown out.
As: that is how cultural evolution works. Over time, we all get better at finding out: What’s true, and what’s not. (If you disagree then you are welcome to build a time machine, and go live back in the Dark Ages, and hopefully you don’t get burned as a wizard/witch.)
Note also, what Bertrand Russell said:
`Almost every serious intellectual advance has had to begin with an attack on some Aristotelian doctrine’.
(Russell 1996: 157 – emphasis mine)
Don’t get me wrong. The funny thing is, I actually love Aristotle.
But – over 2000 years later, we now know, he was wrong about a few things… (and it must be true, as I saw it on YouTube…)
(And, he never said anything about “3-Act structure.” – Seriously. Check it-! )
Aristotle and Heath, Malcolm (1996), Poetics (London: Penguin).
Aristotle and Butcher, S. H. (trans.) (2012) Poetics [online text], eBooks@Adelaide <http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/a/aristotle/poetics/>
Aristotle, Baxter, John, and Atherton, Patrick (1997), Aristotle’s Poetics (London: McGill-Queen’s University Press).
Field, Syd (1979), Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting (A Delta book; New York: Dell Pub. Co.) 212 p.
Gottschall, J (2012), The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston.
Koestler, A. (1989). The Act of Creation. London: Arkana.
Truby, John (2012), ‘Why 3 Act Will Kill Your Writing’, Raindance New York http://www.raindance.org/why-3-act-will-kill-your-writing/, accessed 18th August, 2012.