There are many ways in which the art of filmmaking is dictated by the industry of filmmaking, but none perhaps more detrimental to the nature of filmic narrative than the three-act structure. Set-up, confrontation, resolution, A + B + C = movie, always has. It’s the first lesson on the first day of screenwriting school, and the one that is seemingly written in stone; to eschew it is to fart in the face of traditional, mainstream screenwriting and thus doom your final product to those last bastions of independent cinema, the art house.
In my brief career as a screenwriter, I was instructed to write in an 8-act structure because the films would be airing on television and thus commercial breaks dictated the breaks in action, but even in that context I was told to think of acts 1–4 as the traditional 1st act, 5–7 as act 2, and act 8 as act 3. Set-up, confrontation, resolution – again. The numbers changed but the structure didn’t. And you might not think it would be, but this structure is confining. Some stories need more time to get going, and some end in a heartbeat. Sometimes the confrontation is more important than the set-up, but the three-act structure forces stories into familiar patterns, and avoiding these patterns isn’t just a risk from a critical standpoint, but also a commercial one, because audiences have been ingrained with three-act stories their entire lives, that’s how they think of stories, and any challenge to this notion risks alienating them. But it also risks reinventing the form.
Look at when MEMENTO was released and freaked everyone out with its kilter timeline and nontraditional plotting. At first everyone was confused, then the next thing you know time jumps were everywhere, a part of the new normal. In the three-act structure that kind of mobility isn’t allowed because it muddles the acts, puts some of the set-up in the resolution and vice versa and smears the confrontation over every scene. But by breaking that structure, Jonathan Nolan invented what we think of as the 21st century cinematic thriller, where even time is shrouded in mystery.
Another, significantly more important person who agrees that the three-act structure is as obsolete as in-theater organists is director/writer/actor/madman/international treasure Werner Herzog, who you might have heard is teaching an online Masterclass this summer. In a video exclusive to Indiewire taken from that class, Herzog goes on one of his trademark impassioned diatribes against the evils of the three-act structure, declaring it “ridiculous,” “brainless” and “predictable.” Using the example of his own AGUIRRE, WRATH OF GOD, Herzog proves why some films just don’t fit with tradition and need five or six acts to properly deliver their story. This is why I love Herzog, it’s not that he’s a rule breaker, it’s that he honestly doesn’t give a shit about the rules, and why should he? Rules in art are like free Justin Bieber tickets: don’t want them, don’t need them. Check out the video for a taste of what it’s like to be taught by a true master maverick.