(Originally posted on the Ink Jerkers blog on 20 February 2020.)
While looking through my old browser bookmarks, I recently came across this old piece titled Hulk's Screenwriting 101: The Myth of the 3-Act Structure, by one of the best movie critics today. A timely find, as it soon came up in conversation with a friend. It's a mind-blowing read, recommended to any aspiring writer (not just for movies), but it's also long, and being in all caps will make it hard on some readers. And because there's so much to unpack, trying to hit just the main points in a chat window or some such wouldn't do it justice.
I still remember what it's like to be a young writer struggling to understand why it's so damn hard to string together any story at all, never mind a good one. There's a dearth of good advice out there. Emphasis on good. In fact a lot of it is counterproductive. So it's no wonder that at one point we all got stuck at the stage where we have a story in mind, we know how we want it to start and how we want it to end, but the middle is a big nebulous unknown.
(In fact many aspiring writers also seem to have trouble coming up with story beginnings. I never had that problem, but if you do, uh, ever thought about how Star Wars did it? The technique is so ancient, it has a Latin name: in media res. Which is to say, starting in the middle of things.)
That middle is what all the bad teachers call "act 2", because well, all stories must have a beginning, middle and end. After all, that's how playwrights in Ancient Greece did it, so it must be the One True Way. At least I suppose that's the reasoning; don't get me started about glorifying the past.
What they don't tell you is how to figure out the events in the dreaded middle part, and studying the classics isn't going to help you either. Unless, that is, you already know what to look for, and they don't: they have you study the classics in school because you're sort of supposed to. Why? Dunno!
And so we stumble upon the main question: WHY?! Why does stuff happen? In real life it just does, but in a story you have to put it there. And in order to make stuff happen in your story, there has to be a reason. A reason beyond immediate causes: "this went down, so that followed, and on and on".
A reason to tell the story in the first place.
So what is it, dear writer? Did you want to explore a fictional world, with its cultures and languages? Get something off your chest? Or perhaps entertain the audience and nothing else? All those and more can be valid reasons. The only wrong answer is, "I just want to be a writer". Doesn't work that way. Sorry.
Now we're getting somewhere. With known goals, you can create heroes. With the heroes at hand, you can figure out what can happen to them. Out of all the things, pick what matters: which events mean something. What will your heroes do?
At that point, and no earlier, you have a story.
Oh, it may not be the one you were aiming for. The ending you were planning may not fit. In fact, good stories take on a life of their own and go off on a big adventure, with you — the big author — along for the ride, as the comic relief bard who writes it down for others.
On the plus side, you won't even notice when the dreaded "act 2" goes by, because instead of struggling to figure out what should come next, the answer will be obvious from everything that happened so far: why, whatever drives the story forward and furthers your goals! You do remember your goals, right?
It's still going to take work, of course. Writing is hard. Nothing can change that. It's also something you can do. Doesn't take a genius.
Know yourself and others. Also love yourself and others. How else are you going to find much to say about life, the universe and everything?