When Splitting Up a Narrative Gets Dicey

by Eric Chang

Now that we have transitioned to studying Hollywood’s narrative tradition from the perspective of screenwriting guides, it is important that we understand that our analyses focus on just that: tradition. In the paradigms advanced by Syd Field and Kristin Thompson, both models of Hollywood-style narration are based on the then-historical body of work produced by Hollywood cinema. Thus, I view the following discussion as a matter of discerning which model is a more faithful representation of a fixed set of cinematic work rather than a matter of discussing the merits of non-tangible theories regarding ideal narration structure.

Syd Field’s book Screenplay, published in 1979, proposed the “three-act structure,” where the majority of Hollywood’s films could be divided into three distinct acts: the setup, confrontation, and resolution (see below). These acts are divided by major plot points and would take up 1/4, 1/2, and 1/4 of both the script and the film’s run time respectively. Since its publication in Screenplay, this model of the prototypical Hollywood narrative has become a staple in both film production and analysis.

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However, in 1999, Kristin Thompson, in her book Storytelling in the New Hollywood, proposed a revised version of Field’s model, citing problems arising from the Field conception of a narrative. According to Thompson, Field’s model shifted the focus of screenwriters and film analysts away from the dramatic logic of cinema scripts to the page number and minute-count of each film’s separate acts and their respective partitions. In reality, the demarcations between Fields’s three acts were arbitrary – each film could be divided into infinitely many narrative acts. Thus, a total and rigid allegiance to Fields’s three-act model should be seen as the misguided transformation of a helpful and flexible framework into a hindrance. Furthermore, by having a lengthy and ambiguous middle act in the “confrontation,” Fields’s model caused difficulties for screenwriters to fill the section (comprising of over half the film’s script and screen time) with action that had both a clear direction and natural exigence.

As a result, Thompson proposed her own four-act model for traditional Hollywood narratives. By inductively studying a large sample of Hollywood films, Thompson observed that the majority of films could be broken into four main acts: setup, complicating action, development, and climax (see below). By functionally splitting Fields’s “confrontation” act in half, Thompson’s model created four acts of equal length while also identifying a crucial “central turning point” wherein there exists a clear break between the complicating action act and the development act. These turning points are indispensable in understanding Thompson’s model. According to Thompson, these turning points provide functionally-crucial transitions between acts and can be easily spotted. Some main examples cited by Thompson include the articulation of new goals, a shift in the protagonist’s tactics, the introduction of a new premise or goal, etc.

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Taking a step back from the heavyweight cinematic analysis showdown between Fields and Thompson, it appears that the major difference between their two models is that Thompson’s model functionally adds an extra partition in the middle of Fields’s model. While this may seem arbitrary and self-defeating given Thompson’s claim that films can be divided into innumerable acts, each with their own functional differences, there is a very real and beneficial consequence resulting from this change. Calling back to Thompson’s identification of the protracted and difficult task of writing such a long middle act in Fields’s model, what Thompson’s “complicating action” act and “development” act provide is more structure. With Thompson’s description of the “complicating action” act’s necessity for a new situation for the protagonist to face followed by the “development” act’s description as the bulk of the protagonist’s struggle towards their goal(s), there is a clear difference in the two parts that now constitute Fields’s amorphous middle act.

Thus, Thompson’s revised model provides advantages for screenwriters and screen-watchers alike. For screenwriters, more structure allows for an easier way to ideate and capture the “dramatic logic” so important to an interesting and engaging screenplay. For screen-watchers, this four-act model allows for clearer expectations regarding traditional Hollywood films, which can translate to heightened awareness and easier identification of important plot points and segments, increasing audience engagement and information retention.

This latter result is directly relevant to Thompson’s focus on the Hollywood cinema consumer: the audience member. According to Thompson, the very basis for the need for narrative models is so that films can be more engaging to audiences, with each segment of the narrative achieving what is hopefully an optimal length to prevent both the shortchanging of information provided to the audience and the boredom wrought from unnecessarily-drawn out plotlines. With Thompson’s newly-enumerated middle acts, this can be accomplished much easier with clear guidelines that can keep a movie’s plot moving along at both a concise and engaging pace.

An interesting question posed by Thompson revolves around just how Fields’s three-act model came to be such commonplace in Hollywood films’ narrative tradition. Thompson has two theories. The first possibility is that the three-act model is truly the most optimal segmentation for Hollywood films, where less-optimal segmentation methods have been phased out and selected against through years of the optimality of Hollywood films being judged by the reviews of critics and the revenue generated from moviegoers. The second possibility is that the Hollywood academic tradition of learning how to screen write from watching past films has created a positive feedback mechanism, wherein the current prevalence of three-act model narratives is simply the result of its popularity in past films and not evidence of its innate optimality.

Personally, I believe that both theories are not mutually exclusive and that both have played a part in the modern prevalence of the three-part narrative model seen in so many Hollywood films. I also do not see Thompson and Fields’s narrative models as mutually exclusive. In tandem, it seems very possible that both models will continue to be perpetuated and popularized by both the academic tradition of Hollywood screenwriters as well as the easily-digestible, engagement-conducive nature of these structured narrative models.

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Thompson, Kristin, Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999

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