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.


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

Classical Hollywood Narration and its Limits

By Kelly Mu 😀

In his essay Classical Hollywood Cinema: Narrational Principles and Procedurals, Bordwell seeks to highlight how classical Hollywood narration constitutes a specific and normalised way of representing and presenting a particular story, through manipulation of compositional style and techniques. According to Bordwell, there are three components, or purposes of a narrative: representation, structure and act. Bordwell focuses on the former two to show how classical Hollywood narration (prevalent in American films in the 1960s and 1970s) is able to differentiate itself from other narrative modes.

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A Brief Visual History of Virtual Reality

by Charlie Gallagher

I began trying to understand virtual reality (VR) by looking at its early history. This clarified how VR came to be; however, it left me with more questions than when I started. Chief among them was how to define VR. For this, I turned to the Crerar library and eventually to reading a large portion of the textbook Understanding Virtual Reality, by William Sherman and Alan Craig. While it was an excellent text, it was very vague in defining virtual reality. This led me to investigate how VR works. I began to understand virtual reality as a give and take between the many types of inputs fed to a VR system and their corresponding outputs. While my understanding increased, I was not much closer to a working definition. My goal with this blog is to trace out a brief history of VR to supplement my power-point (link at the end).

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Immersion: How Punchdrunk Moves You

by Ben Ratchford

Punchdrunk is best described as an immersive theatrical experience. It is structured as follows: spectators enter an abandoned warehouse or office space or other such nondescript building, dressed all alike and wearing masks which obscure their whole faces – they are instructed not to speak. After the opening, spectators may find a number of different “scenes” throughout the building, where unmasked actors play out different moments in the story, which move, change, and interact with one another at all times throughout the show, and in which the audience members are, at times, encouraged to participate, either by interacting with the environment, or directly with characters themselves. Thus the audience members, although they must wear masks and cannot speak, have the opportunity to (or, more often, have no choice but to) get close up to developing scenes and engage with the world in front of them.

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Spirited Away: A Masterclass on Color, Sound, and Silence

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By Paul Chang

Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece Spirited Away (2001) tells the story of a ten-year old girl, Chihiro, and her trials through the world of spirits.  Chihiro first appears to be a normal, if a bit sullen and introspective, child.  However, she encounters a series of shocks: her parents are turned into pigs; she cannot leave because the river has flooded; she starts turning into a spirit herself before Haku helps her, and so forth.  Despite these unexpected changes, Chihiro handles the challenges with aplomb.  She persists and earns a job from Yubaaba, the bathhouse witch, then earns the respect and trust of many bathhouse guests by cleaning the river spirit and by taming the No-Face spirit.  Chihiro thus grows through her triumphs and setbacks and emerges with a mature, intelligent demeanor when she finally leaves the mystical land with her (human) parents.

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Photography in Cel Animation

by Niky Charouzová

Though used rarely today, celluloid animation has brought us many cartoons and animated movie classics, such as the Looney Tunes series by Warner Bros, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by Walt Disney Productions, or the first 13 seasons of The Simpsons by 20th Century Fox. The production method of celluloid animation consists of drawings that are made on plastic sheets called cels, which are photographed in sequence in order to provide the illusion of movement. On rare occasions, errors do occur in the photographing of cels; this occurs namely in accidentally taking a photograph of the cel with the camera operator’s fingers in it, reflecting the camera apparatus in the cel so that it is seen in the frame, or improperly placing the cels on top of each other, resulting in colour changes in the frame. Dust and dirt particles can also accumulate on the film, as can the fingerprints of the cameraman. Hannah Frank’s Traces of the World challenges a theory of cinema where it is believed that “the animation camera is only incidental to the cartoon’s production”, rather than being a key part in it (Frank 23). Be it with mistakes or without, celluloid animation is arguably a phenomenon that, per Andrew Wilson’s claim, “reveal[s] traces of the humans and technology that produced them” (Frank 23).

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Cel Animation and Novelty

by Emil Sohlberg

As studios ramped up the production of live-action features, hand-drawn animation underwent a similar revolution with the invention of cel animation. Cel animation was defined by the division of an animated shot onto different transparent celluloids, which could then be overlaid. With this technique, a background, which previously would have been redrawn for every frame, could be reused for a scene, while just the cels that contained the movements of characters would be updated. Even moving characters could be split into different cels; after all, if the only moving part of a character was their face, then their body could be reused if on a separate sheet of celluloid. While inherently cost- and labor-saving, cel animation also allowed for a natural specialization in the animation process, where different animators could work on the same scene simultaneously by splitting that scene’s cels, with some working on backgrounds, or on character poses, and so on.

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