I had been thinking about movies and the studio-system’s somewhat slavish devotion to “three act structure”, which more and more I’m seeing as a big problem in modern cinema, and too often I’m seeing that same advice being given to novelists. And that’s a shame, because three-act structure is bad advice for movies, and it’s downright horrible for novels.
That’s partly because “three act structure” is more or less another way of saying “beginning, middle and end”. And that’s where a lot of screenwriters and novelists get into trouble: “Act 2 problems” or “the murky middle”. It’s because, when you come down to it, “rising action” doesn’t really give you a lot to go on. It’s a fancy way of saying “more stuff happens until the finale”, but that tends to get translated into wheel-spinning and “refusing the call” (in Campbellian terms) as a way to mark time until the finale happens.*
This is the problem in using tools of deconstruction and analysis and trying to use them for construction and creation. They aren’t meant to be used that way. Now, admittedly, I did use deconstruction and analysis to create the Twelve-Part Structure, but I did it as a means of making a tool of construction and creation.
I could probably go on for a bit on the perils of three-act structure and using analysis tools for creation, but I won’t. I will, however, point out how things that succeed at being at engaging don’t use three-act structure. And when I saw the Twelve-Part Structure so evident in Avengers, I was pretty damn gleeful.**
Some spoilers from here on out.
Establishment: Loki shows up out of the Cosmic Cube, enthralls Hawkeye and Dr. Solveig, SHIELD fails to stop him. With this, we establish the world and the stakes– namely, this is a world where stuff like this happens.
Incitement: Gather the Team sequences: Fury talks to Cap, Natasha shows her skills and recruits Banner, Coulson talks to Tony.
Challenge: Loki begins his “distraction” plan in Germany, where Hawkeye does the real plan. Cap fights Loki, and then Tony shows up and subdues him.
Altercation: Thor shows up to take Loki, and then Tony and Thor and Cap all fight each other over essentially jurisdiction issues.
Payback: Loki is locked up, but all the Team squabbles with each other over petty tings. In other words, Loki’s subtle discord is sewn.
Regrouping: Natasha gets info out of Loki, the Team gets a better sense over what’s actually happening.
Collapse: Intergroup squabbling reaches a fevered pitch, as they discover SHIELD’s plans for the Cosmic Cube. Hawkeye attacks the Helicarrier.
Retreat: Hulk smash, Tony and Cap work on keeping the Helicarrier in the air, Loki escapes and kills Coulson.
Recovery: Tony and Cap fix the Helicarrier, Natasha smacks Hawkeye’s head back together, Bruce wakes up with Harry Dean Stanton.
Investment: Coulson’s bloody Captain America cards, Tony gives his Big Speech to Loki, and the portal of Alien Destruction opens up.
Confrontation: BIG. DAMN. FIGHT.
Resolution: Hulk smashes the puny God. Tony throws a nuke at the aliens. Natasha closes the portal. Loki is captured, Thor brings him home. Fury gives a speech. Shawarma.
Yeah, you could break that into “three acts”, but you’d be being pretty reductive about what actually happens. Whedon was essentially given “three acts” by the studio people (namely, “Heroes come together, then they fight each other and split apart, and then they come together for Big Damn Fight”). With a lesser script that could have ended up as more wheelspinning non-action– or worse, some kind of Plot Coupon collection in lieu of an actual story in the middle.*** Instead, with a more complicated structure, you get a FAR more engaging work.
*- Another superhero movie example: Green Lantern. That’s just full of wheel-spinning until the third-act turn where Hal Jordan, the supposedly fearless guy with near-limitless power, finally decides that maybe he should try and do something. And by “do something” I mean tell a bunch of people he previously blew off that they should do something.
**- I am NOT claiming that Whedon is aware of my Twelve-Part Structure, or that he necessarily used it or a similar framework. It’s more that Twelve-Part Structure fits as a framework quite nicely.
***- I’m looking at you, Percy Jackson movie.