Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Shaun of the Dead

If you've never seen this spoof of a zombie film, you owe yourself as a writer to see it. Why? Not because it's brilliant, although it does have its moments, but because it's a great example of all those things that screenwriters are supposed to do. You want a three-act structure, with internal and external conflicts linked inexorably in a life-and-death struggle through the main character? He's right there. Trying to figure out how to build a main character around a strong desire and a single misbehavior? There he is. Want to see how to exploit character to develop backstory? Make him a bored, lazy TV salesman who doesn't actually hear what's being reported on the 32 televisions in the room.

One good thing about both spoofs and zombie films is that a key to their success is playing to audience expectations. You can't spoof a genre unless you portray it accurately. You can't have a zombie film without references to all the other zombie films.

This is valuable because the same basic three-act structure is used in everything from romantic comedies to action-adventures and historical epics. If you don't believe me, try a little experiment. Watch Shaun of the Dead. Stop the DVD every ten minutes or so, and write a sentence or two to describe what you've seen. You should have ten to twelve sentences. Now watch "Young Guns". Do the same thing. Now try "How Stella Got Her Groove Back." Look at when and how the main problem is introduced. Look at how the problem escalates every ten minutes. Look at how the main character grows. Look at the climax, and how it resolves the internal and external conflicts. Even when the problems are different, the answers all come from the same basic place.

I could also point to any number of really bad films with the same structure. It's not the fact of using this three-act structure that makes a film work. It's how you use it. If it's a tool that helps you develop something original and new, you're doing your job as a writer.

3 comments:

Janis said...

i watched Shaun of the Dead not to long ago and was taking notes on what all the major plot points were and I noticed the same thing. it is like a text book case. also the protagonist, antagonist and their goals are crystal clear. But it amazes me that if I hadn't been looking for these elements I would never have noticed...

A. Dr. Fibes said...

Yes, the three act structure is how our brains are programmed. We use it in everday conversation: "I went to the park the other day" -- "I saw a street vedor so I bought a hot dog" -- "I was in bed for a week from food poisoning" Simple yet infomative.

Is there any movies with four or five acts? Anyone know...

Rich said...

@ dr. fibes.. Plenty of good writers think in terms of four, five, or seven acts. Syd Field (who's a pain in the ass, in my book) basically takes the 3-act structure and turns it into four acts by emphasizing the midpoint. The key for me is that all this stuff is a tool, not a rule. Having the discipline of an act structure helps you communicate to an audience, but there are plenty of act structures out there. One of the best, most successful screenwriters I've worked with gets hives when you so much as mention three acts.