I was going through my worklist of the last several weeks, and realized I'd consulted or worked on two sci-fi features, several commercials, a documentary, a couple dramas, a historical epic, a buddy movie caper, a musical, a horror flick and, of course, Mr. Gary on the Feedback Show.
I'm a little amazed. What's amazing to me is what all these have in common: the three-act structure. It doesn't matter if your movie is 30 seconds long or 3 hours. It needs that basic structure, and, in each case, there's a structure that your viewer is already conditioned to expect.
Now the specifics of how you hook a viewer into your personal documentary is quite different from how you hook them into a horror movie. But the mechanism is the same. You frame up your story. You ask a big question. You point to the central struggle. And then you follow through.
The same can be said about just about any other beat in the structure. The climax of a commercial can be defined with the same elements as the climax in the musical, or the sci-fi epic, or Mr. Gary. Your choices and your execution will be very, very different of course. But how you come up with those choices is much the same.
Screenwriters read lots of books about the three-act structure. They quibble over Syd Field vs. Robert McKee vs. Linda Seger. Just remember that what they're all talking about is really audience reception -- that boilerplate that's burned indelibly into our skulls through years of watching movies, musicals, commercials, and whatever else. They have different ways of talking about this structure. And they differentiate themselves out because it helps sell books.
But the three-act structure is nothing more or less than the gateway into a mystery. It's there, and you know it when you see it. But it's too slippery to be a straightforward roadmap. It's a set of guideposts that let you figure out your story. When I'm consulting with a filmmaker, they give us a way to navigate our thoughts. When I'm working alone, the structure is my devil's advocate, telling me what doesn't work, and why. The key is listening to that audience member in your head. Sometimes he's the best collaborator you'll find.