Visual Story Network


Jeremy Casper knocked it out of the park with this 30-minute overview on the three-act structure. Here is the download of his PowerPoint slides. Thank you Jeremy. You can email Jeremy at jercasper@gmail.com. Here is a teaser of what you will get...

What makes a story? Somebody wants something badly and goes after it against great odds.

Act 1: Somebody wants something badly

Act 2: And goes after it against great odds.

Act 3:  Did they get the "something" they wanted so badly?

This was recorded as part of our Story Seminar on January 21, 2014. 

Biography: Jeremy Casper is a writer/director/producer from Los Angeles.  He recently completed his first feature film, Vacant House, which premiered at the United Film Festival and won the first-place for best screenplay at the CineRockCom International Film Festival 2013.  Jeremy has worked professionally in the film industry at Warner Brothers and interned at James Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment during the production of Titanic.  Jeremy teaches at the Los Angeles Film Studies Center where he has helped develop over 600 short films.  He is currently co-authoring The Inside/Out Story, a book on story structure for short films.  He has led filmmaking seminars in Egypt, Ukraine, Ethiopia, New Zealand, Australia, and Italy.  

For speaking engagements, you may reach Jeremy at jeremyc@lafsc.com.

_________________________________________________________________________________

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Hi,

My response to this needs to be very measured, I think, as I don't believe that there is a three-act structure wired in our brains.

Aristotle in his 'Poetics' wrote that "A whole is what must have a beginning and middle and end." (circa 335 BCE). This was his view of the protatis, epitasis and catastrophe and we find this in the theatre of his day. Along then comes the Roman (drama critic), Horace and he starts to promote a 5-Act Structure, which was a practice followed in Renaissance theatre (even Shakespeare produced plays along this model). Much later (19th Century), Ibsen experimented with 3 and 4 act plays.

My worries are two, maybe even threefold:

1. We begin to think by following this 3 Act pattern that we will have a good story and (box-office) successful film.

2. What we are actually talking about is not cinematic storytelling, but filming theatrical performances and in doing so we do not develop the visual language of cinema.

Oh, here comes a third...

3. The 3 Act structure is something we read eisegetically and not exegetically.

Paul Schrader, somewhere, I can't remember at this moment, talked about the essential element for a film is not a 3 Act structure but a 'central metaphor'.  3AS is not something which guarantees success, either as a good story or for box-office returns. If, as Jeremy claimed, 95% of all Hollywood films follow this model, then it has to be said that most of them bomb! As an aside, the central metaphor is something which is, in my mind, the best way to produce a short film and not cram a 1st Act into 2 pages!

The first thing we as writers of screenplays should be focusing on are the characters and the world they live in. We should not be enforcing our time-frames onto their world. We have to learn to listen to what our characters are saying and allow them to lead us. Then I believe we can edit it for rhythm, flow and pace, but to say that at page whatever, this has to happen is form me so prescriptive, it lacks artistry and has more to do with mathematics than storytelling.

So (historically) there is no evolutionary or creational wiring for a 3 act structure, but there are many theories about what theatrical drama is. 3AS is just one of them. Unfortunately one which in particular has found its way into filmmaking.

Andrei Tarkovsky and Robert Bresson were both concerned that a filmmaker's focus on reproducing theatrical performances, would restrict the development of a truly cinematic language. And Tarkovsky in particular was suspicious of the claims of 'method'.

"What passes for art today is for the most part fiction, for it is a fallacy to suppose that method can become the meaning and aim of art. Nonetheless, most modern artists spend their time self-indulgently demonstrating method." [Sculpting in Time, p96]

It was the great American cinematographer Gordon Willis,  who said 'there is no formula'. In his view he could not teach you a way of creating a successful scene, or film, but only what was right for the story you were trying to tell. You have to experiment, to play with location and scene, then create the right mood or atmosphere. I think it is the same for screenwriters.

Hi Geoff,

 

Thank you so much for your response.  I believe it is so crucial that filmmakers, regardless of their faith, have these kinds of discussions about the methods of art and cinematic expression; this is how we grow and learn.

 

A great many of the points you made are excellent, and I agree with many of them.  To say that all stories can and should be told in a simple three-act formula is over-reaching.  Not only is the process of following three-act structure NOT a guarantee for success, some of the most poorly executed films ever made follow three-act structure to a tee!  The scope and execution of storytelling is infinitely greater than what can be defined in three acts or 10 essential story beats. 

 

I also agree with you that our eisegetical analysis of three-act-structure blinds us to the reasons why ancient stories were originally told to begin with.  The themes of ancient myth stand in sharp contrast to the themes of our modern stories.  And, to champion the sole use of this ancient “structure” to tell modern stories that endeavor to elevate themes of Western culture, is a misunderstanding of the core nature of myth and also very shortsighted.

 

However, with all of that said, I contend that learning three-act structure is still a great place to start. 

 

Many artistic disciplines have core, indisputable methods of execution that are regarded by artists as the “physical laws,” per se, of their media – music is a great example.  But, cinema is still in its infancy or at least its adolescence – okay, MAYBE its confusing twenties at best.  We have experienced seasons of masterful, cinematic storytelling in the past, as well as depressive slumps like American cinema is experiencing now.  Cinema is still finding its way.

 

Three-act structure is actually a very small part of what I usually teach.  One of my greatest complaints about film schools is the fact that we teach students how to make feature films and then ask them to execute what they’ve learned in short films – two entirely different beasts!  Short films, in my opinion, are at their best when they tend to follow more classic models of fairy tale and fable.  I also believe that shorts (even more so than features) are one of the greatest mediums in which the art of cinema can be pushed to its limits. 

 

Three-act structure is a highly oversimplified recapitulation of classic mythological structure, that is in essence a road-map of the male psyche, rooted deeply in cultures that placed high value on rites-of-passage for young male initiates.  These stories were crafted by men, made for men, most often to preserve cultures, values, and the morals of their masculine driven worlds.

 

Therefore, for me to say that this “machismo” form of storytelling is the method we should follow to tell all stories would be nearsighted.  There are many ways we can tell stories.  But, telling stories about single characters facing antagonistic forces as they work to overcome very specific problems is a tried and true method of storytelling that has historically, and irrefutably proven to work. 

 

As an educator, one of my jobs is to make accessible the inaccessible.  It is my job to whittle down complex ideas into easily digestible bits of information for whatever level my students are at.  The danger that exists (as is the case in any discipline) is if the artist fails to move forward and never graduates beyond that starting point.  Based on observation, experience, working with countless filmmakers, and workshopping over 800 short films, there are some things I have observed over and over again, and the most poignant of all those observations is this – most students in film school are learning how to shoot beautiful images and how to work with the latest equipment, but very few of them are learning how to tell stories. 

The type of storytelling you’re suggesting, I believe should be the highest calling of the artist who has devoted themselves to a lifetime of mastering the craft of filmmaking, but most filmmakers won’t achieve that level of storytelling for years… if they ever do at all. 


The vast majority of filmmakers are not Terence Malicks or Kieślowskis.  Should we be training filmmakers to think in terms of visual poetics when it comes to telling their stories? Absolutely!  But to expect filmmakers to begin there is like expecting a novice violinist to master Vivaldi overnight.  To me, learning three-act structure is like a pianist learning their scales – it doesn’t always make sense when you’re learning it, but down the road it will prove to be invaluable.

 

There is such a huge difference between confusion and provocation.  I have critiqued so many short films shot by filmmakers who were trained in the art of filmmaking; they’ve shot from the depths of their hearts; they’ve artfully executed the language of cinema in all of their compositions and sequences… yet, they still created films that are utter and complete messes.  And the reason why?  Despite all of their training, and their high level of visual literacy, very few of them were taught some of the most basic, simple tenants of storytelling – or in other words, they never practiced their scales. 

 

What is the objective of most people who utilize the resources on this website?  Is it to make artistic films only accessible by a very small hand full of highly visually-trained people, or is it to craft beautiful stories that resonate with as large of an audience as possible.  The basic principles outlined in three-act structure have historically proven to resonate with large audiences.  I WILL concede that most books on three-act structure (including my lecture) are gross oversimplifications of the classic mythological journey – which, you’re correct, does NOT follow a tidy three-act structure.  Storytelling is infinitely broad (…But, cut me a little slack, I only had 20 minutes to talk about all of this – haha).

 

The last point I’ll make is this.  The more I study films, the more I make films, the more I critique films – the more I realize that “feature” screenwriting is, more than any other medium of storytelling, at its core, a medium of structure.  There is a bit more “wiggle room” when it comes to shorts, but even then, I do not believe we’re doing students a disservice by teaching them basic three-act structure, at least when they first begin their journeys of becoming storytellers.  And, in regards to short films, I’ve seen many short films that follow three-act structure and are NOT condensed features; they are short films that follow these principles, and they work beautifully.

 

When I’m asked to lecture outside of my usual college setting, my ultimate goal is to encourage - encourage people to get over their fear of the writing process, to understand some very basic storytelling techniques, and to jumpstart their creativity.  I hope that I have opportunities in the future with the Visual Story Network to delve much deeper into the specific medium of short films, explore with students other ways of telling stories, and to discuss the thing that film does better than any other storytelling medium – and that is to tell stories through visual poetics and the language of imagery.

 

With the highest respect for your eloquently stated opinions,

Jeremy Casper

 

PS – And to be honest, I’m actually more of a 5-Act structure guy anyway… (wink wink)

Wow! Thank you for your remarks Geoff  and Jeremy. It is my goal to encourage people to start with the basics and build as they progress in their craft. Thank you for saying that so eloquently Jeremy.

Hi Jeremy,

Thanks for your calm response! yesterday was a bad day for talking to those who are academically situated, so I checked your reply through my grill-like fingers.

So, yes I can see the advantages of understanding structure and working away from that. 

I have read many discussions about the 3AS and most have perpetuated the myth that it will cover the cracks of bad storytelling and character development. It is the silver bullet to kill evil or the magic spell to bring success!

Yes, I agree Kieslowski didn't start with poetic cinema, but with documentary (cinema verite) productions. He then saw the folly of trying to film objective truth and felt that as soon as you bring a camera to a location, then people change.

Terrence Malick. Yes again, absolutely true and am I right in thinking that 'To the Wonder' only had a treatment and that the 'script' was worked on in an improvisational, see what works kind of way? No new filmmaker would ever get the green-light for a project that way!

Adolescence? Yes, I agree. I think filmmaking with its fixation on sex and violence and the ensuing voyeuristic experience for the audience is all a sign that puberty has kicked in. However, I think we should be the very people who change this around, not from a moralistic point-of-view, but from a good stewardly practice for storytelling. That we raise the bar and ask the questions that go deeper than sexuality, romance and self-indulgent violent lifestyles.

Tarkovsky of course has a different view! And we of him. We so often think of him as a creator of 'poetic cinema', but we also have to remember his war film (Ivan's Childhood) and his science-fiction story (Solaris) alongside the more poetic 'Mirror'.

I have read and scribbled all over Schrader's book 'A Transcendental Style in Film' (such was my excitement) and I think he concords with Tarkovsky's view of film being more closely allied with music than any other artform. In Transcendental Style, Schrader makes the case for Ozu's poetic style as being, well I guess we could call them movements

  1. the 'everyday' - mundane events
  2. disparity (conflict) - something doesn't quite add up!
  3. Stasis - a frozen view. An iconic moment there for us to reflect on reality.

Now, I think Schrader's exemplars are for, in our terms, cinema history. But...I do believe that framing the story in such a way is more flexible and playful than a mathematical approach to plot delivery. There is another element within this which Schrader explore and that is irony, where this is the way the characters cope with the disparities of life, when they can't find resolution. Stasis speaks of a fimmaker's ability to freeze time and allow the audience to reflect, to ponder the state of the world they are observing as it passes by their eyes. ('Tokyo Story' is a great example of this).

I would like to think that we could develop this idea amongst students of film, but alas we never seem to get beyond 3AS! I see many students come out of film school with technique, but with no storytelling ability whatsoever.  They know how to frame and light a scene, but their stories are basically pastiches of the filmmakers they have been studying. Life is till waiting to happen, maybe?

And all of this, as I endeavour to make my first feature, which strangely works along the central metaphor of 'seeing rachel'. It's a psychological thriller about trafficking and organised crime and has elements of transcendental style, but also explores the influences of psychological masters such as Hitchcock, Pakula and Shyamalan. All really good fun, with only a hint of my own psychosis! I'm moving away from both the docu-drama approach and the sensationalist 'social realism' of many filmmakers, when they focus on trafficking. We have to develop a different way of engaging with our audience on this issue, otherwise we risk hardening peoples' hearts with our shock tactics or dry matter-of-factness.

I would like to think that a more mature style of filmmaking would involve a move away from the methods of theatre. Perhaps we could show students the possibilities for that?

(And no puns about you being a 5-Act wolf dressed up in 3-Act sheep's clothing!) Oh drat, sorry I just succumbed to the pressure!!

Best Wishes,

Geoff


Jeremy Casper said:

Hi Geoff,

 

Thank you so much for your response.  I believe it is so crucial that filmmakers, regardless of their faith, have these kinds of discussions about the methods of art and cinematic expression; this is how we grow and learn.

 

A great many of the points you made are excellent, and I agree with many of them.  To say that all stories can and should be told in a simple three-act formula is over-reaching.  Not only is the process of following three-act structure NOT a guarantee for success, some of the most poorly executed films ever made follow three-act structure to a tee!  The scope and execution of storytelling is infinitely greater than what can be defined in three acts or 10 essential story beats. 

 

I also agree with you that our eisegetical analysis of three-act-structure blinds us to the reasons why ancient stories were originally told to begin with.  The themes of ancient myth stand in sharp contrast to the themes of our modern stories.  And, to champion the sole use of this ancient “structure” to tell modern stories that endeavor to elevate themes of Western culture, is a misunderstanding of the core nature of myth and also very shortsighted.

 

However, with all of that said, I contend that learning three-act structure is still a great place to start. 

 

Many artistic disciplines have core, indisputable methods of execution that are regarded by artists as the “physical laws,” per se, of their media – music is a great example.  But, cinema is still in its infancy or at least its adolescence – okay, MAYBE its confusing twenties at best.  We have experienced seasons of masterful, cinematic storytelling in the past, as well as depressive slumps like American cinema is experiencing now.  Cinema is still finding its way.

 

Three-act structure is actually a very small part of what I usually teach.  One of my greatest complaints about film schools is the fact that we teach students how to make feature films and then ask them to execute what they’ve learned in short films – two entirely different beasts!  Short films, in my opinion, are at their best when they tend to follow more classic models of fairy tale and fable.  I also believe that shorts (even more so than features) are one of the greatest mediums in which the art of cinema can be pushed to its limits. 

 

Three-act structure is a highly oversimplified recapitulation of classic mythological structure, that is in essence a road-map of the male psyche, rooted deeply in cultures that placed high value on rites-of-passage for young male initiates.  These stories were crafted by men, made for men, most often to preserve cultures, values, and the morals of their masculine driven worlds.

 

Therefore, for me to say that this “machismo” form of storytelling is the method we should follow to tell all stories would be nearsighted.  There are many ways we can tell stories.  But, telling stories about single characters facing antagonistic forces as they work to overcome very specific problems is a tried and true method of storytelling that has historically, and irrefutably proven to work. 

 

As an educator, one of my jobs is to make accessible the inaccessible.  It is my job to whittle down complex ideas into easily digestible bits of information for whatever level my students are at.  The danger that exists (as is the case in any discipline) is if the artist fails to move forward and never graduates beyond that starting point.  Based on observation, experience, working with countless filmmakers, and workshopping over 800 short films, there are some things I have observed over and over again, and the most poignant of all those observations is this – most students in film school are learning how to shoot beautiful images and how to work with the latest equipment, but very few of them are learning how to tell stories. 

The type of storytelling you’re suggesting, I believe should be the highest calling of the artist who has devoted themselves to a lifetime of mastering the craft of filmmaking, but most filmmakers won’t achieve that level of storytelling for years… if they ever do at all. 


The vast majority of filmmakers are not Terence Malicks or Kieślowskis.  Should we be training filmmakers to think in terms of visual poetics when it comes to telling their stories? Absolutely!  But to expect filmmakers to begin there is like expecting a novice violinist to master Vivaldi overnight.  To me, learning three-act structure is like a pianist learning their scales – it doesn’t always make sense when you’re learning it, but down the road it will prove to be invaluable.

 

There is such a huge difference between confusion and provocation.  I have critiqued so many short films shot by filmmakers who were trained in the art of filmmaking; they’ve shot from the depths of their hearts; they’ve artfully executed the language of cinema in all of their compositions and sequences… yet, they still created films that are utter and complete messes.  And the reason why?  Despite all of their training, and their high level of visual literacy, very few of them were taught some of the most basic, simple tenants of storytelling – or in other words, they never practiced their scales. 

 

What is the objective of most people who utilize the resources on this website?  Is it to make artistic films only accessible by a very small hand full of highly visually-trained people, or is it to craft beautiful stories that resonate with as large of an audience as possible.  The basic principles outlined in three-act structure have historically proven to resonate with large audiences.  I WILL concede that most books on three-act structure (including my lecture) are gross oversimplifications of the classic mythological journey – which, you’re correct, does NOT follow a tidy three-act structure.  Storytelling is infinitely broad (…But, cut me a little slack, I only had 20 minutes to talk about all of this – haha).

 

The last point I’ll make is this.  The more I study films, the more I make films, the more I critique films – the more I realize that “feature” screenwriting is, more than any other medium of storytelling, at its core, a medium of structure.  There is a bit more “wiggle room” when it comes to shorts, but even then, I do not believe we’re doing students a disservice by teaching them basic three-act structure, at least when they first begin their journeys of becoming storytellers.  And, in regards to short films, I’ve seen many short films that follow three-act structure and are NOT condensed features; they are short films that follow these principles, and they work beautifully.

 

When I’m asked to lecture outside of my usual college setting, my ultimate goal is to encourage - encourage people to get over their fear of the writing process, to understand some very basic storytelling techniques, and to jumpstart their creativity.  I hope that I have opportunities in the future with the Visual Story Network to delve much deeper into the specific medium of short films, explore with students other ways of telling stories, and to discuss the thing that film does better than any other storytelling medium – and that is to tell stories through visual poetics and the language of imagery.

 

With the highest respect for your eloquently stated opinions,

Jeremy Casper

 

PS – And to be honest, I’m actually more of a 5-Act structure guy anyway… (wink wink)

Geoff, you caught me!  "And no puns about you being a 5-Act wolf dressed up in 3-Act sheep's clothing!"
BUSTED!

Once again, such GREAT points.

I completely agree.  To say that cinema is at its best when we only utilize it for the purpose of telling dramatic stories is a narrow-minded view of the power of the medium.  The art of cinema has not been fully realized.

I hope, someday I am making films that transcend "records of drama" and push film to its maximum potential.

What can film do that other mediums absolutely cannot do?  What is the unique art form of cinema?

I wish you all the best with your feature film.  Please post your progress and relay the story discovers you make along the way.


All the best, my friend!
Jeremy

What a great example of lively, even heated debate, done gracefully. Wish this could be reprinted somewhere with marginal notes by Clyde!

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