The Act Formula

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  • #31
    My Diatribe about Aristotle and 3-Act Structure

    Some people believe that Aristotle set down in stone the mandate that a story should have Three-Acts. However, a careful study of the Poetics shows that Aristotle was speaking about the scope, or magnitude of the Plot, not the desired structure of the entire play when he states in Chapter VII, "A whole is that which has a beginning, middle, and End." Nowhere in the Poetics is there any mention of the number of Acts which make up a play, or any mention of Acts at all, because plays in Aristotle's day were not written in Acts.

    ACT I
    The Poetics was written nearly 2500 years ago as a larger work covering all aspects of poetry. It exists today only in fragments, and scholars are uncertain whether it is a text intended for reading, or merely a series of lecture notes. It is, at best, incomplete. The sections on Epic Poetry, Comedy, Dithyrambic Poetry, and possibly others, no longer exist except in passing references in the extent section on Tragedy. So right off the bat we have a problem with the Poetics. How can a system of laws about all dramatic stories be established from a work which purports to only discuss one genre of drama? Logically, not a particularly defensible position.

    Aristotle labeled six elements of drama: Spectacle, Song, Diction, Plot, Character, and Thought. From there he argued that in regards to Tragedy, Plot was the most important of the six elements. Plot he defines in Chapter VI as, "...for by Plot, I mean the arrangement of the Incidents." An Incident refers to a spoken scene with two or three characters. Unlike the vast majority of our own drama, Greek Tragedy contained songs, sung by a Chorus, between each Incident (also called an Episode, or in our vernacular, a scene). The songs were used to explore the feelings and motivations of the characters. The choral song was an integral part of the Tragedy. It was the primary vehicle for establishing and developing setting and characters within the play.

    ACT II
    From his definition in Chapter VI of the parts of a Tragedy, he moves on to a discussion of the proper Magnitude of the Plot in Chapter VII. It is this discussion of Magnitude that has been misinterpreted by some modern critics. What is Aristotle getting at in this discussion? In Chapter IV there is a passage regarding the history of Drama, "It was not until late that the short plot was discarded for one of greater compass, ..." Aristotle's audience, at the time of the Poetics, was well aware of recent trends in their theater. They knew that Choral Competitions, which had been around for several hundred years at that point, gave rise to drama when singers stepped forward from the chorus and started to "act out" parts of the narrative they were singing. This lead to speeches; thusly parts of the narrative were dramatized in monologues. At first only the most dramatic moments at the end of the story were dramatized with everything else being handled in narrative song by the chorus. Over time more and more of the story was dramatized. Actors were beginning to take precedence over the chorus. The convention for nearly a century was to have only one actor on stage at a time. Then Aeschylus, a contemporary of Aristotle, added a second actor to some scenes, thus creating what we would know as a true scene, but still using the convention of the chorus and songs. It was another ten or twenty years before Sophocles added a third actor to some scenes. This was the convention of Tragedy at the time of the Poetics.

    Why was Aristotle so concerned with the compass of tragedies? Theater in Aristotle's day was presented at festivals and competitions, and was largely an amateur undertaking. There were some professionals, but they were the exceptions. This abundance of amateur work probably made for some dreadful theater. Combine that with most writers still using the older convention of relying on choral song for the bulk of the narrative and just dramatizing the last couple scenes of the story, and it is easy to see why Sophocles won so many drama competitions. Chapter VII is a discussion of how much of the story to dramatize in the incidents, or scenes. It was meant as a directive for the lesser playwrights of Aristotle's time to stop merely dramatizing the one or two juicy scenes at the end of the story.

    ACT III
    From the second paragraph of Chapter VII, the notion of 3-Act structure was born. Modern critics have taken the admonition that the compass and arrangement of the incidents should have a beginning, middle, and end, relabeled them Act One, Act Two, and Act Three, and dumped the bulk of the rest of Aristotle's ruminations. The most important thing to remember when reading Chapter VII of the Poetics is that Aristotle is only discussing the Plot, one of six elements comprising a tragedy. And Chapter VI tells us that "Plot" is merely the arrangement of the incidents.

    CONCLUSION
    The Poetics is well worth reading, but it is not the primer on dramatic structure that many screenwriting gurus would have you believe. Aristotle loved Tragedy, and his words have been tragically taken out of context. This has been my attempt to provide the proper context for chapter VII of the Poetics.

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    • #32
      Re: My Diatribe about Aristotle and 3-Act Structure

      "The Poetics is . . . not the primer on dramatic structure that many screenwriting gurus would have you believe."

      I can't think of one screenwriting guru who ever said or wrote or even suggested that THE POETICS was a "primer on dramatic structure" for the screenplay. Read carefully my posts above.

      However, not a bad synopsis of THE POETICS above. Just off the point of my posts. But I appreciate it anyway.

      :smokin

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      • #33
        Re: My Diatribe about Aristotle and 3-Act Structure

        My point was not that story should not be written outside the three act structure. My point was that it's not a great way to go for newbies without an agent. Sure some awesome movies have been made totally blowing that stucture away, but is it worth the risk to an unknown scriptwriter? I personally don't think so.

        I think you can flex your creativity a hell of a lot more with some clout under your belt.

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        • #34
          Re: My Diatribe about Aristotle and 3-Act Structure

          okay, one last try. I never said that writers should reject the 3 act structure. I said it's so simplistic that it's not really useful. It's like wanting to design a house and following the "rule" that there should be a basement, a first floor and a second floor. Any semi-well written story is going to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. That's not what's going to sell your script.

          Going deeper than the 3 act structure is not breaking rules or taking risks. I can look at a story that has any number of turning points and reversals and pick three of them and say they represent the inciting incident and act breaks. But if I then removed all the other turning points the story would collapse.

          that's all I'm tryin to say here.

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