POSTS Screenwriting

Binary Character Psychology: Restorative Three-Act Structure

In order to be distinct, acts tend to inflict extreme choices. Bud is either with Gekko or he is not; Crash is either with Annie or he isn’t; there is no middle ground. As the strength of the restorative three-act structure is its use of progressive acts to chart a progression of character, we see the either/or quality transposed onto character. To side with Gekko, Bud has to turn on his family and their values. To reject Annie, Crash, overtaken by his pride, rejects his romanticism.

Photo by Mon Quixote

In some restorative three-act stories, the third act represents a return to innocence, as in Bud’s return to his family at the end of Wall Street . However, this shedding of all that happens to him during the course of the film may seem unsatisfactory. To return to his family, Bud rejects the greed and ambition that drove his actions for most of the film. The residue of this ambition is never accounted for. How did he come to terms with it? Where did it all go?

In other restorative three-act stories, the third act represents a compromise between the extremes of the first two acts, and we feel that the character’s experiences are more satisfactorily accounted for. In The Verdict , Galvin attempts to defend a case based solely on justice. In the second act, his cocoon-like innocence is shattered. It is only when he is willing to misrepresent himself—to lie and to open other people’s mail—he gets to the one witness who will help him win the case. At the end of the fi lm, the two sides of Galvin’s character have been integrated. Galvin can now seek justice and play the game at the same time.

The force of the restorative three-act structure comes from a certain willful blindness on the part of the character. In the second act, the character is not aware of what we know about him. This willful blindness allows the second act to build while we wait for the character to fall. This obliviousness generates dramatic force at the expense of self-awareness. The character develops precisely, because he does not notice what is perfectly plain to us. When he does, the character tends not to adjust by making small accommodations but to snap back into place.

At first glance, the restorative three-act structure appears to bring us closer to the characters. Its paradox is that upon closer examination, the comfortable awareness of the first-act transgression places us safely outside of the story. As discussed in the next chapter, other forms of stories—those that don’t have such a clear-cut first-act climax—tend to leave the viewer much less certain about the circumstances and the morality of the situation in which the character finds herself. As we are not pre-positioned, we have to work constantly to reassess the meaning and the relative morality of the character’s actions. In fact, these kinds of screen stories tend to do away with the larger ethical questions and suggest less the affirmation of general morality than the struggle to deal with an ambiguity that is as problematic to the viewer as it is to the character.

Excerpt from Alternative Scriptwriting: Beyond the Hollywood Formula, 5th Edition by Ken Dancyger and Jeff Rush © 2013 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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