I’ve been told, though I never really thought about it much, that Hollywood movies typically follow a standard three act formula. But then I noticed something odd. The current big summer blockbusting movie, Marvel’s The Avengers shares the same plot structure as last year’s romantic comedy Crazy Stupid Love. (I’m married, I see the occasional romantic comedy. Also, yes, that is the full title of the Avengers movie. Probably to keep people from looking for Emma Peel.)
In act one, an event occurs. The protagonists were happy, or at least complacent, doing whatever they normally do in their day-to-day lives – taking their wives out to dinner, solving the energy crisis, interrogating arms dealers, whatever. But the event changes everything, tilts the world off its comfortable center, and at first no one knows how to respond. The Avengers starts with action, gunfire, and very expensive special effects. In Crazy Stupid Love, the catalytic event is a simple sentence: “I want a divorce.”
In act two, the characters get off to a rocky start dealing with whatever has shaken their world. In the RomCom, Cal, played by Steve Carell, tries to reinvent himself as a swinging single guy. In a nice counterpoint, the guy who coaches Cal on being single gets caught off guard by a potential long-term relationship and has to reinvent himself to deal with that. In The Avengers, the heroes are called together but fail to reach their potential as a team.
The important thing about act two is that the world has changed but the characters haven’t caught up. Cal still has the mindset of a married man. The would-be Avengers are still used to functioning as individuals. As act two draws to a close, things get worse. Cal’s early dating mistakes come back to haunt him and the super-heroes almost tear themselves apart with only the smallest effort on the part of the villains.
Act three turns it all around. I don’t want to spoil either movie any more than I already have, but let me say this: Act three is when the characters decide what they really value, who they really want to be, and what they are willing to do about it. Armed with this newfound purpose, they go out and face the adversity created in act one. Only this time, the audience knows that they have at least the potential to triumph. Instead of feeling sorry for them or shaking our heads, now we are rooting for them.
There is also an epilogue, a dénouement, a bit at the end, which affirms the protagonist’s new position in the world and underscores his (or their) triumph. Cal gives a graduation speech. The Avengers get news coverage.
So a couple of points for all you writers out there. First, I’m not accusing either film of being trite or formulaic. The fact is, each movie is a fine example of its genre. What is interesting is that the formula is genre independent. It isn’t the only formula, or the only way to tell a tale, but give it its due – it works.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. There is a temptation to recoil at the concept of formula. Formula, you might think, is the opposite of originality. But if anything, the sheer astronomical differences between my two example films should illustrate how much room for creativity the formula allows.
It is also worth noting that, if done correctly, the act three protagonist is a different (and typically a better) person than he (or they) were in act one.
And finally, because this has been a long post, consider the formula as a tool. Can you break your plot into acts? Can you see where your protagonist is and how he our she is changing in each act?
As an experiment, I decided to break down the last movie I saw into a few simple sentences, trying to lay bare the structure. It looked something like this:
One: A group of college girls decide to pursue loser boyfriends.
Two: The girls experience disappointment and heartbreak because their boyfriends are losers.
Three: The girls send their boyfriends soap.
Epilogue: Life is a musical.
Perhaps I need to try a different movie…