A Hollywood feature film is 110 minutes long.
Sure, you’ve seen movies that are shorter (most animation) and longer (Peter Jackson), but you’ve also seen pickup trucks with six tires and you’ll still tell anyone who asks you that a car’s got four wheels.
The script for a Hollywood feature film is 110 pages long, because it turns out that a page of script takes, by and large, a minute of time to play out on screen.
Film business outsiders are often surprised to discover that a movie’s length is so proscribed, and that the correspondence between script length and film length is so definite. But they’re usually even more surprised at the concrete structure of what goes inside those 110 minutes and pages.
Yes, most moviegoers know instinctively that films are formulaic. But comparatively few know that a massive body of common Hollywood wisdom dictates that on page 27 of the perfectly paced script, the first act ends with the declaration of a dramatic problem, with which the protagonist will grapple for the next 63 pages and answer conclusively on page 90 at the end of act two.
It’s possible that Google will break irrevocably when indexing this page, having, as it does, the words “Hollywood” and “wisdom” next to each other. Sorry about that. But as much as the page-27 and page-90 benchmarks are give-or-take estimates, a concrete way of thinking about three-act pacing does, in fact, prevail in Hollywood filmmaking.
It sounds stifling, presented so starkly. Wouldn’t more flexibility make better stories? Can we really reduce the breadth and depth of filmic possibility so neatly?
No. But yes.
Here’s the “no”: The numbers 27 and 90 are slavishly obsessed about only in screenwriting books and classes that promise to reveal the secrets (“Secrets!”) of success (“Fame! Riches!”) in Hollywood. But there’s some truth behind the gurus’ hype: The fact that you can distill any decent narrative movie – any movie that tells a story, even a documentary – into three acts is no more negotiable than the reduction of the English language into 26 letters, or the reduction of computer code into 0s and 1s.
To leave the gurus and their get-rich-quick prescriptions behind, the sensible way to think about acts is not in terms of magic numbers, but in terms of function. So here it is:
The first act establishes a dramatic problem.
The second act resolves the dramatic problem.
The third act answers the question, “What then?”
For those edicts to make any sense, they require a clear definition of the term “dramatic problem.” A dramatic problem is a question – always a question – in whose answer the audience is emotionally invested and regarding which they have very clear, very concrete hopes and fears. As an example, let’s take a look at the movie Aliens.
Ellen Ripley returns to LV-426, where Weyland-Yutani has lost contact with the colonists. Aliens are everywhere. Will Ripley and the Colonial Marines escape? That’s act one.
Ripley and a dwindling cast of allies fight aliens to the left, right and center. Ripley and Bishop alone manage to get the dropship and get it to the landing platform. The question is answered: Yes, they’ll escape. Act two.
What then? Well, with Newt gone, Ripley has a change of heart. She won’t leave the kid behind. She descends back into hell for another go-round with the aliens (and then another, aboard the Sulaco) before we finally fade to the credits. Act three.
It’s immediately evident that “Will Ripley and the marines survive?” is the dramatic question of Aliens, because there is a clear pairing of hope and fear in the audience’s guts – hope that our heroes will make it, fear that they’ll all die in spraying acid and flashing claws.
You’ll hear people say that first, second and third acts are as simple as “beginning,” “middle” and “end,” or as easy as “put the hero in a tree,” “throw rocks at him” and “get him down.” The former trio is accurate but insufficient. After all, a garden hose has a beginning, middle and end. The business with rocks demonstrates only the most crude understanding of what goes on inside a good story. It’s dangerous thinking because it suggests that observing the protagonist’s pain is the only thing that makes a story interesting, as though the primary motivation for moviegoing is sadism. A thousand times “no” to that. The goal for any movie is the audience’s emotional involvement, and the route is a compelling dramatic question.
“Very nice, but why should I care?” is the relatively obvious response to this three-act nonsense. You liked movies plenty fine before this filmic underwear was exposed to you. You suspect you’ll still like them just fine after this nonsense has been purged from your brain by the 40 or 50 ads and trailers that spool out before a movie starts these days.
But I humbly submit that if you make a bit of extra room in your brain for this three – act principle, it will become one of the best tools you have for making any kind of story you create more engaging. And that goes for games, too. A dramatic question hanging on a three-act structure can make a good game great, and even make a barely playable game hard to put down.
For the most part, working game designers ignore this tool, and here’s what passes for a dramatic question in most games as a result: “Will you win?” That’s a fine question, and it’s the essential power behind plenty of fine gameplay, from Sudoku to Wii Golf to Dawn of War II. But it’s also next to impossible to make an emotional investment in the answer to that question. It’s easy to make an ego-based investment in it, which explains all the tea-bagging. But the positive feedback loop of “Will you win?” relies on the fact that accomplishment feels good, not on any empathy you feel toward your in-game avatar.
Before going further, a short digression into the fractal nature of a film’s division into acts. In addition to applying a three-act structure to a film as a whole, it’s equally possible – and useful – to see that division inside each individual act, sequence and scene. Like the most effective movies, the most effective scenes also establish a compelling dramatic question, answer it and then ask a follow-up question. Will Luke beat Vader? (Act one.) No. (Act two.) And you know what’s interesting about that? “I am your father.” (Act three.) It’s turtles all the way down.
You’re ahead of me now, I hope: Most games also break down in a similar fashion. Say that the subatomic particle of gameplay is shooting something. Those units organize into shooting something often enough to kill it. You kill enough enemies and you win a shot at the level boss, and on and on, through broader and broader organizational units of gameplay until you’re fighting the final boss for ultimate victory.
But most games focus only on what filmmakers would define as the second act, the “will he/won’t he” question. Let’s be clear: There’s plenty of “will he/won’t he” in this week’s hot new AAA title. Game designers have gotten really, really good at crafting devious and fun “will he/won’t he” variations in genres from FPS to match-three games like Bejeweled.
But at the end of the day, the problem is that without a dramatic question any deeper than “Will you win?” and without a “What then?” follow-up, there’s little emotional investment. The increasingly flashy, constantly posed and re-posed “Will I win?” questions totally disguise that lack of depth, to the point that most people don’t realize what they’re missing.
My argument, essentially, is this: If you’re questing for that game design Holy Grail where the player cries at the end, you have to search not in the gameplay itself, but in what sets up the gameplay and what happens afterward. You can’t deliver emotional impact with more devious puzzles and three more kinds of assault rifles; looking for the answer there is just plain stupid, even if it is the common wisdom.
Interestingly, filmmakers also often find themselves looking for solutions to their problems in the wrong places. As often as not, a test audience that reports boredom at minute 60 isn’t bored because of anything that’s wrong with minute 60. They’re bored because minutes 3 through 15 didn’t do their job telling us why we care in the first place. So, like a great director, a great game designer looks outside the frame to make the picture that’s inside it a masterwork.
Of course, it’s difficult and in many cases pointless to apply these ideas to non-narrative games. Dramatic scaffolding will encumber Sudoku, not improve it. But it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. Even simulation games can benefit from erecting a primitive yet emotion-based three-act framework on a foundation more profound than “Will you win?” And at the other end of the spectrum of games, where the player-avatars are full-blown people with meaningful choices … for games like that, the upside is profound.
Jeff Tidball is a freelance writer and game designer with a fancy screenwriting degree and everything. Come say “hi” at gameplaywright.net and jefftidball.com.