By Isaac Butler
(Updated to fix one minor moment of hyperbole below.)
As you may have heard, Film Crit Hulk released an e-book this week. Titled Screenwriting 101, the book is a heavily adapted, revised and expanded version of a series of long blog posts Hulk wrote about screenwriting a while back that is, according to Hulk, "REALLY ABOUT STORYTELLING AT LARGE AND THE LESSONS ARE JUST AS VIABLE TO TELEVISION, PLAYS, NOVELS OR ANY MEDIUM." To help sell the book, Hulk has put an excerpt of it online, called The Myth of the Three Act Structure.
While I admire the project of loosening the 3 Act Structure’s vice-like grip on mainstream screenwriting, the chapter is deeply, deeply flawed. Rather than detail all of it, I want to focus on its particularly problematic treatment of the works of a British playwright you may have heard of named William Shakespeare. Hulk tries to use Shakespeare (in general) and Romeo & Juliet (in particular) as a key part of his argument, but ends up undermining all the points he’s trying to make.
Chief amongst these arguments is Hulk’s “working definition” of what an “act” is. Hulk is correct that talking about “acts” in the sense of dramatic structure is tricky. It’s one of those words that we use so often that we end up pretending we all mean the same thing when we say it. Hulk chooses to define an act by its ending (the act break), writing “THE END OF AN ACT IS A POINT IN THE STORY WHERE A CHARACTER(S) MAKES A CHOICE AND CAN NO LONGER `GO BACK.’”
This is a definition of a “one way gate” or, if you prefer, “the point of no return.” It is not a good working definition for an act break. The definition doesn’t even work the way that Hulk wants it to work. Romeo’s big point of no return in Romeo & Juliet is the moment he kills Tybalt. This occurs in the first scene of R&J’s third act. There are three more scenes after it before the act break. Using Hulk’s working definition, the play he wants to hold up as a pinnacle of dramatic structure is incorrectly structured.
Film Crit Hulk then tries to use Shakespeare’s 5 act structure as a way of proving that 3 act structure is bad. He kicks off this section with the following:
FACT: WHILE SHAKESPEARE’S PLAYS WERE NOT OFFICIALLY WRITTEN WITH ACT DESIGNATIONS, HE DID TALK A GREAT DEAL ABOUT HIS VIEW OF ESSENTIAL STORYTELLING. AND WHEN HIS WORKS WERE LATER PRESERVED THEY WERE ALL BROKEN UP INTO 5 ACTS AND STUDIED EXTENSIVELY AS TO THE PURPOSE OF HOW HIS STORIES WORKED. AND IN DOING THAT, WE IDENTIFIED ALL THE BRILLIANT WAYS THAT SHAKESPEARE (AGAIN, THE GREATEST STORYTELLING GENIUS OF ALL TIME) USED STRUCTURE TO MAKE IT WORK.
Almost nothing that appears after the word “fact” in this quote is a fact about Shakespeare. I went ahead and contacted a friend of mine who is a Shakespeare scholar and literature Professor just to make sure I wasn’t completely off base, and, keeping in mind that there are all sorts of lacunae and controversies in Shakespeare studies, there are many, many problems here. Chief amongst them is the story this paragraph tries to tell about The Bard, a story in which Shakespeare passed along both his work and an understanding about his work and about dramatic form that he pioneered and that was, at some indeterminate time later, codified into the five act structure so it could be studied. This story has no basis in reality.
First, the term “officially written” is meaningless. We have no extant copies of Shakespeare’s plays in his handwriting. During Shakespeare’s time, when plays—including those of his contemporaries—were published in individual Quarto editions, they were published without act and scene breaks, likely to save on publication costs. Complete Works and Folios of plays included act and scene breaks. The First Folio, while published after Shakespeare’s death, is considered more authoritative in general than the Quartos. Also, for whatever reason, the Quarto of Othello has act and scene breaks. Further undermining the idea of an “official” version, Shakespeare likely inserted and removed scenes for different audiences, may have gone back to revise some plays, and is thought to have had occasional uncredited co-writers.
Second, there is no evidence or record of Shakespeare ever talking, “a great deal about his view of essential storytelling,” unless Hulk is referring to Hamlet’s scenes with the players in Hamlet, scenes that are largely about acting, not writing. Shakespeare left behind no Poetics, or really much of anything besides his plays, poems and miscellaneous business writing. There are additionally no records of conversations in which he talked about dramatic form.
Third, the five-act structure was something to which Shakespeare—like all of his contemporaries—was writing in direct relationship throughout his career. Jasper Heywood published translations of the Roman playwright Seneca in 1581 (before Shakespeare’s first play) that divided the plays into five acts. This collection was a huge influence on everybody, including Marlowe and Kyd. Ben Jonson even includes a joke about the five act structure in one his plays. Henry V begins what is clearly meant to be each act with a speech from the Chorus, establishing each act’s new location and situation. While it’s true that we studied Shakespeare’s work extensively later on down the line—mainly in the 19th Century, the Elizabethan era wasn’t exactly known for its theoretical output on the subject of dramatic structure—to glean lessons from it, the plays had already been carved into five acts. They were thus carved in Shakespeare’s head, in the Quarto of Othello, in the First Folio and in basically every printing since.
The five act structure was not a Shakespearean invention. In fact, Shakespeare is an odd example to use for an argument about the greatness of classical five act structure because his relationship to the form was a relentlessly experimental one. While Romeo & Juliet is a pretty ideal exemplar of what a dramatist was supposed to do in five acts, many of his other plays aren’t. But Hulk wants to talk about how acts always function in Shakespeare, with R&J as simply one example. You cannot really say that Shakespeare always uses a given act to accomplish a given task. He simply wasn’t that rigorously formulaic a writer.
In the interest of time, I’ll leave much of the discussion of Romeo & Juliet alone. Some of it strikes me as accurate, some of it not. Some of it feels like second-hand wisdom from sources that are not cited. Where things really go off the rails, however, is in Hulk’s discussion of how the 4th Act “always” functions in Shakespeare’s plays:
THE 4TH ACT OF SHAKESPEARE’S MODEL WAS KNOWN AS “THE SPIRAL” AND IT IS ACTUALLY FULL OF CHARACTER DECISIONS THAT CAUSE CHARACTERS TO SINK TOWARD THE REAL CLIMAX (I.E. ROMEO AND JULIET DECIDE GO ON THE LAM, HATCH A PLAN TO FAKE THEIR DEATHS, ETC). THESE DECISIONS ARE RAPID. FAST-PACED. POORLY CONCEIVED. AND HUGELY DRAMATIC. IN TRUTH, THIS IS THE POINT WHERE YOU ARE REALLY ARRANGING AND SETTING UP THE CLIMAX.
There’s a rhetorical gesture in the first sentence here, namely that the 4th act was known to some unnamed group of experts as “The Spiral,” a gesture that seeks to establish Hulk as enough of an authority to have some familiarity with Shakespeare studies and its jargon, with the passive voice used to remove any specifics about this understanding of Shakespearean 4th Acts. The problem is, I’m a writer and director who has taught Shakespeare on the University level. I’ve never heard this term. I checked in with a couple of Shakespearean actors I know. They had never heard of it. Neither had my scholar friend who, to reiterate, has a full time job reading, writing, thinking and teaching Shakespeare. It’s a great term, particularly for the kind of plot development that Hulk is talking about. I might steal it some time. But—again, because of the many varied and experimental ways that Shakespeare approached his structures—it's an inaccurate term to use as an all-purpose label for Shakespeare's 4th acts.
The reason why Act 4 matters so much to both me and Hulk’s argument is because Act 4 is the cudgel with which he seeks to beat the 3 Act Structure into submission. Hulk’s argument is that the general lame Hollywood description of what happens in Act 2 of a movie is identical to Hulk’s description of what happens in Act 4 of all Shakespeare plays. Or, as Hulk puts it: “SHAKESPEARE’S “SPIRAL” WITH ITS INCREASING OF INTENSITY AND POSITIONING OF DETAILS BEFORE THE CLIMAX IS REALLY SIMILAR TO THE [3 act structure's] 2ND ACT’S RISE IN CONFLICT.”
This is incorrect, and furthermore makes it appear as if Hulk, positioned as an expert on storytelling, doesn't know the basics of storytelling criticism. Take, for example, "rising action." Clearly, rising action bothers Hulk. It seems like a vague nonsense jargon term to him. He even asks, exasperated, “SERIOUSLY, WHAT THE FUCK DOES “RISE” EVEN MEAN ON AN INSTRUCTIONAL LEVEL?”
Well, the thing is “rising action” is not a bullshit term that some jackoff in script development made up in the 1950’s. It's associated, rather, with Gustav Freytag and his Pyramid of Dramatic Structure. Freytag isn't obscure. His pyramid is widely taught. An adaptation/bastardization of it even appears in the chapter that Hulk's posted. Furthermore, you'd think that someone writing a book about storytelling and an in-depth chapter on structure might google the terms he's working with.
According to Freytag, then, rising action is exactly what happens in the 2nd act of a Shakespeare play, not the 4th. In fact, the “spiral” that Hulk refers to is the Falling Action. This is also because Hulk does not appear to know what a “climax” actually is. Like the screenwriting manuals he’s responding to, he believes that the climax happens at or near the end of a dramatic work. But classically, it does not. It comes near the middle. The climax is what Hulk refers to as Act 3’s “turning point.” The climax of a classically structured piece is the ultimate point of no return. Everything that happens before it sets it up, it in turn determines everything that happens after it. In Romeo and Juliet, for example, the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt are the climax of the play, not everyone killing themselves at the end. That’s the Catastrophe.
Here’s the thing that makes this even weirder: Shakespeare’s plays don’t always follow this pyramid all that well because, again, structurally, Shakespeare was an experimentalist. Also, the Hollywood Three Act Structure is at least somewhat built off of Freytag’s pyramid. Freytag’s pyramid was constructed as a way of understanding classical five act drama, including Shakespeare. The three act drama that Hulk claims is a completely unhelpful myth is just a simplified understanding of the Five Act drama that Hulk claims is one of the ideal forms of storytelling.
The other problem with Hulk’s argument about Shakespearean 4th Acts vs. Hollywood 2nd Acts is when he also complains that 2nd acts tend to be too long and aimless:
THIS LITTLE, SHORT MOMENT THAT SHAKESPEARE USED FOR ESCALATING THE FINAL STAKES AND POSITIONING THE ENDGAME IS THE SAME EXACT WAY HOLLYWOOD SCREENWRITERS HANDLE THE ENTIRE CENTRAL SECTION OF THEIR GODDAMN MOVIES. NO WONDER SO MANY ARE AIMLESS AND BORING.
AFTER ALL, IT’S NO ACCIDENT THAT’S SHAKESPEARE’S 4TH ACTS ARE ALWAYS THE SHORTEST, LEAST INTERESTING, AND LEAST COMPELLING PART OF EVERY SINGLE ONE OF HIS PLAYS. NAME A MEMORABLE MOMENT FROM ANY OF THEM! HULK’S SURE THERE’S SOMETHING, BUT HULK CAN TELL YOU THE MAJOR EVENT OF EVERY ACT 3 IN EVERY SINGLE ONE OF HIS PLAYS. HE KEPT THIS 4TH ACT STUFF SHORT FOR A REASON.
If you let your fingers do the walking through your complete works, or do a little googling, you'll quickly see how wrong this is. Remember Henry V? The play that’s obsessed with its own five act dramatic structure? The entire war with France Battle of Agincourt, including the St. Crispin's Day Speech takes place in Act 4. King Lear’s fourth act has the reunion of Edgar and Gloucester, not exactly a minor plot event. The Gertrude’s Bedchamber scene of Hamlet—the one where Polonius dies, the scene most would argue is the climax of the play—is in Act 4. Also in that act, one of Hamlet’s major soliloquies, and Ophelia’s madness and death. MacDuff’s family is slaughtered in Act 4 of MacBeth. Malvolio’s imprisonment and the marriage of Olivia and Sebastian happens in Act 4 of Twelfth Night. The aborted wedding of Hero and Claudio and Beatrice and Benedick’s declaration of love for each other happens in Much Ado’s fourth act. The trial scene in Merchant of Venice, you know, the one with “the quality of mercy is not strained”? That happens in act four. The fourth act of the Winter’s Tale contains a scene that is longer than most single acts of most of Shakespeare’s other plays.
This problematic section on Shakespeare is also likely revealing of two deep-rooted problems with the book's entire project. The first is the lack of sources and sourcing for Hulk's observations. Without citing actual evidence, all we're left with is trusting an anonymous writer that he knows what he's talking about. We do not know if a given observation is something that came to him in the shower that morning, something he heard once that stuck with him, or if he went out and did some actual research into (in this case) Shakespeare's dramatic structure. The lack of citing also inevitably will lead to Hulk including other people's observations as his own. There's simply no way to avoid doing so in a long-form nonfiction work on a subject that's been widely written about.
The second problem is the lack of good editing. And here I'm not talking about editing for length or style (although I'd argue this chapter needs both of those too) but rather editing for quality, clarity and coherence of idea. When good, smart, writers work with good, smart, editors amazing things can happen. Look, for example at how much better many of the writers now working under Adam Moss at New York are then they were when they were writing elsewhere. This is no knock on them, it's just that Moss' stable of editors are badasses, and they get incredible work out of their great writers.
There are certain parts of the traditional publishing model—a model that both Hulk and Parabasis exist largely outside of—that are very useful. Both better sourcing and better editing would've caught the very serious problems with this chapter. Instead, Film Crit Hulk's piece on the three act structure is now part of a long and unfortunate history of writers using myths of Shakespeare to bolster their questionable arguments about dramatic storytelling.
UPDATE: For whatever reason, in initially writing this, I somehow consulted a version of the text that placed the Gertrude Bedchamber scene of Hamlet in Act Four. It occurs in Act Three in basically every standard version of the text. as a commenter somewhat intemperately pointed out below. Ophelia's madness and death, however, do occur in Act Four, which still renders the "nothing memorable happens in Act Four" thesis wrong.