How films are structured, is a subject well studied and with a lot of references.
When writing narrative fiction, the three-act structure is the main composition used globally. Defined in roman times (Aelius Donatus), it cames in the following shape:
It works perfectly in almost any feature film with some minor exceptions but, there are other alternatives to this typical structure that enhances the comprehension of how films develop.
One of the most famous alternatives and the subject of this post is the nine-act structure.
David Siegel developed this theory in the 90s as an alternative to the classical three-act structure. In his model, Siegel expands the three act to nine, in order to fit and explain in a more clear and understandable way for the viewers how the plot develops. This model comes in the following structure:
Act 0: Backstory.
This step happens before the movie itself does. During the time previous to the main start, the antagonist has set up a plan.
It’s important to differentiate here between the “prehistory” (the general background of the place and time), the “biography” (personal histories that add dimension to the character) and the key element, the backstory that depicts the history of the main conflict.
Here the seminal incident is defined and it’s what the protagonist doesn’t learn during the time he’s going for the wrong goal (Act 5).
Act 1: The Opening Shot.
Often used to present the credits, it launches the movie.
This opening shot is usually represented with helicopters takes, cranes, dollies and aerials with panoramic views and setups where and when we are.
Act 2: Something Bad Happens.
The beginning of the unfolding of the antagonist plans. It rarely involves the protagonist and it’s just the first event of more to come.
In many cases something bad or mysterious happen that foreshadows what’s to come but doesn’t involve directly the protagonist.
An incident that seems unrelated and requires more investigation but is a key point in the plot because is the first incident that begins the conflict. Sometimes it can be shown in the form of flashbacks.
Act 3: Meet the Hero.
Here the person that is going to fix the problem is introduced to the viewers. The hero is someway related to the problem and something has to be done.
The hero thinks that he is not the right person to do the job so there is a refusal of the call, the typical moment of “you’ve got the wrong person” happens here.
To counteract this refusal, Act 3 usually has “three bumps” in which the protagonist, climbs up the ladder to the take-off point.
Each bump, puts the protagonist one level up to face the next acts.
Along the hero’s grow, frequently we can meet in this act the opposing team and the frontman that works for the real mastermind.
Act 4: Commitment.
Almost all the histories had a clear defined commitment point but usually the protagonist commits to the false goal. In two-goal films, the hero belief that the first goal is the right solution to the problem when really is a trap. This is called the false-goal.
The two keys in this point are:
- There is a cost or sacrifice for the protagonist.
- There is no turning back.
Act 5: The Wrong Goal.
In most cases the bad guy drives this act and the hero is on his heels.
Often the frontman does his job but the mastermind reminds behind until Act 6.
The hero is busy uncovering pieces of backstory but he is always one minute late.
Some key elements of this act are: the hero is in a new world or out of his element, flashbacks, cryptic clues and signs.
The servant of the antagonist, discoveries and complications but no turning point, jail or capture, failure.
Generally, each new clue reveals information from further back in time before the story started.
Act 6: The Reversal.
The final puzzle piece falls into place. It can be a flashback or the explanation of what happened, how he came to this and what is going to do.
Some key elements are: the story or flashback of the seminal accident, the oldest bit of backstory, everything stopping so the hero can learn the history lesson.
Act 7: The New Goal.
The new goal is now clear. The way out of the immediate situation may be clear or improvised. Often there is a secret and people put their plan in motion.
Is almost the most expensive part of the movie. It can depict the montage of people working in the new plan against the clock.
The “comeback” when an ally comes back to the help.
A real death threat for both sides and the possible death of a secondary character.
The ticking clock is usually set during Act 6 or early Act 7. How much time the hero has to succeed.
The hero is tested severely but he emerges victorious, often miraculously.
Action, the see-saw between a credible defeat and an unlikely comeback.
Act 8: Resolution.
It’s a short act and ends the film. Awards to give, hughes and thanks, sacrifices to mourn. Talismans to return or rituals to perform.
Comparing this nine act structure versus the three act, it’s more clear for me as a viewer to understand the different parts or acts from a film.
I’ve tried both and sometimes, the three-act blurry the lines while the nine-act offer key points to know where we are in the movie.
Neither nine act or three are a law so, it can be a lot of films that doesn’t follow this structures or that take some parts or mix them all (Inception, The Godfather).
As a cinephile, understand how movies are structured and how they affect to some genres like horror, is something that can help when doing reviews or comments about them.