Doug's General Theory of the Five Parts to a Movie

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Summary: It seems like most movies have five parts. Not all, but most. Introduction, Establishment, Expansion, Alteration, Resolution.

Sunday, 06 June 2010

(16:07:18 CDT)

Doug's General Theory of the Five Parts to a Movie

When Sarah and I watch a movie, we often refer to the various "Acts". "Here comes the fourth act!" we'll moan, or "This is a long third act..." I know there are other, possibly more methodical, versions of this list, but I just wanted to share with you mine: Doug's General Theory of the Five Parts to a Movie.

  1. Act One - Introduction: Short beginning to a movie, usually used to introduce the characters and settings, set up a Chekov's gun, and to give an idea of the pace. Though plot points will be touched upon, it will often leave them more or less unidentifiable until later on or until you rewatch it. If it is an action movie, we get a short scene showing the main character in action. In a horror movie, we get an initial kill. That sort of thing. Roughly 5% the movie.
  2. Act Two - Establishment: Characters and settings in the first act are now going to be developed and expanded. If the first Act was more about establishing the monster, say, then we might get the main characters brought on here, slightly late. They will then be exposed (but will not grow, we are digging new ground, we are merely showing the ground that is already there) as characters, and the plot will be established. This part of the movie gets the basic direction and scope set into place. Roughly 20% of the movie.
  3. Act Three - Expansion: Now that we have the characters/settings introduced and plot established, we are going to enter the long middle stretch where the rules set out in the first parts (about a fourth of the movie, but maybe a little less, sometimes) are hounded into your brain. Montages show up. Love scenes. The script writing usually softens and loses tightness. More throw-away lines will occur here than any other part. The film-maker's trick is to get the audience on board with the first two acts, and then use this act to actually have a story. In any given synopsis, this entire act, ostensibly the bulk of the movie, will be summed up with something like "And they continue to date..." or "Unable to find his brother, he searches everywhere." As much as half, at least 35% of the movie.
  4. Act Four - Alteration: Lured into a sense of security by the long Act Three, you now have the breakdown. Lovers find out that they have been in a false relationship. Victims find out the monster is worse than they thought. Action stars have a side-kick killed. If it is a comedy, whatever hilarious group of individuals you have been watching will suddenly have a member go missing, or betray them, or have the authorities shut them down. Tends to be a short segment, rarely longer than the second part, if that long, and is where the slower chunks of the soundtrack occur. From 10% to about 20% of the movie.
  5. Act Five - Resolution: All is made better, or, lacking that as a possibility, all is killed. In more violent movies, this can go either way, but in "softer" movies like comedies and romances, this is usually the scene where some stupid plan works out just fine, better than any equivalent in life. Whatever is left, but anywhere from just a few minutes to about twenty minutes.

Let's take a look at some corollaries and such...

  • Horror's Chekov - For some reason, horror movies (and some action movies) adore Chekov's gun with a affection unmatched in most other movie tropes. Kind of fun to see what scene from the first few somewhat foresee the end of the movie.
  • The Long Fifth in Action Movies - Action movies tend to have longer Act Fives than most, with Acts Two and Four shrunk to accommodate.
  • The Sidekick's Dilemma - Action movies almost always use the death or kidnapping of a sidekick to act as Act Four, though sometimes the main character getting beaten up with suffice.
  • Romantic Comedies Act Four - Romantic Comedies usually have prolonged Act Fours with more emphasis focused on this part. Nearly all character development will be had in this section of the movie.
  • The Longer Movie Mix Around - The longer the movie is, the greater the chance the Acts will bleed together. Popcorn movies and Summer Blockbusters, which often come in around 2.5-3 hours long, will have multiple introduction segments as needed, including something like a mini-Act One right around the time Act Four shows up.
  • The False Act Four - Some movies also set up an Act Four like segment in the middle to the end of Act Three. Unlike the real Act Four, which forces the main characters to react suddenly and to break out of their comfort zone, this false Act Four will be only be something like a pre-quake, and is kind of useful in getting viewers to stay awake until the real tragedy hits.
  • The Dramatic Fourth is the First Act - In more dramatic movies, the First Act can almost be thought about as the Fourth Act in some unseen movie. You'll start with someone going through a crisis as introduction, after which the other parts remain about the same.

Ok, let's break it down. What movies violate this? What sort of fine tuning does it need? Etc.

Si Vales, Valeo

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Written by Doug Bolden

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