Get Your Acts in Gear | Part 1


So, with that out of the way…

While I don’t think the three-act structure is necessarily a good tool for longer-form fiction, like novels, or for short-short fiction, like flash fic, I do feel that it’s a solid way to pace out stuff that’s in the middle (such as short stories or, say, summer blockbusters). Which is why I’m gonna take today to begin a comparison between Spider-Man: Homecoming and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. One nails this structure and, as a result, has a very solid feel to it. The other doesn’t and, as a result, feels scattered and slightly incoherent.

In my completely amateur understanding of the three-act structure, here’s how it rolls:

  1. Shit goes wrong.
  2. Shit gets worse.
  3. Shit gets fixed.

If you want to be really fancy about it, you can also include a character arc for your protagonist. An example:

  1. A failing in the protagonist’s character is discovered. This may cause shit to go wrong in the first place.
  2. The failing remains unacknowledged and probably makes shit worse.
  3. The failing is resolved, which may well happen to help fix shit.

List one (what I think of as External Action AKA Shit Blowing Up*) is the real stickler here. Unless there’s that kind of forward motion of action, your story slash movie doesn’t go anywhere. The second list is optional, as you can have a perfectly functional story without it (see literally any short story Isaac Asimov wrote—ideas and action always reigned supreme over character).

However, while people may find ideas and action interesting in an intellectual or spectacular kind of way, people don’t often connect emotionally to ideas and action. Audiences connect to people, which is why all your literary critics are always gonna claim (often pretentiously) that “nothing happens” in a story where no character development occurs.

* Either literally or metaphorically.

This is why the second list (Internal Action AKA Character Development) is what really takes a story to the next level. Once the characters are more than archetypes or audience surrogates, the people experiencing the story can really sink their teeth into it. Get all that tasty story juice.

That metaphor went to a weird place.

Anyway, with that groundwork laid, TO THE MOVIES

Spider-Man: Homecoming poster
This poster is a disaster. But the movie ain’t!

Spider-Man: Homecoming

This is our candidate that nails the structure. Essentially, here’s how it breaks down:

External Action (shit blowing up)

  1. Spidey discovers that there are crazy-ass weapons kicking around Queens that are based on scavenged supervillain tech.
  2. Spidey tries to fix it on his own and nearly gets his classmates and a shitload of people on a ferry killed in the process.
  3. Spidey foils the Vulture’s plot to steal a whole plane of Stark-tech and Avengers shit on his own, resolving the issue of all the crazy-ass gunrunning.

Internal Action (character development)

  1. Spidey is dissatisfied being a small-time hero after the events of Civil War and chafes at the restraints placed on his suit by Tony.
  2. Spidey’s dissatisfaction causes him to do increasingly dangerous and stupid shit, which leads to Tony confiscating the Stark-tech suit. “If you’re nothing without this suit, then you shouldn’t have it.”
  3. Spidey returns to his roots, putting on his old homemade costume and web-shooters to successfully foil an enemy that was out of his league even with Stark tech on his side.

Now, some of you might be going, “whoa whoa, wait a minute, you conflated two different beats of the story to make the second act.” Which is true. The incident at the Washington Monument and the incident with the ferry were separate, but I’d argue that they’re thematically consistent. They’re both examples of a) shit getting worse and b) Spidey diving in without full knowledge of what’s going on, putting other people in mortal danger.

Technically speaking, I’m also conflating two separate beats to create the first act. But again, they’re thematically consistent: the encounter with the fake Avengers at the bank, and the run-in with Shocker and the Vulture himself.

What this means is that there is a clear, seamless progression in the film from Point A to Point B for both external and internal action. Humans are fundamentally programmed to look for sequences of threes (probably because three is the lowest quantity at which a pattern can be established). That’s likely why this structure is so satisfying. Just take a look at the Rule of Three. Three acts means the story doesn’t waffle, it doesn’t wander, it is a lean, mean motherfucker.

Spidey gets into deep shit. Spidey fucks up and makes the shit exponentially deeper. Spidey learns why he fucked up and how he can best use his power responsibly to make shit better. BAM. Everything lines up like dominoes, and the audience is rewarded with a Spider-Man who becomes a better person because of his mistakes.

So now that we’ve looked at a film that sticks to the three-act structure, next time we’ll talk about how Valerian manages to make a royal mess out of it, which is a real shame because I wanted to like it so damn much.

On an unrelated note, I’d like to say how refreshing it was to have a Spider-Man movie that didn’t use Guilt as the primary handle on Spidey’s character. Not over Uncle Ben, not over Gwen Stacy. Guilt is what drives Tony—guilt and fear. Those are his demons. Spidey has plenty of demons that stem from being a literal kid. He doesn’t need more.

Also, thank Christ someone finally decided to not include the Osborns or Oscorp in a Spider-Man movie. ENOUGH WITH THE GOBLINS, ALREADY. THERE ARE OTHER ROGUES.

You may have noticed that I’m a big fan of the ol’ webslinger. Have been ever since the cartoon in the Nineties. And it was good to see him get a really solid movie to his name.

"Aunt May just Benjamin Buttoning through these Spider-Man reboots is my favourite stupid thing"