Question: When is the 3 act structure not the 3 act structure?
Answer: When you decide to call it something else.
But whatever you call the technique in the following article, we think it’s an interesting angle to work. Especially if you’re feeling stuck on a story and need to break on through to the other side:
by Nick Lawrence
When you start learning about screenwriting, one of the first things you’re likely to hear about is the Three Act Structure. With roots tracing back to Aristotle, the Three Act Structure has been championed by everyone from Syd Field to Robert McKee as the standard way to write a feature-length (90-120 page) screenplay. But for those of us writing shorter scripts for web series, applying the three act structure can prove confusing. It may be counterintuitive to try and pack two act breaks into a 5-10 page script, for example. What if your script only has one scene — how are you supposed to pack three acts into a single scene? Faced with these issues, it’s tempting to ignore structure and just try to write something entertaining. But is that really a good idea?
I want to introduce an alternative approach to screenplay structure called the PCR Method. PCR stands for Problem, Complication, and Resolution. I learned this method from Professor Jay Moriarty at USC, who cut his teeth writing for popular 1970s comedies like All In the Family and The Jeffersons. These shows were maybe 25 minutes without the commercials — closer in length to a web series episode than a feature film — so the writers had to develop their stories quickly and hold the attention of finicky viewers clutching remote controls. The structure they perfected is still widely used in half-hour comedies, and can be applied equally well to comedy and drama web series, including episodes that are only a few minutes long.
WRITING USING THE PCR METHOD
1. Start your story with a PROBLEM — some situation that your characters are facing. Problems can be big or small. Maybe an annoying character is coming to visit (Introverts). Maybe your character wants to throw a birthday party for her friend who hates parties (Introverts). Problems don’t have to be negative — maybe your character is going on a date and wants to make a good impression (The Mindy Project) or has the opportunity to stay in a beach house for the weekend (Girls). The important thing is that the problem engages us by creating dramatic tension — hope and fear about what’s going to happen. It doesn’t have to be big or high-stakes (though it certainly can), but it does have to be involving enough to make us care about what happens next.