The rule of threes is a part of many artistic endeavors.
In a joke, the punchline always comes with the third example.
In popular music, like a Beatles tune, it’s the hook sung by Paul, the “middle eight” bars of the chorus sung by John, and a return to the hook, usually with Paul and John singing together.
And in screenwriting it’s Act One, Act Two, and Act Three, but what happens in Three must have what the joke or the pop tune has: synthesis.
While doing a evening presentation with a great group of writers at Disney Animation this week, I realized just how important that concept is.
You may call it Act One – Act Two – Act Three. I call it Thesis – Anti-thesis – Synthesis.
And this Hegelian triumverate is crucial to satsifying storytelling.
In Act One of Titanic for instance, the Thesis world is Rose (Kate Winslet) about to marry the wrong man.
In Act Two, the Anti-thesis, Rose falls for Jack Dawson (Leonardo diCaprio) and the “upside down version of the world” includes them exploring all levels of the ship and their future… up until both strike an iceberg.
In Act Three, with the ship sunk, and Leo dead, the lone survivor, Rose, is asked by officials for her name. “Rose Dawson” is her answer.
The perfect Synthesis beat!
Rose took what she was in Act One, combined it with what she learned in Act Two, to create a third way, a synthesis of the two!
And examples of these “Synthesis” moments are found in lots of Act Threes.
In 10, starring Dudley Moore, Act One is Dud in midlife crisis, with a girlfriend, Julie Andrews, he can’t commit to.
In Act Two, Dud chases Bo Derek, and learns from her the lovemaking magic of Ravel’s “Bolero.”
And in Act Three, Dudley comes home, his midlife crisis over, and guess what the last beat is? Dudley making love to Julie to the sounds of “Bolero.” He took what he started with in 1, combined it with what he learned in 2, and found a third way, a new way.
Dudley’s transformation is complete, and so is his story.
What other “Synthesis” moments can you think of from the current crop of movies? I know what it is in Little Miss Sunshine, do you?
You must find the Synthesis beat in your own stories too. Without it, it’s a less satisfying journey.
The Synthesis beat shows that we can all learn from our mistakes, no matter how embarrassing, and triumph in the end because of them.
- Blake Snyder
Yes!!! Meehna you win! Absolutely! Could be expanded to include “the family” as a main character, all are transformed by the trip and all join Greg and his daughter on stage, quite a transformation for a bunch that didn’t want to go on the trip in the first place — and a great example of Synthesis!
- Sarah Beach
Well, it’s not “current”, but I’d been watching it again lately.
The washed up actors have to deal with fan adulation of their old work (and “fans” include the first arrival of the Thermians). Saras’ attack on the ship after their arrival changes that.
The actors pretend their way through problem solving on the ship, right up to the point where Jason (Tim Allen) is forced to tell the Thermian leader the truth about the TV show, that none of it was “real”.
The actors have to stop “acting” and actually be heroes in order to defeat Saras & save the Thermians & themselves.
- Steve Lang
Act 1- Luke is a farm pilot eager to help fight the evil Empire
Act 2- Luke learns the ways of the Force.
Act 3- During a dramatic dogfight to destroy the Death Star, Luke uses the Force in the final moments to destroy the Death Star and save the galaxy.
I always thought that ‘Use the Force Luke’ was such a great moment in the movie. What’s interesting is that the moment does involve Act 1 and Act 2, not just the Force lessons from Act 2.
The scene wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if say Luke used the Force in the final moments during a dramatic shootout in the corridors of the Death Star. It had to be in a dogfight for it to feel really ‘right’- Synthesis!!
Perhaps another aspect of this is that the Protagonist is able to take the conflict/situation from Act 1, and re-contextualize it with what he’s learned in Act 2 (or vice versa I guess.) That’s what makes it a true growth experience for the Protag, as opposed to say just rotely following the lessons he’s been taught.
I never saw MISS CONGENIALITY, but your beat sheet described the same ‘Hegelian’ motiff… ;-)
Blake (or anyone else),
I’m having a hard time applying your nifty thesis-anti-thesis-synthesis trio to “Little Miss Sunshine” using the whole family as the main character.
I think I’ve got the Thesis (family’s struggling, not connecting, it’s man/woman for him/her self). Then I get the Sythesis (family comes together on stage). But how would you describe the crucial middle part — i.e. the Anti-Thesis? I ask because the script I’m working on involves a family as the main character.
The antithesis aspect of the family as character idea for Little Miss Sunshine would probably be the fact they’re stuck in a van together and the only one who REALLY wants to be in the van/on the trip is Olive. The others are stuck in that van – their hearts aren’t necessarily in the trip – they’re just going to make Olive happy, etc. But then when they’re onstage, they’re hearts are in it – they’ve accepted each other and are wholeheartedly behaving like a family.
Something like that, I think.
It’s not current, but Benny & Joon.
The Thesis is Benny and how he’s living his life just working and taking care of Joon.
The Anti-Thesis is the addition of Sam into Joon’s life.
And the Synthesis is because of Sam, Benny is able to let go of Joon and be comfortable with it.
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Little Miss Sunshine
Act I (Thesis): Greg Kinnear is life coach teaching people how to win, although he is a loser himself.
Act II (Antithesis): Greg takes his family on the road so his daughter can enter and win the Little Miss Sunshine contest in California. The upside down world is: this “winner’s” life completely falls apart: his father dies, as well as his car; he loses (niceplay on winning and losing here) his book deal; and upon arrival in California the other contestants outrank his daughter in experience, skill, and definitions of beauty.
Act III (synthesis): Greg takes the hardships he’s learned on the road and redefines winning (i.e. success )for himself when he rallies his family to join his daughter onstage in the talent part of the competition.