Three-Act Structure 3.2 Negation of the Negation

In Story, McKee suggests that an advantage of three-act structure is that it allows a film to explore the many facets of a topic. The simplest aspect is the contradictory, “the direct opposite of the positive.” (319) There is also the contrary, which is somewhere in between these two extremes. This is often more nuanced, and more difficult to defeat. If the contradictory of love is hate, the contrary of love is indifference.

For McKee, the final aspect is “the negation of the negation,” to steal a marxist term. It is often a twisted parody of the positive, or something that is to the contrary what the contrary was to the positive. If the contrary of Heaven is Hell, the negation of the negation is something that makes Hell look like Heaven. The Simpsons had an example in a gag in which the Grim Reaper had his own Grim Reaper.

McKee strongly believes that the story has to reach this moment, and that it takes a minimum of three acts to do so. (332) Usually the theme transitions from positive to contradictory to contrary to the final stage. In some cases, the characters transition from the opposite direction, going from the negation of the negation to the positive version of a theme. This often happens in comedies as deluded protagonists learn to be truly happy.

Thus each act is necessary to explore the various facets of the theme. If law is the theme, the contrary could be crime, and the contradiction would be the grey areas. The negation of the negation could be a tyranny, a consistent system in which the law is the problem with society. If the theme is truth, the contradictory would be a lie, the contrary would be white lies and the negation of the negation would be self-deception.

It makes sense to save the negation of the negation for the third act as it’s when the protagonist is forced to make the most difficult decisions. In TThe Dark Knight, it’s when Batman has to fight Harvey Dent. In Casablanca, it’s when Rick has to choose between the girl and the war. In The Empire Strikes Back, it’s when Luke Skywalker discovers the truth about Darth Vader.

Scriptlab breaks a plot down to five moments, including a third act twist. I’d quibble, as sometimes it seems that twist marks the end of the second act. But it fits McKee’s ideas on the thematic journey, as the twist is often the development that forces the protagonist to question what was once taken for granted.

There was an interesting thematic journey in The Avengers. In the first act, it seemed like a simple Good VS Evil story, although things are muddied in the second act, as the heroes learn that SHIELD, a  government agency has been lying to them, and trying to construct dangerous superweapons. In the third act, agents of the government order Manhattan nuked, and the film ends with Nick Fury is comfortable with the team’s autonomy.

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About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. Currently, I’m writing a few comic books about my grandparents’ experiences in Soviet Estonia for Grayhaven comics. You can email me at mistermets@gmail.com
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4 Responses to Three-Act Structure 3.2 Negation of the Negation

  1. strangelyproud says:

    Really good stuff. Thank you for posting this, I was about to write a ton of info on Act Structure and Narrative for my students and wanted to include the Avengers and Mckee. I will send this Blog to them. Cheers.

  2. C says:

    Is the negation of the negation in “The Amazing Spider Man 2” the part where Spiderman now has to fight his friend Harry? Could you do a script analysis of The Amazing Spider Man 2 or give more examples of the negation of negation? I think this is interesting. Thanks.

    • Roberto says:

      Hi, C. I’m not the author of this blog. But i think i can answer your question.

      I didn’t watched The Amazing Spider Man 2 yet, but, if Harry has betrayed Spiderman somehow (hate disguise as love, for example, or a lie desguise as truth), so the story reached the Negation of the Negation.

      You can also reach “The Negation of the Negation” when you design your character. Michael Douglas in Wall Street (1986) is a rich man feeling poor.

      The Negation of the Negation also can show up in the first act. Rick in the first act of Casablanca is already in the negation of the negation. Tyranny command.

      Ordinary People opens up in the Negation of the Negation. A mother who HATE his son, but acts as if she loves him.

      Love story tend to move sometimes from hate each other to love each other (is a cliché, but…). 48 hrs (a movie with Eddy Murphy and Nick Nolte) do that with buddy love. They start hate each other, but reach love in the third act.

      Also is good to remember that the negation of the negation can show up in one scene as a surprise event, and then disappear and show up in another sequence.

      In Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, the hero is betrayed by a man who seems to be a sweety guy. Is surprising.

      • C says:

        That makes sense. Thanks. I can see in The Dark Knight where in an earlier scene this occurs when Bruce is telling the crowd that he believes in Harvey Dent and in the Final Act Batman is in the same position on screen facing Dent to tell him the Joker wanted to bring the best of them down. Bruce was suspicious of Dent in the beginning and jealous and in the end quoted him out of respect and protected his name by taking the blame for his death.

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