Three Act Structure: Estonian Semantics

I gave my report on three-act structure to an Estonian crowd, and gave a lot of thought about which Estonian word to use for act. The easiest is “osa” which translates literally to “part.” Although this has numerous problems, in that it can mean several other things in film. In English, part can refer to a role or it can be a word in the title. And when you’re referring to a segment of a specific film, a part doesn’t adhere to any structural norms the way an act does.

The existing multiple definitions of part can already be confusing, and that’s before you add a specific fourth definition.  Consider the sentence in English “In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Ciarin Hinds played the part of Dumbledore’s brother, and didn’t appear until the part of the film set in the graveyard.”

The other word I considered was “Vaatus.” It’s the Estonian term for theatrical act. It’s derived from the Estonian term “Vaata” which means (to) see. That suggests that it could be applied to movies really easily, as film is considered a visual medium. According to critics, professors and McKee, theater is about what is spoken, rather than the visual. In English, the term “audience” comes from the auditory experience of the theater.

The problem with vaatus is that it’s really only understood in the context of the theater. It isn’t commonly used as a metaphor the way act is (IE- “He’s ready for the next act of his life.”) And a part of the association with the word is the raising and closing of the curtain, which rarely occurs quite that obviously in film. Hell, the films in which separate chapters are clearly marked (IE- Kill Bill, Vivre Sa Vie) tend not to follow traditional three-act structure.

I was tempted to use the word. It fit the argument that three-act structure is an anachronism resulting from theater’s clear demarcation of when one act has ended and another has begun. But ultimately I went with “osa” because that was the term used in an Estonian language guide to animated films.

I did wonder about why an Estonian theatrical term is derived from the ocular experience. My best guess is that the way of experiencing a play is slightly different in the Estonian culture. Estonia’s a smaller country, so the turnout for individual performances tends to be smaller. It’s the norm for the setting to be more intimate, closer to community theater than Broadway, which allows for a greater appreciation of artistic details and expression.

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. You can email me at
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