Three Act Structure: Short-Tension VS Global Tension


Two unrelated parts of my report on three-act structure involved Andrew Stanton, the Writer/ Director of Wall-E, a massive hit, Finding Nemo, another critically acclaimed hit, and John Carter, a legendary flop.

Three act structure is simply the way many writers choose to tell stories. An article in Wired about John Carter mentioned Stanton has worked out a potential sequel in three-act structure form. Unfortunately for him, John Carter has earned the reputation as the biggest flop in recent movie history, with Disney making a write-off of $200,000,000. Stanton still did more good than bad for Disney with his Pixar films, so one unsuccessful film shouldn’t define his reputation. The point is that he plots the films in a particular way, and he’s hardly the only one who does it.

In a TED talk, he made a crucial distinction between short tension and global tension. Short tension is about the short-term goals and dangers faced by the characters, while global tension is the overall mission. So, global tension would be whether James Bond could defeat the criminal mastermind. Short tension is whether he can sneak past a security guard. There could be many reversals in the short tension, but it’s a reversal in the global tension which would result in a change to the overall arc, and signal to the viewer that an act has been concluded.

Something Campbell said about myths can just as well describe the nature of storytelling. He wrote in Hero With a Thousand Faces, “The myths never tire of illustrating the point that conflict in the created world is not what it seems.” (287) In a New Yorker profile, Writer/ Director Michael Clayton described the need to surprise filmgoers.

The core of “Duplicity” is the screenwriting trope known as the reversal. Gilroy told me, “A reversal is just anything that’s a surprise. It’s a way of keeping the audience interested.” A camera follows a man as he goes up the stairs to an apartment; we see his wedding ring as he pulls out his keys. He pushes open the door, slowly—a husband coming home, trudging up the stairs with his briefcase. But a woman in black lingerie greets him: he’s seeing his mistress! That is a reversal. In “Good Will Hunting,” when Matt Damon, mopping the floor at a university, comes upon a complicated math problem on a blackboard and solves it, the audience suddenly realizes that he is not an ordinary janitor—that’s a reversal, too.

These little moments build on the short tension.

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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