The Hollywood format
Editorial

The Hollywood format

The three-act structure is a useful tool for shaping your marketing copy.

Spoiler warning!

This is Steven Spielberg’s Jaws:

A beautiful girl goes skinnydipping after a late-night party, only to be pulled underwater by an unseen force. She is the first victim of a monstrous shark.

Amity Island police chief Martin Brody tries to close the tourist beaches, but is blocked by the mayor. After more people are killed, he sets sail with an oceanographer and a professional shark hunter to catch the killer.

Hunter becomes hunted as Jaws stalks them at sea, smashing their engine, killing the hunter and half-sinking the boat. Trapped by his nemesis, a desperate Brody thrusts a pressurised scuba tank into the shark’s mouth, then shoots it with a rifle: Jaws is killed in the explosion. Victorious, the two survivors paddle back to Amity Island.

Why does it feel satisfying when Brody kills Jaws? When Neo defeats the Agent Smith at the end of The Matrix? When Luke Skywalker blows up the Death Star? The answer is the three-act structure, Hollywood’s format for writing successful screenplays. It’s a schematic for building a story that hooks the audience from the start, keeps them entertained in the middle, and delivers a satisfying conclusion.

Why use it? 

  1. Storytelling cuts through advertising clutter and, through the introduction of relatable characters, gets people to form an emotional connection with a brand.
  2. Most people want to be told stories that feel familiar. Romantic comedies use the same format almost without exception – boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back – and people go back to watch them time and again.
  3. The three-act structure has been refined over the decades as a way of telling a satisfying story in the limited time available to screenwriters. Marketers also have only a brief window of attention in which to get their message across.
  4. It works in any genre – thriller (Jaws), children’s (Toy Story), Romance (Titanic) – and it can work for marketing copy too.
  5. It’s already in our heads – we have all spent years enjoying entertainment written with this structure.

It’s worth emphasising that final point: we expect stories to conform to this structure. When they don’t, it can be confusing. Did you ever watch a film made outside the Hollywood system (an experimental independent movie, for example, or something from Asian cinema like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and feel like there was something a little ‘off’ about it, like you weren’t sure what was coming next? That’s because the writers weren’t using this format.

How does it work?

The three-act structure looks like this:

Act 1: setup

The major characters and the setting are introduced, as is the major conflict of the story (in Jaws, we meet Brody, see Amity Island, and the problem – a killer shark – is revealed).

The story often begins with an exciting ‘hook’ to keep the audience entertained during the introductions (for instance, James Bond films always start with an action sequence largely unrelated to the main plot).

Act 2: confrontation

The conflict established in Act 1 plays out and the stakes get higher. The hero moves out of their comfort zone to try to solve the problem. Towards the end of the Act, the hero often tries to defeat the villain but fails – and hits rock bottom (in Toy Story, it’s when Buzz Lightyear realises he can’t really fly because he’s just a toy).

Act 3: resolution

The showdown between hero and villain. The hero gambles everything on an unlikely strategy and wins against the odds (the oxygen tank and rifle shot in Jaws). All the questions established in the first act are answered.

Then comes the ‘dénouement’ – the hero often gets a reward (in Die Hard, for example, John McClane’s wife comes back to him).

How could this work in marketing copy? Let’s look at an example for fictional IT services company Solutions Inc, to show how a corporate story could be rendered in three acts:

Hook

The moment Frank Jones walked into the office on his first day as marketing manager at Hollywood Industries, he knew that he was in over his head.

Act 1:

Hollywood Industries hadn’t updated its IT infrastructure since 1983. Two hundred sales executives still recorded all customer information on magnetic tapes.

Frank was expected to gather complex data on customers and use it to form a new digital strategy. He knew this was an IT issue that called for an IT solution – but the board had made it a problem for the new marketing manager. 

Act 2:

Frank knew that getting all of the old information onto a modern database was key. From there, he could rapidly analyse it and formulate a proper strategy.

However, when he tried to get his colleagues in IT to help he found they lacked knowledge of modern systems. It would take them six months to get new systems online and move the data across – too long.

He was just coming to grips with the problem when word came down from the board – they wanted to see results in just four weeks.

Act 3:

“I only had one month to go before presenting results to the board and nothing to show for all my work. I didn’t want to disappoint them. That’s when it came to me: I had seen a speaker from Solutions Inc at a conference. I couldn’t see how they could solve my problem, but knew I had to give them a try.”

After an initial meeting, Solutions Inc came in and set up a new database over the course of one weekend. They provided training to get the IT staff up to scratch and assisted with moving data onto the system.

“They got me the data I needed to put together a plan, and at a reasonable price,” says Frank. “I don’t know how they managed it, but I’m very glad I got in touch with them.”

Thanks to their swift work, his strategy was completed just in time for that critical meeting.

Dénouement

Frank’s marketing strategy was praised by the board, and a month later he put it into action. Feedback from customers has been excellent. “It’s also helped us to win new business. None of it would have been possible without Solutions Inc.”

End

The three-act format has been successful for decades, and can help you to structure your material in a way that people will immediately understand on a subconscious level: why not try it out?

Sammy Todd Former Marketing Manager CIM
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