The Hollywood ‘model’, the tried and tested template for writing screenplays, builds its stories around a series of major turning-points leading up to an inevitable all-or-nothing climax.

To me, this seems a contrived a way of writing a screenplay. So, I was delighted to stumble across a recent article by Robert McKee on the rising trend of one-act films, in which he notices ‘a drift toward minimalism and a focus on inner conflict’ (McKee, 2018).

McKee refers to a number of recent films, two of which I have already seen: Lady Bird (2017) and Paterson (2016). In both cases, I was totally blown away by the storytelling. He also mentions a few films I have not heard about: A Fantastic Woman (2017), The Florida Project (2017) and Columbus (2017).

McKee asks: ‘if a writer wants to tell a full-length work in only one-act, the first problem is how to hook and hold interest for up to two hours while the film paints a portrait of silent inner conflict?’ He argues that stories of inner conflict, like those found in one-act films, ‘build around a life dilemma and end on the protagonist’s choice to change her mind in one direction or the other’ (McKee, 2018).

When watching these films, he suggests substituting the idea of ‘suspense’ with one of ‘discovery’. When I read this, it made perfect sense. Where the three-act structure builds up the suspense within a story through a series of jeopardies and the raising of stakes, all of which lead to a final climactic outcome, the one-act film follows a different pattern, based on ‘discoveries’.

I have always be fascinated by films that don’t follow conventional Hollywood formats; that allowed me to watch and discover, to encounter a world inhabited by people and things that are completely new to me.

McKee likens watching one-act films to picking up stones on a beach: ‘Full-length one-acts offer the pleasure of discovery, defined as the seeing, hearing, and vicarious living in a fascinating world filled with people, things, and more you’ve never known before. These fresh encounters pull the audience through the telling because each one delivers a new pleasure. Like picking up beautiful stones on a beach, we want more and more’ (McKee, 2018).

The dilemma for me is how to dramatise inner conflict and maintain the viewer’s interest in the story. The solution, McKee suggests, is in the creation of ‘fascinating, utterly original, vivid details’ (McKee, 2018).

It’s in the ‘vivid details’ that the viewer’s interest is hooked and held.

McKee’s descriptions of the details in the films shows how fundamental they are to the portraits of inner conflict rendered on screen.

A Fantastic Woman – ‘various passive/aggressive tactics used by the police and her dead lover’s family to humiliate her.’

Lady Bird – ‘the tactics she uses to give herself prestige are delightful: a new name, a phoney address, and verbal putdowns of her mother.’

Columbus – ‘the silent beauties and varieties of modernist architecture found in an unlikely place: Columbus, Indiana.’

The Florida Project – ‘the myriad ways she makes something out of nothing: the fun and adventure she creates while playing in a crumbling motel and the shrub lands that surround it.’

I was interested by some of the ideas in McKee’s article. Clearly, there are some valuable points here that I can draw upon in my own practice. However, I would question the idea of the one-act feature length screenplay.

For me, the ‘minimalist’ screenplay offers a way of telling stories that are genuine and more authentic; that are so much more in keeping with my own view of the role moving images play in expressing the human condition.


McKee, R. 2018 ‘The Rise of One-Act Films’ In: McKee Seminars 25 March 2018 [Blog] At: [Accessed on 4 May 2018]