Still Alice and The Three Act Structure as Foundation Garment

Studying structure so much can have the unfortunate side effect of making you a slightly annoying person to watch a film with. I’m not sure my boyfriend really appreciated me repeatedly pausing Still Alice last night, for example, to tell him when the inciting incident, first major plot point and act two climax had just happened. It really is interesting how seamlessly the script fits the three act structure though! I suppose what’s more interesting is the fact that, because he isn’t studying it, he didn’t notice. Which is exactly the point. Structure, when done well, works without the audience being aware of it. It’s like a piece of foundation underwear – you don’t know it’s there, but it’s holding the whole thing together.

Before studying the three act concept I never realised how beautifully it carries the audience through a film, giving them exactly what they want at the right moments and ensuring the perfect balance of action, plot and character development. So, just for my own enjoyment, here’s a breakdown of how Still Alice fits into those three acts:

Act One – All is well in Alice’s world. We see her excelling in her job as a linguistics professor at a prestigious university in New York. She celebrates her birthday with her loving family and husband to whom she is happily married. She is successful, beautiful, fulfilled. But something is not right. Alice has begun forgetting things and recently became disorientated while running the same route that she has run everyday for years. This is the inciting incident. Worried, Alice goes to the doctor, who sends her for tests. The turning point, or first major plot point, is Alice being diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. Life has changed forever and Alice has entered a terrifying new world from which there is no return.

Act Two deals with Alice (and her family’s) attempts to cope with this new reality. There are moments of frustration, desperation, humour and tenderness. As her mental functions slowly deteriorate, she develops coping strategies. She asks herself questions on her phone about her name, address, age etc. and secretly records a video telling herself that, when the time comes that she can no longer answer the questions, she must swallow the bottle of pills that she has hidden in her dresser drawer, lie down and go to sleep. Her plan is ruined, however, when she forgets where she put her phone and then forgets about the questions she is supposed to answer each morning. Her deterioration speeds up from this point. The second act climax comes when Alice stumbles across the video and attempts to follow its instructions without really knowing what she is doing. About to swallow the pills, she is startled by a door slamming and drops them on the floor. As she stares at them, wondering where they came from, we know that her ‘escape plan’ is destroyed and she has lost connection with her former self. All, it seems, is lost.

In Act Three Alice has almost no memory and is unable to communicate with the outside world. The family deals with this in different ways. Her husbands hides in his work. Her daughter Anna has her babies and names one of them Alison. But it is her youngest daughter Lydia who changes the most, deciding to give up her dreams of stardom in L.A to become her mother’s full time carer. The film ends when Lydia is finally able to break through to her mother, when she reads her a scene from a play and Alice is able to understand that that the piece is talking about love. At this moment we realise that, although she has in some respects lost everything, she is very much still Alice.

Watching this beautiful film made me think about structure in my own work and why it is so essential, not just to be aware of it, but to have such a powerful grasp of it that you can wield it without the audience even noticing. As Noel Coward once said, “Everything is structure, the rest is just decoration.”

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