Writing Lessons From The Late Great Stephen J Cannell (Creator of The Rockford Files)

It’s Techie Tuesday here at More Cowbell, and you know what that means, right? Some nifty piece of technology, know-how, or writing advice is coming your way. Today, I’m talking about the late, great mystery and TV writer, Stephen J. Cannell. Trust me, most of you have watched his shows.

As many of you know, I’m blessed by geography to live near an active RWA chapter that gets incredible speakers. Several years back, Stephen J. Cannell came to our monthly event to speak and there was a huge flurry of excitement.

At the time, I hadn’t a clue who he was, but I still got caught up in the buzz. My writing pals were there, I was there, and the meetings are ALWAYS a great time.

So Mr. Cannell gets up to talk and he just looks like a Hollywood guy: sexy in a lanky-guy way, salt and pepper hair, snappy dresser. His easy smile and raspy voice commanded attention.

Here’s what I know now that I didn’t know when I arrived at the meeting that day:

Obviously this man changed my life and had enormous impact on me as a writer.

When it comes to a story, 3-Act structure is…everything. And I never quite understood what it was until that first day Stephen spoke. I’ll never forget that moment, when he stood at a podium in front of 100 writers and broke down When Harry Met Sally in easy 3-Act detail. He did a few other movies, but this post is going to be long enough as it is, so we’re sticking with my favorite one.

A paraphrase of Cannell’s description of When Harry Met Sally:

When I ask young writers what 3-Act Structure is, they say it has a beginning, middle and an end. This is not the answer. A lunch line has a beginning, middle and an end. The Three-Act structure is critical to good dramatic writing, and each act has specific story moves.

Take the movie, When Harry Met Sally. The First Act is all about the hook, or the premise. In this case, it’s that “men and women cannot be friends.” So you’ve got the set-up where they meet and then decide they’re not going to be friends.

Act Two opens with Harry and Sally meeting up again in the bookstore and slowly becoming good friends. Their friendship becomes the single most important thing in their lives and the worst thing in the world would be to lose it. The scene in the wedding is the dark moment climax of Act 2 because it is the end of their friendship as we know it.

They’re off to the side of the reception, speaking in furious whispers about why they’ve been at odds since the night they had sex:

Harry Burns: You know how a year to a person is like seven years to a dog?
Sally Albright: Is one of us supposed to be a DOG in this scenario?
Harry Burns: Yes.
Sally Albright: Who is the dog?
Harry Burns: You are.
Sally Albright:I am? I am the dog? I am the dog?

The scene ends with her slapping him across the face, saying, “Fuck you, Harry!” and storming away. The curtain closes on Act Two because the WORST thing has happened…the two of them are no longer friends.

Act Three is the “clean up” act, the resolution to your story. In this case, it’s all about Harry trying to get back into Sally’s good graces so the two of them can be friends again, just as they were. Sally’s having none of it.

Finally, on New Year’s Eve, Harry has his turning point and we get the final scene of the movie where he runs through New York City to get to Sally before midnight. When he sees her at the party, he gives his now famous I-Love-You speech:

Harry Burns: I love that you get cold when it’s 71 degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you’re looking at me like I’m nuts. I love that after I spend the day with you, I can still smell your perfume on my clothes. And I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night. And it’s not because I’m lonely, and it’s not because it’s New Year’s Eve. I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.

If you want to wallow in the brilliance of When Harry Met Sally dialogue, click here.

I don’t know if this quick breakdown turned the lightbulb on for you, but it sure did for me the first time I heard it. To see Stephen Cannell’s “official description” of 3-Act structure click this post – he does a fantastic breakdown of the movie, Love Story.

More Stephen Cannell Trade Secrets:

Cannell discusses a myriad of “trade secrets” in this entire series on writing that he did on WritersWrite.com. But the main piece of advice that I remember, besides my 3-Act Epiphany was the way he’d refer to the villains in a story. I can hear his voice in my head right now.

He called his bad guys “the Heavies” and he was brilliant with them. It’s no surprise to me why his television shows were so wonderful. Whenever, he’d get stuck in a story, he’d ask himself, “What are ‘the Heavies’ doing?” Once he wrote the story from their angle for a while, he’d get back on track.

If you’d like to hear his voice too, he’s got more than 60 videos recorded on YouTube. Here’s some simple, yet sage advice from the man himself.

Creating A Long-Term Career As A Writer by Stephen J. Cannell

If Stephen Cannell is a new discovery for you, enjoy! He’s awesome. His mantra was: “be honest, be sensitive, be reasonable, be fair and you can succeed marvelously in business and in life.” Go, Steve.

Who has made the biggest impact on your writing life? Do you have any other 3-Act tips for the rest of us? Enquiring minds always want to know here at More Cowbell!


About Jenny Hansen

Avid seeker of "more"...More words, more creativity, More Cowbell! An extrovert who's terribly fond of silliness. Founding blogger at Writers In The Storm (http://writersinthestormblog.com). Write on!
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35 Responses to Writing Lessons From The Late Great Stephen J Cannell (Creator of The Rockford Files)

  1. Light bulbs went off when you paraphrased Cannell’s break-down of When Harry Met Sally. My sister and I watch that one often on her chick flick sleep-over nights. We have it memorized.

    The person who made the biggest difference in my writing life is Margie Lawson. Not only b/c of the powerful techniques she teaches, but also b/c she made me believe in myself as a WRITER. A good writer who should quit dawdling and get the words out there. As for the three ACT structure, I carry around a piece of paper (torn from a notebook) that a talented writing buddy (L.A. Mitchell) drew out for me during one of our sessions. It’s tattered, but I pull it out when I’m stuck on a scene or the flow of my book. I now write with ACT #, SCENE # as the headers and deal with chapter breaks later. Makes it much easier to make sure each scene has all those nifty GMCs and MRUs and Scene/Sequel thingies. The Feds have nothing on us. We’re our own “alphabet soup” community. GREAT post, Jenny.


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Gloria, I’m so glad that you got some lightbulbs too. 🙂

      3-Act structure involves more than this quick summary but I remember this finally giving me an inkling of WHAT IT WAS. I didn’t have one before that.

      I knew you’d say Margie! She’s so awesome. I have a 3-Act piece of paper too, given to me by Louella Nelson. I take it everywhere these days, but that’s brilliant to use your Act/Scene #’s in the header. I hadn’t thought of that…..


  2. Hartford says:

    I had never heard of Cannell…I know, I know – I grew up sheltered. LOL!! And love the 3-act structure breakdown in that manner – woot woot – thank you! It does make WAY more sense! I am off today/tonight to check out writerswrite.com and all the youtube videos. I got a lot of learning to do in a short amount of time so I am soaking everything up like a sponge!! 🙂


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      It’s good that you’re taking your learning time, because after that you’ll set it all aside and just write. I can’t wait to hear how it goes. I was thinking in retrospect that I should have called this post “3-Act Structure from a Master.” Ah…well.


  3. Stacy Green says:

    Great way to break down the 3-Act structure. It does make a lot of sense. Sometimes I think the craft books get so caught up in explaining they convolute things. And I love the “Heavies.” That’s so true – they drive the book. Writing from their POV has jumpstarted things for me many times.


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I agree, Stacy. It’s not that there aren’t turning points and inciting incidents and “pinches.” But at the end of it all, if you don’t understand the basic 3-Act structure and how long each of them take, it sure does make writing a story sooooo much harder than it needs to be.


  4. Only a genius could make a proposition as preposterous as “The A Team” successful enough to last for several seasons. I loved that show.

    Thanks for telling us about Cannell. And for sharing the “Harry Met Sally” exposition of the three-act structure. I had a pretty good grasp of it, but I think it’s clearer to me now.

    The person who has had the greatest impact on my writing is my friend Kristen Lamb. A lot of it we learned together, but she usually grasped it quicker and led the way.


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I completely agree, David…but what a great show that was. 🙂

      A 3-Act structure complement from someone in WWBC just lights my world on fire – THANK YOU! And Kristen’s a great impact on all of us, but you two have moved mountains together (especially this week).


  5. First…SO jealous you got to hear him speak! The man was genius and I’ve always been impressed he did so much, and dyslexic on top of it.

    I’ve read so many things about the 3 Act structure from Syd Field’s Screenplay to Chris Volger’s The Writer’s Journey to Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering that I take something from all of them. And each story is different. I’m using Blake Snyder’s beat method with my current WIP, yet it still falls into the pattern.

    As for breaking it down, I really like how Alexandra Sokoloff breaks a story into 8 sections but stays true to the 3 Acts (Act 2 is broken into 2 parts like Brooks talks about). Each section ends in a climax. She talks about how this came about in movies when a reel of film was about 15 minutes.

    So the climax at the end of section 1 (Act 1) would correspond with the inciting incident and the climax at the end of section 2 (Act 1) would be the first plot point (“break into 2” beat for Snyder). The climax at the end of section 3 (Act 2, part 1) would be the pinch* point (according to Brooks) and the climax at the end of section 4 (Act 2, part 1) would be the mid-point. The climax at the end of section 5 (Act 2, part 2) would be the second pinch* point (according to Brooks) and the climax at the end of section 6 (Act 2, part2) would be the second plot point (“break into 3” beat for Snyder). The climax at the end of section 7 (Act 3) is the classic climax, the big showdown. The “climax” at the end of the final section (Act 3) would be that “final” image (the opposite of your “opening” image according to Snyder).

    *A pinch point is the antag force without the protag’s filter whether written from the antag’s POV or not.

    See, I blend them all in together 🙂 And this is looking horribly long so I’m going to stop! Great post Jenny!


  6. Marji Laine says:

    Thanks so much for nailing down the 3-act structure.
    LOVED Stephen J Cannell shows! 21 Jumpstreet was one of my faves!
    At this point, I have a lot of people impacting my writing including my crit group members and also Susan May Warren and her generous lessons at My Book Therapy.


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Marji, I love the name, “My Book Therapy.” That sounds awesome. We meet the best people on this writing journey, I swear. Thanks for coming by and commenting!


  7. Brilliant!

    …and that’s it, I’m coming to the next OCC/RWA meeting! Um, when is it?? ;p


  8. Amy Kennedy says:

    I teared-up reading Harry’s “I love you…” dialogue. Genius. I miss seeing him at the poker table in Castle…


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Awwwww…I love When Harry Met Sally. It’s in my top 10 of all time for sure. I think I need to download some of the Castle clips to see Stephen Cannell in the show – I heard he was, but I never saw it.


  9. Thanks for sharing this, Jenny! I heard him at a UCLA writing seminar several years back. Very inspiring, informative day. He’s truly one of the greats of the industry.


  10. I’ve studied screenwriting and I’m now a fiction author, and still, I can never be reminded enough about these basics of structure. Thanks for a good informative post and for helping me to stay on track!


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  15. Marcia says:

    Wow! You are fortunate to have listened to him speak in person! I’ve loved evverything he’s ever done! I believe in the 3-act structure and learned it from Blake Snyder. I’ll have to chack out Raelyn’s resources, too. But it makes sense and makes it easier to see the progression of the story. I write down all the scenes that come to mind, then fit them into the 3 -act structure. Then i go back and add more or make other changes where necessary. Awesome post!


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  18. Don Theo says:

    Thanks for posting this. So ironic, I just finished reading King Con, a novel he wrote and happened across this article by pure accident. (It’s a great book, by the way; utilizing the three act structure masterfully.)


    • Jenny Hansen says:


      That is ironic! Thanks for taking a moment to comment, I hadn’t read that book yet but he was truly a great man and I read all of his books that I come across and I highly recommend his writing .


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  21. I just read this blog post and wanted to say Stephen was one of the most heart-felt people I’d ever met. He was keynote at Willamette Writers conference years ago, and I sat with him at his table because his mentor was Ralph Salisbury from Eugene, OR and Stephen never failed to mention him in any of his talks. He also always mentioned his wife. What does this have to do with writing? It goes to the heart of the matter: he loved what he did and he did it with his full attention, no ego. He was so sweet and focused when I talked to him, and he sincerely wanted those who had helped him have their mention. Why was Rockford Files such a hit? Because Stephen wrote it. We need to remember to give of ourselves and our heart. We need to remember that whatever we write, whether fiction or memoir, we must do it with purpose and integrity and love. Our passion will show through and be what brings readers.


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Valerie, what a lovely comment! I agree 100%. He was a very sincere and generous man and he touched me deeply as a writer. I keep finding myself wanting to go back and watch the Rockford Files, just to bask in his genius. 🙂


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