February 20, 2012

back to basics: three act structure

Our next topic as part of this blog series is structure. I touched on this a bit in the previous post on plotting, but now, we’re going to take a more detailed look. Over the next several weeks—yes, it will take that long. We’re going to look at four different structures: three act, Hero’s Journey condensed (13 posts), Propp’s Fairy Tale (10-15 posts), and Snyder’s 15 key beats (5-8 posts). As I’ve said before, there is no right or wrong way to write a story. You might find these structures useful, or you might not. My hope is that you’ll find that your stories closely resemble one of these structures, and you’ll be able to apply the structure to give your story more depth.

Since the three act structure is the simplest, I’ll cover it today. This is the structure you learn about in grade school. Act I is your beginning, the exposition, where you introduce the characters, the setting, and the inciting incident. Act II is your middle, the rising action, where all the cool stuff leading up the climax happens. Act III is where the big event happens, the climax, the moment that the story has been leading to all along. And directly after the climax comes the falling action and denouement, the final resolution of the story.

This is the most commonly used diagram to represent this structure:

While it is a simple structure, it doesn’t really say anything, you know? It’s a bit boring. I prefer a different representation. I took this diagram from Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers:

To me, this diagram makes more sense, even though the idea is the same. It implies struggle, a dynamic plot. The former diagram works best with short fiction, but novels need several little climaxes leading up to the big one. Vogler defines the peaks of his diagram as the high point of each act. Each peak is the former diagram, minus the exposition and denouement. After each miniature climax, the excitement settles for a bit before climbing again toward the next climax. The final climax should be the hardest struggle, the most significant trial the characters of your novel face.

Another thing that you’ll notice in the latter diagram is that the acts are not divided equally. Act I is very short, while Act II takes up half of the diagram. Act III should be a bit shorter and Act I a little longer than I drew, and the break between Act II a and Act II b should be directly in the middle, but you get the general idea.

Act I is the setup. Like I said before, it is where you introduce the characters, setting, and inciting incident. The break into Act II—that first little peak in the diagram—should be the moment when the character’s life changes, when the story really starts.

Act II spans half the diagram and is broken into two parts. In the first half of Act II, we see the consequences of the change in the main character’s life. We see the immediate result of the inciting incident and how the character chose to deal with it. The diagram steadily climbs as tension rises, as we see the effect of those consequences, until it reaches the midpoint, the break between parts a and b of Act II. This is where the story gets real. The danger is real. The consequences are real. It isn’t fun and games anymore. The rest of Act II leads into Act III, mounting the tension until the break into Act III. This is the moment where the main character begins to face the problem head on. They make a conscious decision to fight, to defeat the antagonist, whoever or whatever that might be.

Act III is rife with tension. That’s why it’s the rockiest part of the diagram. Everything that the character has done comes back to them in this act—characters they’ve met previously, lesser antagonists they’ve beaten or failed to beat, the consequences of earlier actions, etc. Act III holds the climax, the big moment of the story, where the main character either wins or loses against the main antagonist. This is the moment where the character faces the biggest threat.

Immediately following the climax, the story begins to settle. The denouement presents the result of the climax, the end of the story. The plot and subplots are wrapped up, and possibly, the theme is stated or expressed in a way. And the characters have clearly been changed by the story. The story ends in a different place than it began, the characters are different than when they began the story, and the world itself has changed.

This is a simple structure, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth using. Every story should have at least three acts, regardless of what specific structure it is. So, make sure your story has three acts and that it has the five parts of a story arc: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement. If you have these things, then your story has structure, even if it’s a simple structure.

Happy writing!

1 comment:

  1. I will definitely have to check this out with my current WiP. Thanks for the helpful posts.