- Karina Sokulski
The-Three Act Structure...No Brief History, Just Act I (and Contemplation)
So here's an interesting topic that came up while chatting with a couple of fellow writers: The Three Act Structure. What got me thinking about this topic (enough to write a few blog posts about it--only because it's a long one), was how we couldn't entirely agree on whether to use such a structure or not in our writing and to what degree. I know, artists not agreeing on something? Shocking.
To start off right, this is not about there being "a right way to use the three act structure, and I'm going to tell you how." We can throw that out the window right now, but this is a contemplation on one perception of the three-act structure and the very different reactions writers have to it. Also, I'll frame out the three-act structure by acts one, two and three for your convenience if you don't know it by heart (because boy howdy I don't, even though I use it from time to time).
Through my own understanding and practice, I've come to understand both sides of using the formula in writing and can summarize my knowledge of both opinions.
On one end there is the increasingly popular suggestion that the three-act structure is too formulaic and no art form should be fit into a contrived formula that tickle's Hollywood's brow.
On the other end, there is the never tiring suggestion that the structure itself is there to teach the rules of storytelling so that the writer may then learn to break the rules creatively. Now that I say that, I should mention that I did just paraphrase a famous quote by Pablo Picasso that reads as follows:
"Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist."
Just because I quoted an artist on one of these opinions in no way means I'm taking a side here. I did this to make a point as there is a bit of a struggle nowadays with Hollywood's recent habit of "Brand Label Safety." This is ultimately resulting in, for example, rehashing remakes and playing it safe on the movie production front that's dedicatedly making use of this formula when producing anything that isn't a remake of a previous film. By the way, this is a gross understatement of that issue, but it's not what we're talking about in this post. It's present enough in the back of my mind though so clearly I want to work it into this contemplation.
Sorry, let's refocus here.
Both opinions are valid and will inevitably come down to style, among other factors, but it's interesting to me how different the opinions can vary from, really, artist to artist. Or maybe that's not so surprising considering artistic identity. The point in all this being that with this effective structure that, by the by is based upon the observation of story structure as a whole, most forms of media we see today depend heavily on it because of the guidance towards storytelling it provides.
With any creative system that works; however, there's always going to be a backlash when something creative becomes systemic. I've jabbed at my frustrations with Hollywood twice already so I'll just state this point and get it out of my system now. A huge problem we're experiencing today is many filmmakers, and film making industries, are highly depending upon this formulaic structure in the absence of artistic effort--much to the frustration of artists--and getting the payoff anyway because "there's just nothing else playing at the movie theater." This is obviously not news to you, as you've seen it for yourself and I won't keep ranting on this so we can move on to why you clicked on this link in the first place.
The reason for pointing this out, mainly is that I've always found it easier to learn something and remember it if I understand not only what it is but what relevance it has to the world around me--especially if there is a negative aspect to it that can make me wiser as an artist.
Now I certainly don't mind pointing out the problems that arise from the use of this formula, but I won't say we haven't been seeing some form of improvement as, thankfully, this occurring in our media has inspired many novelists and screenwriters to do better. I also will not say it is wrong to use this formula as, again, this formula was created in observation of how a story functions.
There is always a beginning, middle, and end to a story, and everything in between often appears within the order the formula outlines. We'll get into how you should absolutely not adhere to every step in this structure as this formula should be used as a template rather than a rule book, but let's get through Act I before I burn your eyes out fo your skull from reading this impressively long intro.
For the sake of having clear definitions, what is the Three-Act Structure? The Three-Act Structure is a formulaic model used in narrative fiction to divide a story up into three acts (and or sections). The names of these three acts change interchangeably between a novelist or a screenwriter (.etc) but are most commonly referred to (in order) as, "The Setup," "The Confrontation," and "The Resolution." Below is a visual aid of the Three-Act Structure as a whole:
The structure itself has more complexity than what this graph is showing you, but we'll cover all of it in this part and the next two (yes, one blog post per act). As we proceed, you may notice some of the terms I use will differ from your own study or the examples I provide show you because interestingly enough, the writer who taught me all about this formula was a screenwriter rather than a novelist. I've come to realize there's little difference between the two other than choice vocabulary associated with sections of the formula. Bare with me on any confusion and note there is a comments section to ask any questions you may have.
Typically Act I of this structure is the backstory of both the world and your main character. We learn in this section how the world works and your main character's current role in it. Once this is established, the writer will move on to the first rung on this structure's ladder.
This is the incident that sets the plot of your story in motion. The problem is stated which causes your main character to perform an action that usually comes with a long-term consequence (i.e. this sets your character up to have to go on an adventure).
Let's use an easy one. L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz's inciting incident is when Dorothy runs away from home with Toto when she feels her family isn't heeding Mrs. Gulch's warnings about taking her dog away. When Dorothy is encouraged to return home by a professor in town, the twister appears and causes Dorothy to hit her head on the window and later wake up in the land of Oz. Dorothy's left her comfort zone and has literally been airdropped into a different world.
Point of Attack
This is where both the central conflict of your story and character motivation appear and the primary action of the story can get moving.
Let's stick to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz / The Wizard of Oz. Now a frightened and displaced Dorothy wants to return home and is advised by Glinda the Good Witch to follow the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City. The Wizard who can return her home lives there and is Dorothy's only way out. Character motivation is clearly established here. Glinda, the Good Witch, also states that the Wicked Witch will try to stop Dorothy on her journey. The central conflict of the story is also established in both the Wicked Witch's appearance and the world's fearful warnings of her inevitable intervention.
Point of Attack technically covers Central Conflict, but I make this its own point for a particular reason. That reason being that typically Central Conflict marks the end of Act I. Once the conflict is established, the character motivation naturally follows since the two tend to coincide. If they don't, and there's no motivation for your main character to go on this journey, then you're facing a structural problem. It should be noted that the Central Conflict and Character Motivation are more often exclusive than one and the same as one can be the cause of the other.
A goal in mind and warnings heeded (as warnings are what started Dorothy's journey in the first place) Dorothy sets out with Toto on the Yellow Brick Road to reach the Emerald City so she can go home.
As Central Conflict marks the end of Act I, "Lock-in" is Act I's tail-end that affirms the journey has been established and your main character proceeds to begin the said journey. This is the absolute end to the first act that connects to the beginning of Act II.
Dorothy begins to meet her friends (the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion) but has not yet encountered the roadblocks of Act II.
Let's leave the ramblings and outline of Act I to this post and look forward to the next post of ramblings and breakdown of Act II so you're not reading an impossibly long scroll of text.