Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Writing Tip #9: The Three Act Structure

Last week I wrote about Plotting. Plotting and structure go hand in hand. You generally determine both once you define your theme, what the story is “about.” Whatever your theme is, the hero needs to deal with it at the end. His character growth is tied into that theme. It’s the foundation of the story.

Here’s a great description of story, from Writing to Sell by Scott Meredith:
“A sympathetic lead character finds himself in trouble of some kind and makes active efforts to get himself out of it. Each effort, however, merely gets him deeper into his trouble, and each new obstacle in his path is larger than the last. Finally, when things look blackest and it seems certain the lead character is finished, he manages to get out of his trouble through his own efforts, intelligence, or ingenuity.” [or in some cases, like Romeo and Juliet, he dies trying.]

It sounds too simple, and yet nearly all the movies and novels produced today follow this story line. Makes no difference if your talking about vampires or space aliens or Shakespeare. In fact, looking at this year’s Oscar nominations, both Hurt Locker and Avatar both apply this perfectly.

But what of this thing called a three act structure? You simple lay the above story line over a framework that has three basic parts – setup, body, resolution. Lets dissect this further. The following is a set of turning points within a three act structure:

Act I
Opening Scene: The opening scene usually has two functions: to introduce the protagonist and hook the reader. It often introduces other characters, and perhaps even hints at the theme.
Inciting Incident: This is the place where you introduce the problem that the protagonist will be dealing with. It sets up a situation where the protag is faced with a choice whether to deal with the problem or walk away.
Hammer: This is the compelling incident that makes the protag decide to solve the problem. From here on out, s/he’s caught up until the problem is solved.
Armature into act II: Once the protag decides to act, s/he sets a series of events in play – events that will blossom in Act 2.

Act II
Act II begins:
Where as Act I sets up the conflict, Act II lets the conflict play its course, growing larger and more sharp. This is where the protag struggles to solve the problem, yet each effort creates a larger problem.
Midpoint: Stories, as well as characters, have an arc. The midpoint is when the story changes polarity. Many stories, from the protags point of view, move from positive to tragic. For example: Romeo goes to a party, see the girl of his dreams, woos her, and finally marries her. All positive. But at Midpoint, he fights and kills Tibalt. It’s all down hill from there. Now the lovers are parted, Romeo is banished, Juliet is promised to another, and in the end they both die. So it was positive unit midpoint, then all negative.
Other stories start off with the protag in serious trouble and it gets much worse for them until the midpoint, then things begin to get better, and finally end with the hero prevailing. Again, the midpoint is where the polarity changes. And at least for most screenplays, it actually happens pretty close to halfway through the story.
Armature into act III: The conflict between the protag and the antag continues to grow. This is the point just before the darkest moments. If the hero wins in the end, this is a place where s/he has a false victory. That is, they think they’re home free (but in Act 3 they have the rug pulled out from under them.) It is the lead into the final crisis.

Crisis: This is the place where the Hero is turned on his/her head. It looked like s/he was going to win, then they the rug was pulled out from them and it now looks like they are done for.
Climax: At this point in the story, when things look darkest for the hero, s/he uses his/her own efforts, intelligence, compassion or ingenuity to solve the problem and overcome the antagonist.
Resolution: The protag solves the problem and this is where s/he sees the fruits of that solution.

Of course, there are different variations on this particular structure. But you’d be surprised how many stories follow it to a T. Hopefully, I’ve explained it well enough for you to understand each turning point. It’s an interesting exercise to watch a moving, stopping it to consider how closely if falls into this structure.

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