THE THREE ACT PLOT
Today I’m being a bit controversial. Lots of people really hate three act structure (like the guy who wrote this, for instance… https://filmcrithulk.wordpress.com/2011/07/07/hulk-presents-the-myth-of-3-act-structure/). Some even go so far as to say it doesn’t exist (because all stories have a beginning, middle, and end). That’s fine. But I’ve always found this structure a helpful model and tool – one which, like any tool, we’re free to lay aside if it doesn’t suit our purpose.
I was only a kid when Star Wars – A New Hope hit the big screen. Its runaway appeal was not something anyone expected at the time and many have been trying to capture (or recapture) its appeal ever since.
I use it as a model when I talk to kids about writing in the English class I’ve been teaching at school because it is one of the most formulaic and also one of the most creative of stories.
George Lucas deliberately built Star Wars around a storytelling formula, the Monomyth. A lot has been made of the monomyth over the years but for those who are unfamiliar with it, the monomyth (sometimes called the Hero’s journey) is something of a universal story structure. From classical myths to fairytales to modern novels, the monomyth is detectable in a large number of stories. It tells the story of a person’s journey from ordinary life into the world of adventure and back. If it sounds a little like the beginning, middle, and end of familiar three act structure, then that’s largely because it is.
Here are the basic pieces of the story (abandoning the mythic language in favour of the language used to describe three act structure and using Luke Skywalker’s journey to illustrate).
This is the call to action. Characters don’t go out looking for a story to be part of. They are magnets for one. The story finds them. An event occurs that brings the story to them..
Example: Luke Skywalker is living quietly on a farm (dreaming of adventure) and his uncle buys two droids that are fleeing an evil galactic empire and charges him with their care. Here Luke discovers the message from the princess calling him to adventure.
Initial obstacle (minor)
This is something minor that gets in the protagonist’s way.
Example: R2D2 runs away and Luke is forced to follow after him in order to bring him home.
Raising the stakes – (moderate obstacle(s))
The characters encounter new and somewhat more difficult obstacles. This scene is usually where the antagonist is identified (at least in part – enough to make the objective clear and the antagonist concrete).
Example: Luke encounters the Sandpeople, an event that leads directly to his encounter with Obi Wan Kenobi, the individual who will become his mentor, and who invites him to join the larger quest.
Point of no return
This is where the character’s bridges are burned. It is where the characters are set on a path that will lead inexorably to the final confrontation. It provide them with a compelling reason why they cannot turn back now.
Example: Luke initially resists the call to adventure, but when his aunt and uncle are killed there is no longer anything to keep him on Tatooine.
The characters encounter even more and increasingly difficult obstacles as the story leads up to the reversal
Example: Luke encounters new allies to aid him on his journey (such as Han Solo, Chewbacca and the Princess Leia Organa) as he encounters increasingly difficult obstacles – escaping Tatooine, stowing away on the death star, rescuing the princess, escaping the trash compacter etc.
This is the moment where everything goes wrong. The characters find themselves trapped by their circumstances, find their goals blocked, and victory appears to be granted to the antagonist of the story. The reversal leaves them feeling all hope has been lost only to find a solution at the last minute.
Example: Obi Wan Kenobi is killed in the escape from the death star. All seems lost. This moment is a key one in Luke’s transition from passive participant on the journey to active hero. The mentor has to be removed in order for the hero to stand on his own two feet and embrace his destiny.
Final confrontation and victory(?)
The characters confront their adversary and attempt to achieve their goals. It is here that the day is won or lost (though victory may not come in quite the way the character hoped or expected).
Example: Luke performs the canyon run against the death star and embraces his destiny by using the force to deliver the torpedos that destroy the giant space station.
Denouement (and optional twist)
Whether the story is concluded or is being transitioned into a brand new story, the characters need a moment to catch their breath and see the fruits of their efforts. Who got the girl? What consequences have flowed from the characters actions? What friends and enemies have they made, etc?
Example: Luke is now a member of the rebel alliance, he receives a medal and joins his new friends in a larger conflict. As a twist the last scene shows Darth Vader’s ship spinning out of control into space. The death star has been destroyed but, clearly, the villain is still alive.
Star Wars is a very formulaic story and also very creative. It blends the familiar elements of a near universal plot structure with absurd technology, alien worlds, and mysticism and magic. It demonstrates that the use of a formula need not lack in depth and creativity. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. English uses a very limited number of letters to create all the words we use to communicate. A small set of components can be used in a huge variety of ways.
Three Act structure can help tell the story of a cosmos spanning galactic adventure or an intimate little boy-meets-girl romance. It can be embroidered and expanded in lots of ways (the outline of Luke’s journey is in no way the sum of all the story elements in Star Wars). And like any tool it can be subverted, employed in novel ways, or laid aside completely.
One variation I quite like introduces a redirection after the rising tension. The protagonists discover that the villain they are pursuing is not actually the villain at all, but rather someone else is behind it all, or they learn that rather than saving the macguffin they have been persuing, they must destroy it. Usually this resets the rising tension so that a new rising tension leading up to the reversal can occur. This is a particularly neat way to overcome the problem of a dragging second act as it tends to revitalise the story at what is, perhaps, its weakest point in terms of pace.
Most of my stories use three act structure as their launching point. Though plenty of writers object to it, feeling it is highly restrictive, I like it, not least because it gives me an accessible form to wrap my stories in, but because it is also a very satisfying way to tell a tale. When I come away from a story feeling unsatisfied, it is usually because the writer has neglected one of the key elements of story structure. And often, in the writing of those who claim to reject the three act structure (as narrowly defined) or substitute 2, 4, 5, 7 and 9 act structures as being more suitable, you can discern the elements of the standard structure I’ve outlined here. Pick a few of your favourite movies or novels and see if you can’t chart their plot points against the structure provided. It makes an interesting and eye opening exercise.
What’s your view regarding 3 act structure? Are there other structures that you use? Share your thoughts and opinions below in the comments.
This article is © 2017 by Philip Craig Robotham – all rights reserved.