Welcome to part 3 of a 5-part series about Plot Structures. Don’t worry book-lovers, reviews will find their way between these updates.
Two weeks ago, before the Lives of Tao review we explored how scene/sequel structure helps you control the pace of your narrative. This week, let’s look at how the classic three-act structure helps identify important dramatic moments or turning points in your story.
Credit where it’s due: It is difficult to trace the origins of three-act structure, because its roots are so entrenched in art history. Aristotle is credited with the genesis of the idea when he taught that a story must have a “beginning, middle, and end.” In ancient Rome, the dramatic theorist Horace (65-8 B.C.) elaborated in Ars Poetica (or The Art of Poetry), adding two acts. Eugene Scribe (1791-1861) internalized the “act” structure and applied it to dozens of plays in his day, which came to be known as the “Well-Made Plays”. Scribe and his contemporaries were studied and cross-examined by 20th century scholars such as Stephen S. Stanton, author of Camille and other Plays… so on and so forth, until your 9th grade English teacher taught it to you.
Three-act structure turns around hitting certain specific story beats. Let’s break it down:
Act 1 – The Setup
The Setup – We meet the main characters and understand their “normal”. We need to know what makes them tick, and what motivates them, so that as the story progresses, the reader understands why the main character keeps going, or, how we want to see them change. The challenge with this step is keeping it interesting. The first few pages are called the “hook” for a reason – this is your opportunity to grab the reader. Normal does not mean “boring.” The starting point should emphasize something exciting and unique about the character and situation, or, for more character-driven pieces, something very sympathetic.
Inciting Incident – Something happens to shake up “normal”. It is shocking, attention-grabbing, and poses challenges between the main character and their established goals which are sufficiently daunting so the reader does not immediately see the path to victory.
Second Thoughts – If the inciting incident is easily accepted, the challenge may not be… well, challenging. The protagonist should struggle with whether to go forward or turn back, before…
The Catalyst – A new event thrusts the protagonist forward. This event is the first point of no return, when the character overcomes their doubt and commits to tackling the problem from the inciting incident based on motives established during the setup.
Act 2 – Confrontation
Obstacles – The middle of a novel can get a bad wrap among writers. We throw around terms like the “murky middle”. If you find these negative thoughts creeping in, consider this: the middle is the fun part. This is where 90% of the exciting, crazy, dramatic, hilarious, or mysterious things in your novel will take place. Cut loose and have at it. Obstacles are more than just problems – they’re challenges with a purpose. Why does the obstacle want to stop the hero from reaching their goal? Why are they worth overcoming?
The Midpoint Twist – Just when the characters have their plans and think they understand the challenges in front of them, everything changes. There is a big reveal, a twist, or a new challenge. The stakes rise, and everything seems much worse. The twist births more obstacles, which leads to…
The Disaster – … a scene in which everything that can go wrong does, and all seems lost.
The Crisis – The hero experiences intense doubt about whether they can or should proceed as a result of the disaster. Ultimately (if the book is to continue, that is) the hero finds motivation to proceed, and marches towards The Climax. Resolving the Crisis is the mirror to the catalyst – the second point of no return.
The Climax – This is the moment you’ve been building towards. The final challenge is overcome. All questions are resolved. The protagonist’s personal goals from The Setup are either fulfilled, or consciously rejected. Go crazy, this should be the most exciting and dramatic part of your story.
Act 3 – Resolution
Falling Action – The characters reflect on changes to themselves and the world. If you’ve ever read a book that seemed to end abruptly, it is probably because they skimped on this piece. What did it all mean? How are the characters different? How is the world different? Some of the most emotionally satisfying scenes in any novel often come here, as we experience the character’s new reality. Unless you are intentionally leaving questions unresolved for a sequel, you should touch each plot thread at least once.
Three-Act Structure is all about conflict and turning points. In the beginning, we establish the motivations and setting which give our conflict meaning. Then, we overcome challenges on the way to experiencing a big twist. The story crashes into an explosive climax. After the final challenge is cleared, we tie up each loose end by reflecting on the changed world.
The three-act structure’s strength is its emphasis on important plot turning points. If your story feels a aimless, or like it’s missing a little umph at certain points, mapping your story against the beats outlined above can grease those rails and keep things chugging along smoothly.
Tune in next time for plot Structure 3: The Hero’s Journey.