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Story Structure – Part 2: Revisiting the Three-Act Structure

A few weeks ago, I started my discussion of story structure with a post about inciting incidents and beginnings and where those first turning points should come in a story. I thought today I’d write about what to look for in the first act of a story with a classic three-act structure, but then I started researching…

Did y’all know people actually disagree with each other about the three-act structure? On the Interwebz, even?

On the one hand, advocates of the three-act structure say all good stories fall into it in some fashion, that not following the structure is the biggest mistake new authors make, and that aspiring novelists should take a step back from their work and shape it to fit this structure to make it palatable.

On the other hand, there are folks who say the three-act structure is the biggest myth foisted on unsuspecting novelists and scriptwriters. These detractors claim that while the three-act structure can be useful for analysis, it’s worthless for process. They say that Aristotle never said stories have three acts—rather, he said a story should have a beginning, middle, and end.
Whew. I felt a little like a pinball after reading all of this conflicting advice.

What the Three-Act Structure Theory Says

Let’s back up a bit. The three-act structure of a story says that the first 20-25% of the story is your first act. In this act, you set everything up, introduce characters (including the antagonist or shadow of the antagonist), and establish your setting. The act ends with a major turning point for the protagonist. Something should happen no later than that 25% mark that changes everything for the protagonist. This is the point where your story must go forward, because there’s no going back—like the kid who climbs up a slide or a diving board and realizes that the only way out is down.

The second act is the big chunk that comprises the second and third quarters of the book—the point from 25% to 75%. At the 50% mark—the midpoint—there should be a significant event where the protagonist seems to be at his/her lowest point and the furthest away from achieving his/her goal. At the 75% mark, there should be another plot point—also called a reversal—when, despite the protagonist’s best efforts, he or she is sent in a new direction.

The third act is the last quarter of the book. The climax of the story comes somewhere close to the end of this act, followed by a denouement.

Intervals: A Better Way?

There are two things that all story analysts and engineers agree on: All stories need structure, and all stories need conflict. But for every story that I can analyze according to the three-act structure and find all the right markers, I can find one that doesn’t follow a strict three-act structure and still works. A Game of Thrones is a perfect example. It’s debatable who the protagonist even is in the story. Without a clear protagonist or antagonist, it’s hard to analyze story structure. There is certainly rising tension and conflict that culminates in a climax near the end, but does that book fit into a standard three-act structure? I’m not sure.

I propose a new structure theory: Intervals

My inspiration for this idea comes from physical interval training. The idea is that you start slow, ramp up gradually, and then drop off for an active rest period. You repeat your interval training for the prescribed amount of time, ending with one big push or high point or sprint or whatever before dropping off to a cool down period.

Doesn’t that sound sort of like a story structure? The three-act structure can still fit into the interval theory. Put four intervals in the four quarters, and voila! Your three-act structure, if that’s what you want.

But if it’s not what your story calls for, or if you want to try something different, or if you think you can tell a more compelling story outside of that typical structure, consider writing something in intervals.

What’s Important

In reading the various bits of advice about story structure, there are several things that stand out as being important:

1. Central conflict. The protagonist should have some central conflict that rises with a fair degree of regularity throughout the novel.

2. Obstacles. The protagonist should come up against obstacles with a fair degree of regularity—some he will overcome, some he will fail to overcome.

3. Reversals. Periodically, the protagonist should have some major event set him back or send him in a different direction in his journey toward his ultimate goal.

4. Climax. One final showdown between protagonist and antagonist close to the end of the story.

That’s it. That’s what’s important in structure. And I think that’s all that’s important in your story intervals—a cycle of conflict (or tension), obstacle, and reversal, with the last repetition ending with a climax rather than a reversal. If you repeat the rising tension/obstacle/reversal cycle three times or six times or twelve times, does it really matter if you call it a three-act structure? Probably not.

Analyze your favorite stories. Can you see a pattern of rising tension, obstacle, reversal? How many times does it happen? Does the story follow a standard three-act structure, or does it seem to defy reason—maybe with too much information up front or a climax that comes too soon—and yet still work? Why does it work? Is it structure, the writing, compelling characters?

I still think the three-act structure “rules” are useful. Looking at your work through the three-act lens is an exercise that can help you identify structure and see if your pattern makes sense. But I think the narrative world will probably survive—yea, even thrive—if your contribution strays a bit from convention.

In two weeks, I’ll look at what your beginnings should include (even if you don’t follow a standard three-act structure).

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10 Comments

  1. Avatar SLWestendorf says:

    Amy,

    I agree with the anaylsis of the Freytag’s Pyramid, I believe most of the better books are based on the three principles you mentioned. I was delighted to see you broach the subject of ‘Intervals’. I am currently reading a story which I believe would fit right into that categorization. The structure of the story is based on the three-act theory, only it is compartmentalized into intervals. The book by the way is by K.M. Weiland “Behold the Dawn” and it is a great read! I would be nice to see more authors have enough faith in their work to try something like this – sadly, I’m not one of them – at least not yet (big grin).

    Always love your posts – great information, GREAT topics! You are one of my favourite bloggers.
    Cheers~

    • SL, you know, the funny thing is, I was having a terrible time reconciling my current WIP with a three-act structure, and it was really stressing me out. I simply could not make it “fit” the proper percentages without adding unnecessary stuff or cutting necessary stuff. But when I started looking at it as intervals or ramping up of tensions, it started to make sense. I realized the conflict and tensions are rising all along–it’s just that my MC’s arc doesn’t fit neatly into the “proper” structure. What a relief!

      Thanks so much for the great comment and the compliment! 🙂

      • Avatar SLWestendorf says:

        I applaud your talent and your guts. Good for you, you have the know-how to take the road less travelled – I cannot wait to read your work! 🙂

        Isn’t it wonderful when you discover, you CAN actually step outside the box (or pyramid LOL) and do things your own way? It will never work, if you have to force it.

        Thanks Amy, always enjoy your posts – keep it comin’ girl!

  2. Avatar Gill James says:

    I prefer to see a slightly skewed three act stucture. The climax begins with the crisis, the point of no return. It’s the prince finding Cinders’ shoe. The climax is the gap between crisis and resolution. This is where the reader falls off their seat watching the car chase, or hides behind the sofa. It’s just off 3/4 point but never exactly on it. Golden segment? l

    • Gill, I like it. I can totally see how that can work. You just highlight my point, too–there’s no perfect structure, just the right structure for the story in question. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Avatar Khaldun says:

    Loving these posts on plotting. Such a difficult subject to tackle since pretty much everyone disagrees on how exactly it should be done (other than having a beginning, middle, and end). Thanks, Amy. Keep ’em coming!

    • Thanks, Khalun! I think we can all relax a little if we just admit that the beginning, middle, end structure is really the only “requirement.” 🙂 I think there are some elements that stories should have, but where they come in the structure is totally up for negotiation… 🙂

  4. Avatar Bets Davies says:

    Hm. I didn’t know that people applied three act structure to novels. And I have an MFA. Of course, I spent my time there writing a nonlinear looping narrative.

    I hate five paragraph essays. The structure was designed for speaking, not writing, and it only teaches a straightjacket combined with laziness for the writer. I think the same thing of the three act structure for novels. I’ll admit, plot isn’t my favorite aspect of novels. Character is. Most of the time, the characters drive what happens anyway. I agree it makes sense to have a beginning middle and end, but I don’t think in the least about fitting my plot into a cookie cutter format while writing. I just write what needs to happen. Going over them, it is possible other people can see three acts in my novels that I intuitively put there.

    However, while it might make sense to keep fantasy, I still prefer looping. Looping acts a little like a tide coming in. There’s a rise in tension and action, a loop towards or fall of the waves when something is solved. Then the loop slips backwards to examine what has happened, but rises higher, in a constant pounding rhythm a little farther in and a little harder till the big crash (and then all the unicorns run out of the water).

  5. […] can do this in your writing, too. Remember when I talked about intervals? Those intervals are periods of rising and falling tension, repeated as often as necessary to drive […]

  6. […] 1 – Story Structure: Beginnings Part 2 – Revisiting the Three-Act Structure Part 3 – In the […]

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