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80. Three Act Story Structure

80. Three Act Story Structure

What I’ve been calling “storytelling structure” is more commonly known as the “Three Act” structure. As in, a play in three acts. It’s one of the more common narrative structures people use to tell stories. We are off of our Star Wars kick, but I will say that movies like Lord of the Rings, the Matrix and yes, Star Wars, all follow the Three Act structure.

So what is it?

Most simple, the three acts go something like this:

Act One – Preparation

Here we meet all of the characters and get introduced to the conflict. If you think back to the twelve steps of the Heroes Journey, this is all the build up that comes before setting off on the adventure. In a romance, this would be everything that happens before boy meets girl.

Act Two – Conflict

This is the meat and potatoes of your story. The antagonist is working against the protagonist and the protagonist is running into problems at every turn. The important part of this section is that at some point, it should look like the protagonist is right about to reach their goals and then, well, things fall apart. After that, things should keep getting worse until the act closes with the protagonist at her lowest point.

Act Three – Resolution

The protagonist picks up the pieces and starts moving again, getting past obstacles and drawing on whatever reserve of strength they have. In the end, the conflict is resolved (whether for good or for ill).

As you might have noticed, the Second Act is often the hardest. Usually authors have a good grasp on the beginning of the story and where they want to take it, but they might have a much harder time spicing up all the exposition that comes in between. Here’s some advice from author Stephen Cannell on what to do if you get stuck in the Second Act,

Once we get past the complication and are into Act Two, we sometimes get stuck. ‘What do I do now?’ ‘Where does this protagonist go from here?’ The plotting in Act Two often starts to get linear (a writer’s expression meaning the character is following a string, knocking on doors, just getting information). This is the dullest kind of material. We get frustrated and want to quit.

Here’s a great trick: When you get to this place, go around and become the antagonist. You probably haven’t been paying much attention to him or her. Now you get in the antagonist’s head and you’re looking back at the story to date from that point of view.

Before you ask, there are plenty of reasons not to tell your story this way. Momento and several Tarantino films begin somewhere in the middle of the second act as a narrative hook, to raise questions in the mind of the audience. One reason that they break the mold is because in a lot of ways, the Three Act structure has become a cliché and deviating from it makes things more interesting. Like anything else, however, if you plan to break the rules you should have a clear idea why you’re doing it. Even if you don’t keep these acts in this order, the elements should always be retained.

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