Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Classic Plot Structure (3-Act Structure)

One of the cool things about the software we use to track visitor statistics for the Literary Lab is the ability to see what search terms were used to lead visitors here. A lot of people find us by entering "classic plot structure" into Google or whatever search engine. While Davin has written a post about the classic plot structure that you should by all means go read, it's more a commentary than a definition, so I'd like to take a few minutes and talk about the basics of the classic plot structure, which I'll henceforth refer to as the Three-Act Structure.

In brief, the Three-Act Structure is a framework to arrange story elements into a narrative, with pacing and major plot points as goals, a template into which you can pour your characters and events to give it shape. Narratives are constructed in three consecutive sections, or acts. The author has a distinct job to do in each of the three acts. The basic formula is:

Act One
Exposition, set-up, inciting incident. Hero is given a goal.

Act Two
The middle. The hero tries and fails to achieve goal.

Act Three
The climax and resolution. Hero makes last attempt to achieve goal and succeeds at last or fails forever.

(These are really sweeping generalizations, I know. But I didn't invent the classic plot structure, I just report on it.)

More detail:

In Act One, we see the hero (a word I use because it's shorter than "protagonist" and I'm less likely to misspell it) in his daily life, whatever and wherever that is. The hero has some internal need, usually, that can't be met in his daily life. Then, something happens to knock the hero off the rails of his daily life. He's been given a problem or a quest. Act One ends when the hero decides to solve the problem or take up the quest. The author's job in Act One is to establish the crisis in the hero's life that the hero must solve. There are lots of tasks involved in doing this job.

In Act Two, the hero struggles to solve the problem or complete the quest. He appears to be having success, though it doesn't come easy. The antagonist/villain fights against him indirectly. At the end of Act Two, the hero, who has been successful all this time, suffers a major defeat at the hands of the antagonist. Usually this defeat is caused by the hero's internal need which he has yet to deal with. This is the hero's lowest point, morally/physically/spiritually. All seems lost.

Lots of times, Act Two actually consists of the hero solving the problem that came up at the end of Act One, only to discover that it wasn't his real problem at all, and that he's got bigger fish to fry, which frying takes place in Act Three at the climax. The author's job in Act Two is to keep the action and the conflict rising toward the climax, and to show the hero attempting to re-establish equilibrium in his world (that is, achieve his goal). Lots of tasks involved in this job, too.

In Act Three, the hero bucks up and decides that he can go on, usually with greater resolve because yes, he's solved his inner problem that was holding him back. Or, he's realized he has this inner problem and is going to confront that. Either way, off he goes to fight the big fight at the Climax, after which there is a short denoument. The fight, of course, can be internal or metaphorical. Or fought with laser cannons; it's up to you. Your job, as author, is to resolve the crisis one way or another (or show how it cannot be resolved) in a manner that is believable within the rules of the story. The climax must seem both surprising and inevitable (except for those stories where you see it coming the whole time and hope the hero will avoid it). Again, lots of tasks are necessary to do this job.

So you have rising action, rising conflict, the possibility of total defeat and then even more action and conflict and then climax. Sometimes the hero dies or is otherwise defeated at the climax. Anyway, that's your classic Three-Act Structure in a nutshell. It gets more complicated as you layer on subplots and themes and other story elements, but you get the idea.

Another way of thinking about the Three-Act Structure is in terms of Action/Reaction/Results. Or perhaps as Problem/False Solution/True Solution. Or Crisis/Loss of Identity/Rebirth. Or At Home/This Is Not My Beautiful House/This Is My New House. Really, the different stories you can tell in this three-part structure are endless.

Now, is the Three-Act Structure of any use to a writer? I think very loosely in these terms when I do my outlining before I've begun actually writing. I also have begun lately thinking in terms of the Action/Reaction/Results 3-part structure when writing chapters and scenes, which gives a nice feeling of controlled flow to the writing. But I do think it's easy to fall into the trap of writing to a formula, which generally results in stories that are predictable, melodramatic, and otherwise suck.

The idea of the Three-Act Structure grew out of Aristotle's basic structure (which interested parties can read about in his Poetics):

Beginning, Middle, End

But Greek plays had only one act and don't divide nicely into the Three-Act template. Roman plays had five acts (as did the plays of Shakespeare and the Elizabethans), but that was to allow for intermissions and snack breaks. Ancient plays were longer than our two-hour movies so there were practical matters to which playwrights and theaters had to attend.

What I think is as useful for a story template as the Three-Act Structure is to divide the story into two types of action: the action that creates the problem, and the action that resolves the problem. This is how real conflict works in real life. You might try writing down the action that creates the problem and then the action that resolves it, and then break those actions down into scenes and see what you've got.

So while the Three-Act Structure might be a helpful organizing tool, I caution anyone against tying themselves too tightly to it. Stories are about who we are and how we solve problems, and I suggest we think in those terms and not so much in terms of "I haven't raised the stakes for my protagonist" or "I need to use my antagonist's minions in this act."

Beginning, middle and end. Start with the end, if you know enough about your story to know who your characters are. Who is he at the end of the story? Then tell us how and why he got there. That is what you are telling us. That is a story.


  1. Fantastic post Mr. Bailey! I'm so glad I don't have to read those boring college books anymore to see where I've gone wrong.

  2. That's right! Now you can read these boring internet posts wherein I beazle on and prolix for thousands of incomprehensible words while ostensibly giving advice about good writing! I rulez.

    Which is to say, I don't think I've been clear at all in this post. I begin to think that the problem of structure in a novel is more complex than can be addressed in so brief a manner as a blog post. Or, perhaps, that there is a further level of abstraction that will make it more comprehensible, but I can't quite put my finger on that abstraction. The 3-Act structure is both more and less than what I've said here.

    Isn't that helpful? I need coffee.

  3. I've recently been paying much more attention to structure, particularly the three act structure. The conclusion that I've drawn--as with basically every writing rule I've encountered--is that I need to work with it closely and long enough until I internalize it. After that, I think I will be able to much more flexible with structure because my brain will still keep this successful three-act structure in place, at least vaguely.

    Scott, can a five act structure be broken down specifically as you have done with the three act?

  4. Davin: Freytag's "pyramid" diagrams the 5-act structure, which sort of goes like this (I stole this from a web site about Freytag!):

    Act 1 -- Exposition. We meet the dramatis personae, and time and place are established. We learn about the antecedents of the story. Attention is directed toward the germ of conflict and dramatic tensions.

    Act 2 -- Complications. The course of action becomes more complicated, the "tying of knots" takes place. Interests clash, intrigues are spawned, events accelerate in a definite direction. Tension mounts, and momentum builds up.

    Act 3 -- The Climax of Action. The development of conflict reaches its high point, the Hero stands at the crossroads, leading to victory or defeat, crashing or soaring.

    Act 4 -- Falling Action. Reversals. The consequences of Act 3 play out, momentum slows, and tension is heightened by false hopes/fears. If it's a tragedy, it looks like the Hero can be saved. If not, then it looks like all may be lost.

    Act 5 -- Catastrophe. The conflict is resolved, whether through a catastrophe, the downfall of the hero, or through his victory and transfiguration.

    This fits Shakespearean tragedy well. I don't know about comedies, though. And you can sort of apply both 5-act and 3-act structures to the same stories with success. It all depends on how you view the midpoint of the story (as a high point in the tension or as a low point in the character's emotional arc) and if you think the reversals are part of the middle or a bridge from middle to end.

    My current project is being written as a hemi-three-act play, but I'm thinking about it more like two novellas. The framing story is one novella that gets interrupted by another novella:

    Novella 1 begins (Act One)
    Novella 2 complete (Act Two)
    Novella 1 concludes (Act Three)

    But that structure really does just serve the same purpose as the classic three-act structure. It's all just coming up with a servicable organizing principle.

  5. Coffee aside, I think what you said here is more than comprehensible for those of us who try to write in the everyday world and don't have the brilliance or the clarity with words that you and Davin so eloquently place here in the blog.

    I agree that the structure of a novel is more than complex be it 3 acts or 5, that is something every writer needs to work our for him/herself. And for those of us who write with no structure at all, your advice gives us all something to chew on instead of our pen caps.

  6. Thanks, Scott! It's like two posts in one!

  7. I knew there'd be a catch. They don't call you Scott "Read the fine print" Bailey for nothing.

  8. Scott, do you ever feel like the whole three act thing makes the story too predictable? And if so, is that a problem?

    Like this weekend I was watching the Vikings (long time Favre fan) and they were getting slaughtered. So I flipped around and caught most of the Mickey Rourke film, "The Wrestler." (And by the way, he was totally robbed at the Oscars. BRILLIANT performance in a possibly less than brilliant and oddly disturbing movie. But I digress.)

    Anyway, as things seemed to be looking up for The Ram, I started to relax. (Much needed after the barbed wire/stapler scene) but then I caught myself: We are in Act Two. The other shoe has to drop. Don't get too comfortable here.

    And so the ending wasn't really a surprise. And even though it had serious staying power, I think I would have been more affected if I had bought into that second act optimism more. And maybe that is an execution problem more than a third act structure problem.

    But I just don't know. You know?

  9. Jennifer, I experience the same problem now too. Ever since I've studied the three act structure, the majority of the movies I watch feel boring and predictable.

  10. Jennifer & Davin: Yeah, sometimes I see the mechanics of films, but I think that movies are, in general, more cookie-cutter than novels. I will also just say that I don't think much of the film as a medium for telling stories of any real depth, because films are so very limited and formulaic by nature.

    Still, the more you internalize (as Davin said earlier) the form, the more you're able to ignore it when watching movies. Oddly, it's never so obvious when reading a book that the writer is using the 3-act structure, but likely that's because most books take well more than 2 hours to read.

    When I first really started to study structure, my entertainments were less entertaining for a while, but that went away.

    But the main point I was going to make is that the 3-act structure is a very open thing, and that while it's good to have a plan, all plans are inadequate to the actual task of writing a novel, which is a messy beast of a thing. But you have to have some sort of organization of story elements. If the story is good and the writing is solid, the underlying structure won't draw attention to itself. The problem isn't with the 3-act structure, but with lame, predictable writing.

  11. Yep...did a post on this not tooo long ago! Love it.

  12. What a wonderful post! And I have read Davin's post. I learned a lot from reading it.

    As a matter of fact, I started looking at my novels in this way, which helped tremendously.

    Ever thought about writing a book on this Scott? Thanks for the help. :)

  13. Robyn: I have thought about writing a book about writing. First I'd like to have published novels, to make sure I really know what I'm talking about. After that, maybe.


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