Three Acts

By popular demand (8 out of 15 votes), the new working title for my WIP is The Cunning. I want to thank everyone who voted and commented. You've given me a lot to think about for later when I give this thing its real title.

And a special thank you to the folks who said they liked the story idea. That kind of encouragement is always welcome here :-)

So I'm plotting out The Cunning now. I freaking love this part. Everything's out there, just waiting for me to figure it out, and (because I plan before I draft) I don't have to spend a lot of time doing it. I might talk more about that later. Right now, because it's on my mind a lot, I want to talk about the Three-Act Structure and (maybe later) the Hero's Journey.

The simple form of the 3-Act goes like this: (I) setup, (II) confrontation, (III) resolution. In more detail...

Act One

* Introduce protagonist, "normal" world, and supporting characters.
* Introduce simple conflict.
* Ends when the main conflict is introduced and the protagonist's world is irrevocably changed.

Act Two
* In an effort to solve the main conflict, protagonist tries and fails against increasingly difficult obstacles.
* Ends with the Final Reversal - the last bad thing before everything is resolved. The protagonist has had enough, or the villain thinks they have defeated the hero for the last time. Whatever.

Act Three
* The protagonist faces the main conflict in the climax.
* Everything else is resolved.

That's one way to look at it, albeit a simple one. But it doesn't explain much about Act Two, which is supposed to be half of the story. Screenwriter Syd Field saw this and improved upon the 3-Act Structure calling it the Paradigm...

Opening Image:
The first image or scene that summarizes the story, especially its tone. This is kind of a screenplay thing, but it can work in novels just as well.
Inciting Incident: The protagonist encounters the problem that will change their life.
Plot Point 1:
The turning point, in which the protagonist's life is irrevocably changed.

Pinch 1:
A reminder, halfway between the beginning of Act Two and the Midpoint, of the overall conflict (e.g. while the protagonist deals with his obstacles, cutaway to the villain for a scene).
Midpoint: An important reversal or revelation that changes the direction of the story. Field suggests that driving the story to this scene can keep the middle from sagging.
Pinch 2:
Another reminder scene, connected to Pinch 1, and halfway between the Midpoint and Plot Point 2.
Plot Point 2:
The final reversal, when the hero has had enough or the villain believes they've defeated them for the last time.

Midway through Act 3, the hero confronts the problem for the last time. They don't have to win.
Resolution & Tag: The issues of the story are resolved, giving the audience closure.

This post is long enough already, so I put my examples in the comments. Feel free to add your own too; trying to match stories to this formula will probably teach you more than I could. (I learned a lot just figuring out my examples).

And remember, the three-act structure is not The Formula By Which All Stories Are Told. It's just one way to think about things. If you're not sure where your story needs to go next (like me) then it can be really helpful.


Adam Heine said...

My examples are both kid movies because (a) their stories are simple, so the structure is easier to see and (b) I have to watch them all the time.

Example #1: Finding Nemo
Opening Image: Marlin's wife and children are eaten by the barracuda - all except Nemo.
Inciting Incident: Nemo and his new friends play near the drop-off, a place Marlin would never allow Nemo to go.
Plot Point 1: Nemo is taken by divers at the drop-off.

Pinch 1: Nemo is dumped into the dentist's fish tank, where it's revealed he is to be a present for Darla the Fish Killer. Gill tries to help him escape, resulting in Nemo's near-death.
Midpoint: Against Dori's warnings, Marlin swims over the trench into a jellyfish forest, resulting in Dori's near-death.
Pinch 2: Hearing that his father is coming for him, Nemo makes the escape attempt again, this time succeeding.
Plot Point 2: Darla arrives, and in an attempt to escape Nemo plays dead. Marlin and Dori arrive in the dentist's office, see Nemo floating upside-down in the bag, and believe they've failed.

Showdown: Nemo escapes and finds Dori and his father, only to have Dori caught in a tuna net. Marlin must trust his son is capable enough to rescue her.

Adam Heine said...

Example #2: Kung-Fu Panda
Opening Image: Po dreams that he's a kung-fu legend.
Inciting Incident: The masters at the Jade Temple announce they will choose the Dragon Warrior. Po wants to watch, but has to sell noodles instead.
Plot Point 1: Po ditches the noodles and ends up in the middle of the Jade Temple where he is chosen as the next Dragon Warrior.

Pinch 1: Tai-Lung escapes from prison.
Midpoint: Po discovers that he IS good at kung-fu, provided he focuses on something else (like food).
Pinch 2: Tai-Lung faces, and defeats, the Furious Five.
Plot Point 2: Po receives the Dragon Scroll, which will turn him into the fabled Dragon Warrior, but it's blank.

Showdown: Po realizes the scroll is blank on purpose; there is no magic scroll that makes someone great - only their own belief can do that. Po faces Tai-Lung and defeats him.

Natalie said...

I've seen this before, but thanks for the reminder! I've just realized I've effectively stopped at the end of Act I in both my WIPs. Go figure. That's a really good thing to know, because now I can think about Midpoints, etc, and how to get there.

T. Anne said...

I love this! I need to print it out and study, study, study!

BJW said...

Thanks Adam, I just copy and pasted this into my writing notes. Cool.

Matthew MacNish said...

Thank goodness this post is old, because when I first followed the link ...