Big Picture Story Structure – Part 1: Three-Act Structure

Luke SkywalkerBefore I start, I want to let you know in order to do this subject justice, I need a lot more space than one article is normally allotted. So, it’s divided into three parts.

The first part begins a discussion on the Three-Act Structure, the second part will finish it off before we move on to the third part, which will discuss Seven-Point Story Structure and plot weaving.

So fair warning, timbers be shivered. Cliffhangers be ahead.

Introduction

This three-part article continues my series of articles that started with Do Writers Really Need to know Theory?

Today I’m going to talk about structure.

One of my earliest memories of writing structure is a high school fiction course where the teacher drew a curve on the chalkboard. Yeah, not white board. That’s how old I am. Chalk was still a thing, and so was cleaning chalk brushes for punishment.

Anyway, the famous curve.

I’m sure many have seen it. It represented the rising and falling action that a story was supposed to follow. And along the curve the teacher would label certain sections, calling them things like exposition, conflict, rising action, falling action, and resolution.

If you’re like me, you stared at that curve, wide-eyed, thinking, “OK, seems straightforward enough, but what the heck does it mean, and how is this helpful?”

The curve is simple and straightforward, but the concepts behind those labeled sections aren’t. Each is a can of worms as deep as you want to dig.

Basic Structure

The way I view things, you can separate structure into two categories, macro-level structure and micro-level structure. The former is similar to looking at your story like a General on top of a hill looks on a battle unfolding in the valley below. The details are blurred, but the major troop movements, involving hundreds or thousands of soldiers, are clearly visible. And to a General, that’s all that matters. They’re trying to win the battle, not a single one-on-one encounter. Though a single encounter can have great significance, the General is only concerned with the summation of all these encounters, and that in the end his side comes out on the positive end of the ledger.

In writerly terms, that means that the major movements and flow of the story work, and you cross the finish line with something satisfying to the reader.

Micro-level structure is looking at the story from the point of view of a soldier fighting in that valley. The small details are up front and in your face. The only troop movements you can see are your own and those immediately around you. The big picture is, for the most part, not on the radar, because you’re just trying to survive and make it to the next encounter, be this one won or lost. In writerly terms, this is like the next chapter or scene.

This article will cover the macro-level elements of a story, specifically using my two favorite theories/tools for this, the Three-Act Structure and Dan Well’s 7-Point Story Structure. Obviously, there are other ways to break down a story, but this is how I do it. And I’m going to use Star Wars Episode IV as the example because it’s one story I’m certain most know or have easy access to. Plus, it seems appropriate considering, as I’m writing this, Episode VII is on the horizon. (And it better be darn good… *drops to knees* Oh please movie gods, be good. My childhood pleads with you.)

Yes, Star Wars is a Heroes’ Journey structure, but I’m going to talk about it in more general terms. I’ll break it down like I would any other story. After all, A Heroes’ Journey story is just a specialized version of a “normal” story.

Episode IV: An Old Structure

The Three-Act Structure

In the writing world, the mention of the Three-Act Structure is probably as ubiquitous as N-bombs are in a Tarantino movie or butt-shots are in a Kardashian Instagram feed.

When I first encountered the Three-act Structure, I glanced it over, shrugged, and continued to write. Seemed simple enough, but I didn’t see how it helped my big-damned-heroes save the day or how it could make the reader care.

But through my struggles and study, I figured out much like the curve I mentioned above, the Three-Act Structure is simple in concept, but understanding and using it isn’t always so.

It has labels too, and understanding those labels isn’t always easy, especially when you google something up. All it takes is one poorly worded forum post or article… ahem… and it can spin someone into confusion, or worse, complete misunderstanding.

I’m not claiming that I have the absolute answers. What I’m putting down here is how I understand things after reading many writing books, breaking down many stories, writing numerous short stories, and as of this moment, finishing three novels, the latest one, literally minutes before I started writing this article.

Hopefully, I can add to the clarity of the matter, or at least not cloud it further.

So what is the Three-Act Structure?

Generally speaking, it’s the concept that a story can be divided into three acts. The first-act comprises 25% of the story. The second-act comprises 50% of the story, which leaves 25% for the third-act. You may now begin your slow clap, while I power-up from the rank of Lieutenant Conspicuous to Captain Obvious.

OK, there’s more. These percentages are very broad guidelines which many stories can play with. I haven’t had a chance to confirm this yet, but I once read that Live Free or Die Hard is what’s called a Third-Act Movie. This is where the first two acts of the story are quickly told and the bulk of the movie’s run-time takes place in the third-act.

Regardless if this is true, it gives you the idea of how broadly one can twist things. Never let facts get in the way of a good story, right?

Understanding the Three-Act-Structure will allow you to plan the major movements of your story, and if executed well, it’ll take your reader for an emotional roller-coaster ride on that story curve. It’ll help the reader understand why things are happening and why they should care, not only about the story but about your characters as well.

Three-Act Structure: Act-1

I first started to realize the value of the Three-Act Structure when I read the screenwriting book Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. I don’t want to turn this into a shameless plug, so I’ll just shamefully say this book, and its two follow-ups, are made of 100% pure awesome. Simply stated, it’s filled with straightforward insight but makes no guarantees. It does a great job of making you feel writing your story is infinitely possible but lets you know it still requires hard work.

And after I’m done writing each day, I use the Sham-Wow-Now cleaning rag to tidy my workspace. It’s no Sham, but if you buy it Now, you too will say, “Wow.”

Hello?

Are you still with me?

Sorry about that, I’ll shut the front door and get to the meat of things, the first act. :p

The first act is where you set up your main plot. You introduce your main character for that plot, and you introduce their problems. Basically, you give the audience a good, long look or a solid glimpse of what it’s like to be them.

The first-act can be very short, like one scene, or it can sprawl out. In Star Wars, it’s a bit of a sprawl. We’re not even introduced to our protagonist, Luke Skywalker, until almost 20 minutes into the movie. From then, we learn Luke dreams of leaving Tatoonie and becoming a pilot like his father, but he’s trapped on the moisture farm. Uncle Owen needs him for the harvest. He can’t even go to Tosche Station to pick up some poooower converters because he has to clean some dirty, old droids.

Within the first act, there is—I’m sure many have heard this term—the Inciting Incident. It can go under different names under different writing theories, but for the most part, definitions will say something to the effect this is what begins the story conflict.

The way I see things, the inciting incident is what begins the main plot conflict for your main character. In this case that’s Luke Skywalker. (Things will get more complicated when there are multiple main plots, main characters, and subplots. I’ll discuss this later in the article when I talk about plot weaving.) Without the inciting incident, the main plot never starts for the main character. For Star Wars, some say the inciting incident is when the Empire captures Princess Leia, because if that doesn’t happen then the story doesn’t start, but I respectfully disagree.

The main story is Luke’s Story, and it doesn’t begin until Luke’s uncle buys R2-D2. Because if that doesn’t happen, Luke’s story never begins. If they don’t buy R2-D2, Luke never discovers the secret message from Leia, his Uncle and Aunt don’t die at the hands of Stormtroopers, and he never leaves Tatoonie. The story of Star Wars will shift around him, but he never enters it. And what’s Star Wars without Luke Skywalker?

In addition, with an inciting incident, the main character must make a conscious choice, a choice that knowingly or unknowingly throws them into the story. Remember, R2-D2 wasn’t their first choice for an astromech. They were about to walk away with a red R2 unit and leave R2-D2 behind when the red R2 unit shorts out, and Luke suggests taking R2-D2 as its replacement. This speaks to the concept of proactive characters. They play a part in getting themselves into situations. They don’t just fall into them.

That’s why I think this is the inciting incident for Star Wars.

Three-Act Structure: Breaking into Act-2

Between act-1 and act-2 there is a transition point. It’s another point where your main character makes a conscious choice, which moves them from their normal world into the story world. This is called breaking into the second act. No matter what happenstance drops into their laps, the final choice of whether to enter the story or not should still be theirs.

In Star Wars, it’s when Luke’s Uncle and Aunt are killed, and he decides to join Ben on his quest to save the Princess. To give other examples, in the first Lord of The Rings movie, there’s a scene where Sam stops in his tracks and says, “This is it. If I take one more step, it’ll be the furthest away from home I’ve ever been.” Frodo goes to Sam and there’s a moment where they both cross that threshold together. In the Matrix, it’s Neo’s famous red pill or blue pill choice. Go down the rabbit hole or go home.

For Luke, crossing that threshold is punctuated with the famous cantina scene. It shows Luke out of his element, and that he’s not in Kansas anymore. He’s entered the story world.

With that said, this is where I drop the cliffhanger on you now. I’m sorry. Please don’t throw stuff at the screen.

Continue on to part 2 in this series, where we continue our discussion of the three-act structure.

For Further Discussion

Have you experimented with unconventional story structures?  How did these experiments work out?

Do you feel that the three-act structure is overdone?  Why?

Can you identify the inciting incidents and act-2 break points in your favorite books and movies?  Share some examples.

Born in Vancouver BC, John Wong is a graduate of the University of British Columbia and Capilano University with a degree in computer science. He has workshopped his writing at UBC, Capilano University, and Langara College, and his writing is focused in the genres of science fiction and fantasy, with occasional forays into contemporary. His short story, Broken Promises, appears in the Iron Pen Anthology. Like many Canadians, he loves watching and playing hockey, and still fantasizes about being drafted one day by his hometown Canucks.

9 Responses to Big Picture Story Structure – Part 1: Three-Act Structure

  1. John, that was a great beginning of an explanation for your story structure explanation. As I’m a newbie to writing, I came upon this site and have read some interesting stuff on here. And you broke down it really well. Can’t wait to get to the next one. Maybe after reading your posts, I’ll be able to finally get started on my idea. Great job. And looking forward to more from you.

     
  2. This was a great read. I am in the middle of a few writing projects myself, and I’ve been considering trying to take a wider lens approach — usually I just start writing and see where it takes me…which is all well and good until I run out of steam. I’m thinking of plotting out the three acts to give me some more structure to work with.

     
    • I use to be a seat of the pants writer too, and like you I’d run out of steam. When I started to study structure, I realized how useful it was in keeping me on track.

      Just knowing broadly where I was headed kept me motivated because I never felt like I was completely lost.

      Now days, I’m more of a hybrid. I outline, but I leave enough room to explore and wander when I feel there’s something more interesting outside of my broad outline.

      I tend to discover my characters as I write, so sometimes a character no longer fits the plot, and I have to adjust my outline accordingly. And with the outline, I can see broadly how certain changes will affect the rest of the story before I commit to them 100%.

      Thanks for reading.

      Cheers

       
  3. Interesting how you eventually brought up Lord Of The Rings there, because in the earlier section I was thinking that its inciting incident doesn’t quite conform to your guidelines.

    I would think that the inciting incident for LOTR (or more specifically, Frodo’s story), would be Bilbo leaving the shire and bequeathing the ring to Frodo. Frodo makes no conscious choices, as far as I can remember, that draw him in to the story; he more or less has the story dropped right on top of him.

    Nonetheless, I found this to be a very informative, enjoyable and thought-provoking article. I’m yet to delve into the next chapter of it, but I will most certainly be doing so soon. 🙂

     
    • You’ve definitely identified the inciting incident, but I think there’s a different way to think about things here.

      It’s been a while since I’ve watched LOTR, but if memory serves, there’s a scene after Bilbo leaves Bag End when Frodo comes looking for him.

      When he enters Bag End, he finds Bilbo’s ring on the floor. He picks it up and goes over to Gandalf. Gandalf holds out an envelop, and Frodo puts the ring into it. Gandalf seals the envelop and holds it out for Frodo to take, and says something to the effect, “Bag End is yours now along with all it’s possessions.”

      Frodo has a choice here. He doesn’t have to accept his inheritance, but he does. And of course that comes with the One Ring.

      If he doesn’t accept his inheritance, specifically the ring, then he doesn’t enter the story. The Ring Wraiths don’t come looking for him, and he doesn’t have to run from the Shire. 😀

      I’m glad you’re enjoying the article. Thanks for reading.

       
  4. It seems the three act structure has become more popular since the early 2000′, with a lot of movies doing this but I see nothing wrong with it when it is done right. I prefer series over movies because they last longer so a longer movie is always welcomed!

     
  5. I can’t say the three-act structure is overdone — it’s too important of a concept to abandon — but maybe three-act writing is overdone (if that makes any sense.)

    It would be hard to write something like flash or short fiction without sticking to three acts to a degree, but I think long-form writing should be a bit more…dynamic.

     
  6. Funny and well-written, it’s nice to see a memorable article for an important concept. I too remember the infamous curve on the chalkboard in school! While it is a great place to start, you are absolutely right that we can dig deeper and create a story truly unique. It’s funny you mention Tarantino, too, as he is someone who breaks away from the three-act structure so readily.

     
    • I’m glad you liked the article. Hopefully the rest of it won’t disappoint.

      As for Tarantino, I have’t studied the structure of his films, so I can’t say for sure, but I’d be surprised if the Three-Act Structure isn’t in there somewhere. It’s probably just wearing a moustache and funny wig.

      The man just loves his non-linear storytelling, and when you mix in multiple plot threads, things can get tricky.

      I’ll talk a little about this in the last part of this article when I talk about multiple plot threads and plot weaving.

      Cheers

       

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