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Three act structure.

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Miskatonic, Nov 5, 2015.

  1. Miskatonic

    Miskatonic Auror

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    I see the three act structure touted by so many writers, whether they are novelists, screenwriters, etc. I'm starting to wonder if it's just an outdated approach that is merely there to give the writer a false sense of security because the structure has succeeded more than failed in the publishing world (making it appear more lucrative to just follow blindly).

    All these rules and templates seem to be there only to dictate the confines in which we are allowed to express ourselves. I know they aren't rules written in stone, but still, they all assume you have one MC that does the same old "quest", in whatever form it takes, and at certain parts of the book you have to have a conflict of some type, then some type of resolution at a specific point as well.

    It's like we are writing to an audience that never takes it's literary training wheels off and actually evolves to reading stories with a little more complexity. These don't have to be huge leaps, just a slowly moving progression.

    And last of all, if you are writing a multi-book "series", trying to plan out a three act structure within that looks to be a major pain in the ass, especially if you aren't doing a trilogy.

    Any thoughts?
     
  2. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

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    Three years ago, I linked a video about the three-act structure, and why so many video games use amnesia as an excuse to cut out act one and just have two acts. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bIQ6yWptvfA At the time, I took it at face value, but now I have to wonder why you need a three-act structure at all if you have to go to so much trouble to keep it from being boring. A lot of action-heavy works do just fine with little to no infodumpy act one, establishing the characters through how they behave in a crisis. And more experimental works may not have distinct acts at all!
     
  3. Miskatonic

    Miskatonic Auror

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    Three act seems to work well for movies as you have a set viewing time so you have to pace it effectively. And those are a much larger investment, so it makes sense to keep basic narratives in line with that structure.

    But with books, some people might read a chapter and come back two days later and start again. As long as they are interested in what happens next, some dictated structure is secondary. Maybe it helps undisciplined writers that are starting out to understand how to structure a story; but if you know what you are doing it seems pointless.
     
  4. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

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    There are many different types of story structure. The 3 Act structure is the most common, & some say that's because readers inherently understand and desire the concept of a beginning, middle, & end.

    That doesn't mean a 3 Act story can't be complex, or that it must be limited to a stand alone story or a single main character. Far from it.

    You can have a multi-POV book where each character's individual viewpoint follows its own beginning, middle, end within the larger whole. Often they all meet somewhere in the end, which can make the story far more complex in terms of weaving all those plot lines together.

    You can also write a long series in this structure. It's been a long time since I've read Jordan's Wheel of Time books, so forgive me if my memory lacks, but I believe each of those books has a story within the whole that progresses along a 3 Act structure.

    Three act is my default choice as I believe in the reader's preference toward this structure. However, in the future I'd certainly entertain experimenting with other forms. For now though, I'd rather stick with what I know until I've gained a measure of success.

    Many in my writing group use the scene-sequel approach, which sees a lot of use and has great lessons for any writer to consider. Then there's a the 5 Act structure, the 7 Act structure, 9 Act, etc.

    There's plenty to choose from so figure out what you think your story needs and try it out. But, don't discount the 3 Act structure because it's common. There's more complexity and flexibility there than one might imagine.
     
    Heliotrope likes this.
  5. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    I like it as an outline to keep my ideas focused and to make sure I have decent checkpoints thought the story. It prevents me from wandering too much. For my novel I have done as t Allan noted, though and it has become fairly complicated. I have charted a 3AS for the main plot, another one for the romance sub plot, and at least 3 others for my key characters have have very developed character arcs. I treat outer conflict ( the plot) and inner conflict ( the character arc) as the same weight, so each needs to have their own structure. Then I weave it all together. It just helps to keep things organized, and I find much deeper, clear, concise, and action packed then when I don't use structure.

    I was skeptical too, when I first moved from just 'writing' to trying to use structure and scene/sequence and MRU's among other things, but I have found that since using all forms of structure my stories have vastly improved.

    Once criticism I have read from literary agents/publishers is that the books that end up in their slush pile very rarely have enough conflict. You can never have too much conflict (both inner and outer) and often times the writer just doesn't take the story far enough. Deep enough. I have found that by really utilizing 3AS (or 5AS or 7AS or heros journey etc) as well as scene/sequence, as well as MRU's that I have developed a much stronger grasp on conflict and creating conflict where I probably wouldn't have before.
     
    Last edited: Nov 5, 2015
  6. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    You and I see rules and templates very, very differently.

    The rules and templates are there to tell you what has worked for others. You are under no obligation to follow them. My experience, however, is that writing fiction is hard. The more I try to go off on my own, the more I tend to screw up.

    I've also learned that it's difficult for me to judge my own work. Just because I read something I wrote and think, "Wow, that's the awesome!" does not mean anyone else on the planet will feel that way. From conversations, it seems like most writers eventually come to feel the same way. I'm not sure how a writer, then, goes about developing an entirely new structure that readers will react positively to.
     
    Brian G Turner likes this.
  7. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    kennyc and Heliotrope like this.
  8. Miskatonic

    Miskatonic Auror

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    What I meant was if you take the three act structure to be gospel, then by following it you may end up having to make sacrifices where your story is concerned, under the assumption that this is the only way to go about writing a novel. Nobody is obligated to follow it, as you said. However, the noobs that are curious about writing may get boxed in if all they hear is three act structure from published authors.

    The attitude I get from a lot of these articles is "Want to get published? This is how you need to structure your story."

    If you try to develop your own structure it isn't much different than using the orthodox method right? You write and then get critique/feedback from others, and then you adjust accordingly.

    I'm not saying the three act structure is detrimental by default to anyone's writing by any means.
     
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  9. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    If the person reading the article is such a newbie that they don't understand that they have options, they'd probably be better off just sticking with the 3 act structure.
     
  10. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    Many of these threads end up feeling/sounding the same. ON the one hand, a "rule" is presented–most likely, as a step for dismissing it. But even if the topic is presented for clarification, everyone coming to it may still be looking for a "template," or a guide of some sort. This is true even if the template being sought is an alternative template. Or alternative templates, plural.

    And there is both, danger and usefulness in templates. Or guides. I'm reminded a little of the adage, "You can lead a horse to the water, but you can't make him drink." Some will say it's inhumane to force the horse to drink the water. If you apply too much force, you might drown him! And yet, water is a good resource.
     
  11. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Or, you can warm yourself by the fire, but don't get too close?
     
  12. kennyc

    kennyc Inkling

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    Great post/article there Penpilot.

    "...I started to notice the commonalities between some theories and realized each was just a view of story taken from a different vantage point, like viewing a car from front, back, top, bottom, driver side, or passenger side. Each vantage point revealed features that couldn’t be seen from the others...."
     
  13. kennyc

    kennyc Inkling

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    ....and nothing stinks worse than a wet horse. :)
     
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  14. Miskatonic

    Miskatonic Auror

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    There sure seems to be an endless number of "How To" books on the market. Maybe that's where the real money is.
     
  15. kennyc

    kennyc Inkling

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    Oh yeah, there's money in it. I wrote a few 'how to' articles on various types/genres of writing an age or so ago... :)
     
  16. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

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    Yeah, I've read my fair share of writing books. To me, the first step to separating the wheat from the chaff is to look at what the book promises. If the book starts off making grand promises of easy solutions and secret secrets to becoming a best seller, I'm very sceptical.

    If memory serves, the best books I've come across don't make such claims. The books can make concepts simpler to grasp, but they never make promises that you don't have to work at your craft.

    To me, it's like those adverts to diet pills. Take these pills and lose weight while doing absolutely zero work. Sorry, unless it's the lottery, there's nothing for free in this world.
     
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  17. Helen

    Helen Sage

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    I don't think they confine your expression, I think they help release your expression.

    Not really. TV shows do it all the time.
     
  18. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    You can lead a horse to water ... but only if you already know where the water is.
     
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  19. evolution_rex

    evolution_rex Inkling

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    The three act structure is the simplest to write, easiest to read, and easiest to perfect. But some of the best things I've read or watched don't go by that structure and break away from standard narrative forms. To break the three act structure is to take higher risks. It's harder to write and perfect, and it's harder to read. But if you do it well, it will get higher praise than a story that's three act.
     
  20. Velka

    Velka Sage

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    I find the 3AS to be a useful tool in the planning/outlining phase. As someone who is a reformed pantser, it has helped me bring better focus to my WIP and has given me tools tighten up and mesh together the outer and inner conflict using 'plot points' and the 'hero's journey'. That being said, my WIP strays from the traditional 3AS in many ways as well. As with anything, it's a tool - how you use it can differ substantially than how someone else does.

    It has also been a great tool for creating better flow between the multiple books (right now it's a trilogy - because three). Book one has a three-ish act structure, but in the overreaching three books, it acts as the 'beginning'.

    Every story, three act or not, does have a beginning, middle and end - some might not be in that order, or some might have a multiple ends or beginnings - but physically they all have those three things.

    I think of it this way - why does the standard vehicle have four wheels? Sure, there's cars that turn into boats, and those cute little delivery trucks with three wheels I saw all over Italy, and motorcycles, and tanks, but for the most four wheels works. Now, what is on top of those four wheels differs drastically: put a Jaguar 911 next to a Hummer - totally different vehicles, built on the same idea of four wheels. Same can be said about stories, just because they have a similar underlying structure, it doesn't mean they can be vastly different interpretations.
     
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