Thursday, October 28, 2010

Three Act Story Structure

Reading thuRsday

The topic of story structure may seem like one that should concern writers more than readers, but it's a basic element of reader-literacy.

I've seen systems that layout the structure of a story in such detail that it seems the writer's only job is to fill in the blanks. Whether it's the archetype of the hero's journey or the classic three act structure, there are outlines with fifteen to fifty elements that are supposed to be included.

I've also seen and heard writers who say they can't make heads or tails of such things, that over-specificity leads to rigidity, and that you should stop worrying and just write.

I came across video of Dan Wells, author of I am Not a Serial Killer, who gave a presentation on this topic at the 2010 Life, the Universe, and Everything conference at BYU. Dan discusses the seven point system he learned from the Star Trek Role-playing Game Narrator's Guide. The points are:
  • Hook
  • Plot Turn 1
  • Pinch 1
  • Midpoint
  • Pinch 2
  • Plot Turn 2
  • Resolution
This isn't too overwhelming, but it still has a fair amount of detail: what are pinches and midpoints and plot turns and so on.

But look at it this way:
Action (cause) = Plot Turn/Midpoint
Resolution (effect) = Pinch/Resolution
If we set aside the Hook as a special, initial case, were left with three pairs of high-level action and resolution. The resolution in the first two pairs is called a Pinch because it doesn't resolve the story problem.

If we stand back and squint, we see:
Act 1 = (Hook) Plot Turn 1 -> Pinch 1 [doesn't resolve the story problem]
Act 2 = Midpoint -> Pinch 2 [still doesn't resolve the story problem]
Act 3 = Plot Turn 2 -> Resolution [finally resolves the story problem]
We observed yesterday that story is fundamentally about cause and effect. So why three pairs of causes and effects? Because a problem worthy of a long-form story has to be hard enough that it takes more than one try to find the solution.

Three acts; three cause and effect cycles; the structure of a story need be no more mysterious than this.

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

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