Philosophy of Craft, Part 2 – Three Act Structure
Continuing on from last week’s entry, WWYK, here is part two in my seven part series on how I approach my craft…
I have shamelessly commercial tastes in entertainment. I’ll be the first to admit that I love me a gargantuan bucket of butter-ish soaked popcorn, a supertanker of Cherry Coke, a package of Red Vines, and a summer blockbuster that’s 90% CGI set to a bass-heavy soundscape. (Dodges rotten fruit and stinging barbs.)
Say what you will about slickly produced Hollywood tripe, but you have to admit that screenwriters and producers are onto something. Moviegoers wouldn’t spend billions of hard-earned dollars otherwise. Whether or not last year’s highest grossing tentpole changed someone’s life for the better, the formulaic approach to storytelling works on a very fundamental level. In the lingo of screenwriting, this is known as three-act structure. It dates all the way back to Aristotle, and it goes something like this:
Act I – The Inciting Incident
Three act structure takes off at a major change or turning point in a character’s life. Generally, the hero is a Joe -ordinary with a prominant flaw of some kind. (He’s weak, he’s afraid of heights, he’s commitment-phobic, etc.) This part of the story sets the stage for the upcoming conflict by dragging the hero out of his comfort zone and sending him in a new direction. Act I is pure setup. It introduces you to the characters, the world, and the conflict and tells you why you should care. Near the end of the act, there’s generally a reversal of some kind that pits the hero directly against the antagonist and sets him on a collision course with confrontation. The reversal is usually the first time the hero and the antagonist actually come into direct opposition.
Act II – Escalating Conflict
The second act contains the bulk of the story. It’s filled with dramatic escalations that drive the hero toward his opponent in a meaningful way. This layering of conflict makes the climax inevitable by pushing the hero past the point of no return. His flaw becomes a major impediment, and by the time this act reaches its own reversal, it seems all but certain he will fail. The second act’s reversal is sometimes referred to as the hero’s “Dark Night of the Soul”—a moment in which it seems as if all hope is lost and the hero is doomed.
Act III – Climax
The final act is the showdown. Our Joe-ordinary overcomes his flaw, or turns it to his advantage in some way, and rushes headlong toward the antagonist for a final confrontation of some kind. The payoff here is the catharsis we experience watching him prevail against unbelievable odds. Most of the time, there’s a happy ending. (HEA in abbreviated parlance.)
This is a bit of a simplification, but generally describes the story structure many Hollywood features (particularly tentpole films) follow. It’s also the way I construct my own stories. My first novel, “The Heart of the Jungle” rarely strays from three-act structure. If you read it, now that I’ve explained the structure, the elements I’ve described will be pretty clear.
Should I be ashamed to admit I’m a formulaic writer? Perhaps if I had literary aspirations…. But I don’t. I just want to tell a good story. I’ll leave the Pulitzers, Nobels, and Lammies to more capable folks. As a consumer, as a reader, as a filmgoer, this is what I like, and therefore what I write.*
* Butter-ish and Red Vines not included.