Telling a story in three acts – or not.
As a storyteller, the concept of the three-act story form is unavoidable. The idea is particularly popular among screenwriters, and is found in numerous books, featured in lectures, and on countless websites. It is often applied to narrative storytelling regardless of the form. But wait! FILM CRIT HULK presents a counter argument to the idea of the three-act structure in his epic take down, The Myth of the 3 Act Structure:
HULK HAS NEVER SEEN SOMETHING SO UNHELPFUL BECOME SO WIDELY ACCEPTED. SURE, IT MAKES SENSE AND IS A SIMPLE WAY TO SEE STORIES FROM AFAR, BUT IT’S ALSO SO SIMPLE THAT IT’S TAUGHT TO ELEMENTARY SCHOOL KIDS WHEN THEY’RE FIRST GRASPING THE CONCEPT OF NARRATIVE. AND WHILE HULK ARGUES THAT THE SIMPLE TRUTHS ARE OFT TIMES THE MOST IMPORTANT ONES, THE EXPRESSION OF THOSE TRUTHS SHOULD BE FAR MORE COMPLICATED. AND THE 3 ACT STRUCTURE IS NOT EVEN “A TRUTH.” IT’S A WRITING MODEL ATTEMPTING TO HELP YOU GET AT ONE. SO HULK THINKS THAT HOLLYWOOD COULD MAYBE STAND TO DO A LITTLE BETTER THAN A THIRD GRADE GRASP OF STORY.
Oh, preach it brother! Seriously, read the whole essay.
Of course, Aristotle laid down the foundation of narrative theory in his Poetics where he describes a story as “a whole [that] has a beginning and middle and end.” This is absolutely true, all stories have these three parts in some degree, but I think confusion arises when we conflate the idea that these three parts of the narrative will align with a story’s acts. In other words, all stories have a beginning, middle and end, but they can have any number of acts.
A story should have exactly as many acts as it takes to bring it to completion. That could be five acts or seven or twelve or more. I’m currently writing a short story with two acts (and of course, it still has a beginning, middle, and end).
For a practical guide to narrative structure (and a survey of popular theories of narrative structure including three-act and the Hero’s Journey) read John York’s Into The Woods: A Five Act Journey Into Story, which is one of the best books that I’ve read about story structure in, well, maybe ever. * In it, York defines an act as:
“A unit of action bound by a character’s desire.”
Last Monday night, I was sitting on the couch watching the Monday Night Football with one eye (as I do) and thinking about story. Recently, a friend asked me what I found appealing about football. As a writer, I enjoy watching sports because it reduces drama to its essential elements. Two teams take the field, both want to win, only one will. This is conflict in its purest form. When watching scripted dramas, I often get distracted second-guessing what the writer was trying to accomplish, or thinking about how the director’s choices affected the scene. I can’t help myself. While this has its own pleasures, a football game, with its direct conflict overlaid with the commentators’ patter to give a little color to the characters on the field, is just the thing after a long day in the word mines.
It’s this no strings attached narrative that draws me in. By observing a football game’s narrative, we can see how its structure contributes to dramatic tension. We can see, with a just few rules to provide a framework, how flexible the parts that form the whole can be.
This is the most artificial construct of the game and the most necessary. It’s the running time of a movie, the word count in a short story or novel. Everyone can relate; the Clock itself is a kind of antagonist, ever present, stalking us all to our dying day. The winning team will try to run out the clock. The losing team is playing against, not just the opposing team, but time itself. This arbitrary limitation is the essence of what shapes the game. And it’s time and its limits that shape the stories we tell. But within the constraints of any given time frame there are an infinite number of variations.
When a team gets the ball, it tries to score with a series of plays that together form a drive toward the end zone. Like the act, a drive is a unit of action bound by the team’s desire to score. A drive is made up of a series of plays, and an act is made up of a series of scenes. A game can have any number of drives. A drive can end in failure after one broken play or a fumble, or in success with one magnificent Hail Mary pass. A drive can consist of dozens of running plays and short passes, making downs by inches, moving the chains just enough to keep the drive alive. A drive consists of exactly as many or few plays as it needs for the team with the ball to either achieve their goal (touchdown!) or fail (because they couldn’t make enough ground or they turn over the ball).
Drives are made up of plays just as acts are made up of scenes. Each play is the very soul of conflict, the lines smash together, the linemen try to sack the quarterback, the quarterback sends the ball sailing toward a receiver – will it be caught and held, or fumbled, turned over for a reversal? Scenes are the basic elements of story. The binary code of success/failure that drives narrative.
Each game is bounded by the same rules, but no two games are alike and they can contain any number of plays that make up any number of drives. Yet, each game tells a story, one that we recognize as such on an elemental level. So, when you’re writing, while you know that every story will have a beginning, middle, and end, consider all of the myriad ways that you can travel that road.
* and believe me I’ve read more than a few.