Search the stories of antiquity when actors traveled the countryside entertaining small crowds with their plays, and you will notice the writers understood the validity—lo, the necessity—of the Three Act format.
The Three Act format remains a mainstay of modern storytelling, dramatized on screen in movies and even most 30 minute sitcoms. Why? Because three distinct acts (or sections, if you prefer) works to keep the viewer or reader involved as the story unfolds, scene by scene, one act to another, seamlessly to the satisfactory conclusion.
There are other proposed formats, but I will stick with the Three Act structure because other descriptions are merely variations of the original. Some describe the Three Act format as Beginning, Middle, and End, which can be useful, although that definition is a bit simplistic for our study.
The Three Act format can and should be a road map for the creator, sign posts to keep the writer on a logical path to the end of journey. When first developing a story, I ask myself these questions:
- Where does this story begin?
- What problems and conflicts will the character(s) have to overcome?
- How will this story end?
By this time a character has already formed in my mind, and I have the gist of where I want to go. Although I may know where I want the story to go, I may not know how to get there—the Three Act Format assists to define the direction and outcome best suited to the needs of a particular story.
The opening Act introduces the character(s), the setting, and the initial story problem.
Act Two complicates the problems, digs deeper into the character—adding flaws and situations to overcome—and initiates more roadblocks.
Act Three, which is often the shortest of the parts (in term of word count or, in the case of film, minutes), shows the character resolving the story-problem and a look to the future. Do not miss that last part, a look to the future, as that story attribute gives the reader an enhanced sense of resolution.
The last two weeks my posts have focused on the all-important story opening: How to Grab the Reader, focusing on the Hook, and stirring the Story Stew, new problems and action drawing the reader deeper into the story or novel.
Both are parts of Act One, but not the totality. In my story, Nychelle’s Gate, Act I ends when Nychelle escapes her clan and begins a solitary journey into a frightening and unknown world.
Think of the first act as the set-up of the story, that all important invite to your reader. Of all the sections, the opening is the most important—a reader won’t continue reading if they are not drawn into the story by the Hook and stirring the Story Stew. By contrast, the Hook is gone after its appearance, the stirring of the stew continues throughout.
The transition from one act to another will appear naturally if done with planning and forethought. Even something like, Three hours later, Fred and Gwynn reached the cabin on the lake, and although a time transition mostly, is a way to get the characters to the next scene where something dramatic happens.
The second act introduces new obstacles the characters must overcome on their quest to solve the main story problem. In the example of Fred and Gwynn, perhaps they are taking a much needed weekend together to solve their marital problems. The question arising in the reader’s mind (will they save their marriage?) is the mystery you, as the writer, must solve. Think of it like a puzzle where you add the pieces—harsh words, misunderstanding, appearance of another relationship straining the marriage, or intruder that draws the couple closer—one by one until you solve the problem previously laid out.
The third act is where you bring all the obstacles and foreshadowing to a successful conclusion by solving the mystery piquing the reader’s mind.
Going back to the mention earlier of a look to the future, your conclusion should point to the character’s future because, of course, the character’s life continues after the story’s last word; unless killing off the character is your conclusion, which is a hard sell in most cases.
Readers want to know that life goes on for the characters with whom they have developed an intimate relationship. The character’s future is an important addition to the end of a story, one which gives the reader a sense of continuity and hope.
Next time you are writing and don’t know where to go, try to break the story into the three distinct Acts, each separated by a door into the next.
See you on the next page,