Thursday, March 19, 2009

Three Act Structure demystified...

...or writing fulls for people who write short.

Three act structure has been around for a long time, but I've never been a fan. In the beginning Aristotle said it best, "the whole has beginning, middle and end." Then it got all fancy...

By the end of Act One you should also have introduced the protagonist, the antagonist and set up all of the secondary character relationships.

1. Establish the status quo for the protagonist.

2. Present the initial impetus for a move or change by the protagonist.

3. Ask the central question of the book.

4. Define the wants of the major characters and their reasons for desiring these things.

Which yeah--I did lift whole from a ".edu" Maybe it's just me, but the minute people start talking Protagonist and Antagonist, and impetus and defining, my eyes cross. Besides, it's a list, you must do this to get there from here. Where'd beginning, middle and end go?

Imho--three act structure is three short stories--one third of the book, divided by end points that set up for the next story. In each of the short stories, the focal point is an event, or series of events that happen very close together. Using compressed time sustains interest. So if you think of a full as a couple of short stories with all the events around it, then the structure of a full is simple.

And because I already have it, I'm going to use Lauren's story as an "ie".

Say the first short in the story is Felicia and Mario meet, there is a little bit before to set up. The story starts--it has to travel into they meet again, and Felicia realizes she isn't going to "stop" meeting Mario because of their mutual involvement in the wedding. What are her feelings? Does she see the words "second best" each time she looks at him? Does she remember how it feels to be hugged by him? Point it up by letting her be hugged by her mom or sister, so she can compare the feeling. Maybe she can rub her shoulders when she's upset, you know with the palm of her hand like she's trying to rub something away that makes her uncomfortable. Maybe the end of this story can be her snapping out with,

"Why are you always here? Am I being punished or something?"

Which ratchets up the level on your series of shorts.

So the next short would be where do they go from there?

Has Mario been hoping that continued contact would make her get over her dislike of him? Has he been fighting a need to give her what she really needs--some kind of contact that doesn't hinge on sex, but the need they both have to connect? Has he been trying to talk to her, or just jolt her out of her shell? Or apologize, or...?

This story would be Mario trying to work through his guilt, and let himself open up--and connect, and trying to get Felicia to open up, and maybe he's so persistent that she does start again--to open up, and they finally have one good day, away from the wedding, just before the wedding--and tell me--if you could hurt them both, right where they live? Right in where they are most vulnerable--how would you do it? They finally get to the point where the sexual tension is so tight, they kiss, have sex--pull back from the edge and then--Felicia catches Mario in exactly the situation she caught her boyfriend. Now her test is faith, and getting over her emotional blockage enough to believe there is another explanation.

Then Mario realizes, maybe the time and emotions he's putting into this woman aren't meant to be. Maybe his emotions have died with his wife, so his test would be the long cold slide into "not" feeling that Felicia has started to pull out of--like a see-saw, you see?

When Felicia has her crisis and pulls through, the next short would be of them both with their heads in the wrong place, and how they get through their own internal stuff to reach out to the other. Then you wrap these three shorts with a feel good ending that ties them together.

Beginning, middle and end. Three shorts. Three acts. Rising action like in Aristotle. Each short builds on the short before it to crank the tension.

In other words, steps. If you think of each short story as a fully defined step in a staircase? The bottom landing is the starting point which lifts off into the first step, and that second step lifts off again into a third step, which lets out on another landing. Each short is set in the same universe, with the same characters, and the ending point of the first story, is the starting point of the next. Like writing a story with a sequel, and it does well, so there's another sequel.

I'm a big fan of sequels.


Kaige said...

Thank you for taking a bigger stab at this explanation! Something clicked with you said it in your thread to Lauren, but this helped ideas gel better in my own brain.

jodi said...

I'm still working on it, it was a "gel" moment for me too, and I had to sit there and re-think my wip. It's structured that way, I don't know why I didn't think of it, but I think organic structure just naturally falls into the three act structure because of the way it's set up in the beginning.

Wordly said...

I'm Kara Gnome with the Divas :)

tee-hee, no brilliantness from me!

* Maybe it's just me, but the minute people start talking Protagonist and Antagonist, and impetus and defining, my eyes cross. Besides, it's a list, you must do this to get there from here. Where'd beginning, middle and end go?*

Yes, exactly. I have to ask what *language* this is when they go off on all this :D

Your idea of breaking it down into pieces is fab! I think, in a way, I've been doing this--I'm in a never-ending quest to finally write a book--but maybe I'm pulling it all down into chunks that are too small--beginning, late beginning, first middle, and so on. The way you're talking about is much more coherent.

Alice Audrey said...

This is a really good way to look at it.

jodi said...

Thank you, Kara. Kaige can tell you I think too much. (my whole "I sound like a textbook" thing coming out.)

Alic--:) I sent you an email, the first of two. Maybe three. Definitely with a deadline of next Monday. (on my part) You're a nice person and deserve better than me.

Wordly said...

Hopefully you'll have all these entries, and I'm sure you have other thoughts that maybe you haven't worked through, yet, for your own how to write book; what I fondly call an HTWB :).

Jeanna said...

Good advice, now on to fix the movie industry.
I thought of what you might say about "Australia" as I wondered where one of my favorite directors went off course.
Do you consider a fiction magazine piece, say Fantasy and Science Fiction, a short story or something else?

Jeanna said...

Time to catch up on my stories but I was left with "nosegr" as a word verification.
The poor thing was wrapped in headgear and her sister's old sweater, the nosegr would make her life a living hell until she flunked out or got arrested.

Melanie said...

OK so four years later....I am finally at the point where I can get this. I discovered that writing flash is like writing episodes in a longer story. Something happens after the Flash ends, but for the moment, something has stopped floating, something has been resolved--for good or ill. The next scene is the result. So, building from episodes and scenes to full short-stories is the path to building a novel? Cool. I can do that!!

Jodi Henley said...

Hi, meham :) Yeah--it makes sense and is the easiest way to think of 3 act structure. When you break things down even further like you said, what is flash but pieces of a larger whole?

And yes. You can do it. It's part of the way you write.:)

btw, stress off my back. I was in the process of buying a house for the last few months. It didn't work and I'm glad. Sometimes it takes a little bad to realize how much good you already have.