Writing Club: Three Act Structure

Today we’re going to look at the basic structure of stories, which should really help you organize the events of your plot. But first a warmup…

IMG_40315-minute prompt:  WINTER

What do you think of when you think ‘winter’? Think of as many words for different kinds of snow and ice as you can. (Skiers and snowboarders should be good at this.) Can you think of any specific smells, sounds or tastes you associate with winter?

Three Act Structure

There’s no need to be intimidated by technical terms and definitions like this. All “Three Act Structure” really means is that your story should have a 1. Beginning, 2. Middle, 3. End. Simple.

threeactstructure_9683This is a simple diagram I found at TV Tropes, which also has a good description of what happens in each act. There are literally a zillion diagrams like this around the net, because everyone wants to figure out an “easy” way to write a massively successful screenplay. (Writers like to come up with diagrams. All part of putting off the actual work of writing, I’m afraid.)

You can really go overboard with analysis and rules (ie. first plot point MUST occur on page 7!), but keep in mind that charts and graphs and diagrams are just tools to help you with your story. Only turn to them when you need to, when you are just starting, or when you’re stuck. Now, back to the three acts …

Act One – Naturally you start out with your Set-Up, introducing your characters and their world, letting us see their ordinary, day-to-day life. Maybe they’re happy with this, maybe they’re not. Somewhere in here something happens, something out of the ordinary which is the very beginning of all the trouble/excitement/mystery/what-have-you.

transition – At this point the protagonist leaves the old situation/world/location and chooses a new path. (Or is forced to do so.) She/he embarks on a journey, either an external or an internal one. Think of Luke Skywalker going off with Obi wan Kenobi after he finds his home destroyed. Think of Dorothy exiting her house and finding herself in a technicolor Oz.

Act Two – This is a long act, and includes all the struggles, battles, setbacks, and discoveries that the protagonist goes through on her/his journey. Ups and downs, mistakes, muddling through, happy or unhappy accidents, new allies, progress. All leading inexorably to the climax in Act 3.

transition – Here we have some event that sets up the big confrontation between protagonist and antagonist. Maybe it’s some kind of breakthrough by the hero, help from someone, a new weapon or talisman. Often it arises from the darkest moment for the hero – just when all seems hopeless, ‘x’ spurs the hero on to face the final battle.

Act Three – Big Battle! Climax! Action! Drama! Wow! And then things settle down as we tie up loose ends, return the hero to her/his home, mete out punishment and rewards, etc.

Now that’s a whole lot of formula to deal with, a whole lot of ‘rules’. What you do with them is up to you. If you begin with a terrific story, one that you can gently mold into something vaguely resembling this 3-act shape, you may have something good on your hands. If you are short on ideas and start out with a graph like this, merely plugging in bits and pieces as called for, the result could be disappointingly similar to every other movie or book out there.

Let your story take its own shape. You may find that it naturally starts looking like the 3-Act chart above. After all, stories have fallen into this basic shape for centuries.

picture-5(I love this. Taken from Tim Stout’s lesson on 3-act structure in comic strips.)

New Words

obsequious – (adj) obedient or attentive to an excessive or servile degree; synonyms: servile, ingratiating, sycophantic, fawning, unctuous, groveling, cringing, subservient, submissive, slavish

and the related term:

toady – (noun) someone who acts obsequiously to someone important, a person who flatters or defers to others for self-serving reasons; a sycophant. (verb) to act in an obsequious manner: grovel to, ingratiate oneself with, pander to, bow and scrape to, curry favor with, make up to, fawn on/over, flatter, suck up to, lick the boots of, butter up

Capreolus_capreolus_cloven_hoofcloven – (adj) split, cleft, divided; most commonly used in term cloven hoof, a hoof split into two toes, as in cattle, deer, goats, sheep. In folklore and popular culture, a cloven hoof has long been associated with the Devil.

ricochet – (noun or verb) a rebound or bounce off a surface, most commonly by some sort of projectile (ie. bullet); The arrows ricocheted off the stone walls.

obnoxious – (adj) extremely unpleasant; She found him entirely obnoxious.

majestic – (adj) having or showing impressive beauty or dignity; magnificent, grand, splendid

ossia – (noun) a musical term for an alternative passage which may be played instead of the original passage; (from the Italian for “alternatively”)

subsequently – (adv) after a particular thing has happened; afterward – He spread the news to all his facebook friends, but subsequently discovered it to be a hoax.

obesity – (noun) the condition of being grossly fat or overweight

And finally, it’s time for your moment of –

Grammar Zen

Here’s another common grammatical misstep:

would of = WRONG
could of = WRONG
should of = WRONG!!

Never, ever put “of” after could/would/should. I think this started happening because would’ve, could’ve, should’ve, sounds a little like would of etc., though it’s really the contraction for the correct way:

would have
could have
should have

Much better!

She should have done her homework first.
I could have gone with them, but I didn’t want to.

He would have liked that movie, had he seen it.

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