At the start of a new project, we have to consider how our story is going to progress. How are you going to take the reader from the proverbial Point A to their destination at Point B? There are a number of gimmicky and clichéd methods we can use. (Like that stupid dream sequence I used to introduce my main character in an early draft of a completed novel manuscript.) And while the landscape of the writing world seems to have been completely explored, there are still bursts of vivid, original routes to take in the journey of storytelling that we can stumble across. (Like Christopher Nolan‘s backwards traipsing neo-noir thriller “Memento”, which, incidentally was adapted from his brother Jonathan short story “Memento Mori”.)
In terms of structure, I’m very familiar with the “monomyth” approach as developed by Joseph Campbell. (I’ve written about The Hero’s Journey in the past.) As I’m wrestling with the route-taking questions for my current WIP, I’ve considered that approach, but I found myself drawn repeatedly to a structuring typically referenced in the world of script-writing. The Three Act Structure.
It was during a workshop on the Three Act Structure that thriller author and general nice guy, James Scott Bell, developed a metaphor I had never considered before, the three act structure as a suspension bridge. The story as a bridge seems apt, considering as author’s we’re trying to lead our readers to a new destination. The character, too, is on a journey, and should reach their destination as changed individual, and, similarly, we hope our readers have changed in the crossing as well.
If we’re talking a two-hour movie, the first Act usually checks in around 30 minutes. If we’re referring to a novel, and it’s not a George R. R. Martin-esque epic fantasy, then our Act I should climax somewhere in the neighborhood of pages 50-100. In the Suspension Bridge metaphor, Act I is everything up to that first support pylon. Here’s what we need to accomplish in Act I of our story:
1. Introduce our Protagonist.
Everything I’ve come across in says that the Protagonist should be in sentence one. Literary Agent Kathleen Ortiz, of New Leaf Literary & Media, says it’s important to start strong, as most agents only request the first two to ten pages of a manuscript, and agents will typically know within the first paragraph of those pages if they’ll like the author’s writing. Agents need something that’s going to jump out at them, and many skip an author’s Prologue, if presented with such an opening. So, as writers, we’re left with our protagonist and some trouble for page #1.
2. Introduce the Story World
This comes with something of a caveat. We’ve got to introduce the story world in Act I, but we have to do so without delving into backstory. If it’s a contemporary piece that isn’t fantasy or science fiction, that isn’t an issue, but for those of us who writing in those realms, we need to tread lightly when it comes to presenting our story world. Best-selling author Philip Athans says we can’t be too impressed with our world-building as writer, and we need to remember that the world we’ve built is there to serve our characters and our story, not the other way around.
3. Set the Tone
Tone is integral to a story, and setting the Tone is something that needs to be accomplished from the start. A reader needs to know if the story is going to be grim and gritty, or funny and lighthearted. Also, what POV are we using? How does a character see and take-in the world we’ve put them in? All these elements are part of Tone, and these things will all hint at or promise the story we’re going to tell.
4. Start with a Disturbance
Readers respond to a character that’s in trouble, and as writers, it’s our job to put our characters into trouble. Conflict is what makes up a story. It doesn’t need to be world-shattering at the start, just something that’s going to leave the reader questioning what’s happening. Questioning in a good way. We need to Hook the reader, so that they’ll want to know more.
The first support pylon of the suspension bridge metaphor is the transition between Act I and Act II. James Scott Bell described it as a “doorway of no return”. If we’re talking Joseph Campbell’s “monomyth”, it’s the ‘crossing of the threshold’. At this point in the story, the protagonist can’t go back. We’ve propelled them out of their comfort zone, and along the bridge of their journey where they will be forever changed.
In a two-hour movie, Act II will typically last an hour. If we’re talking a 400-or so page book, Act II should climax around page 300. This is the longest portion of the story, and usually involves the Protagonist’s testing and training. In “The Matrix”, we see Neo learning how to fight inside the machine. In Harry Potter, we see Harry going to Hogwarts and learning how to use magic. If we’re talking about a mystery, then Act II involves questioning witnesses, lining up and eliminating suspects, following clues, red herrings and false trails, and finally hearing the detective’s own theory on the crime.
Act II is really where the Trouble is. As writers, we were taught about this in grade school. The majority of Act II is Rising Action. We’re building to the Climax, as we’re treading across our suspension bridge. James Scott Bell says Act II should be about Death. And to him, there are three types of Death: physical, professional, and psychological.
In Act II, we also need to see a bonding between the Protagonist and the Antagonist. By bonding, I don’t mean sitting around the fire making s’mores. The Protagonist can’t just walk away to solve the problem. Something needs to keep the combatants entangled till the end. And this entanglement needs to develop organically. There needs to be a logical progression of solutions to bigger problems.
Bell also says Act II is the section to develop a “Pet the Dog” scene or scenes. “Pet the Dog” is another screenwriting term in which the Lead character takes time to care about/protect something weaker than himself. It’s something of a cliché, but it can serve to humanize the protagonist.
Act III begins when we pass that last pylon. In a two-hour movie, it might be 30 minutes or so, so for a novel we’re probably looking at 50 or so pages. It’s a second “doorway” leads to the Climax and, ultimately, the Resolution of the story. This last portion of the story involves the Final Battle between the protagonist and the antagonist.
We’re wrapping up all the loose ends in Act III, making note to highlight the Protagonist’s change. In our story world, there might be a new way of life, or some kind of reversal. There might possibly be a sense of coming Full Circle, if we choose to return to an opening image or scene to show how much things have changed. We have to make sure we satisfy our readers with an ending that’s appropriate to the story we’ve told.
All in all, the three-act structure is one that is not only valuable to screenwriters but also to novelists like us. Taking a moment to map out our structure., to take a look at where we want our story to head, will be valuable time spent in the long run of the journey.