Three-Act Structure Paradigm
I was delighted to again serve on the faculty of the Chuckanut Writers Conference last week in Western Washington. Here’s a snippet from a session I taught on how writers can draw from film storyboarding concepts to create a text-driven version of a storyboard. In this moment, the discussion centered on the three-act structure paradigm.
Let’s turn to our friends the screenplay writers for a moment. It’s some of their tools that we are borrowing and modifying to make our stories. Looking at conventional film structure is useful in gaining a better understanding of story action and plot points.
The conventional three-act structure looks like this:
In Act I, is the setup. The character(s), the action of the story, the problem or question of the story is established.
For the film, The Wizard of Oz, the scriptwriters took Frank Baum’s book and modified it to a three-act structure. As you know, there’s a lengthy backend in the book that’s not in the film.
So talking about the film here, in The Wizard of Oz, we meet Dorothy on the farm, and someone wants to take her dog, so her problem is how to keep her dog. She decides to run away from home. Home is not where she wants to be. She wants to go somewhere over the rainbow.
In Act II, is the confrontation. Here we see the character struggle to overcome obstacles, the antagonistic elements of the story present, and watching the character struggle against those elements (sometimes personified) is what sustains the action during the middle of the story.
Dorothy lands in Oz and meets a couple witches. Her mission becomes to run from the wicked witch and get to Oz to find the wizard who supposedly can, ironically, send her back home. The transition, what spins the story from Act I to Act II, what changes the motivation of the character, is the key plot point. That plot point is the storm that carries Dorothy from Kansas to Oz. The episode of the story that takes her away from one world and into another, raises the stakes for this character. Now she has more to worry about than just getting her dog back. She wanted to run away from home, well, she’s away from home. She got what she wanted and now has a different agenda. Now she has a witch on her heels and a wizard to find.
In Act III, is the resolution, where the main plot and subplot elements come together and the story finds its conclusion. The essential question of the story is answered—in this case, there’s no place like home. And Dorothy ends up back at home.
When Dorothy accomplishes her mission from Act II and meets the wizard, and he gives her another task. She now has a new motivation. Before he will agree to send her home, she has to get the broomstick. The pursued now becomes the pursuer—after spending the middle of the film trying to elude the witch, Dorothy now goes chasing after the very witch from which she was running. The second key plot point is the episode that pitches the story off into that third direction that ultimately leads to the story’s conclusion.
Be careful not to impose a structure on a story for the sake of form, or you’ll probably end up writing a shallow story. Here’s where Hollywood might give storyboarding technique a bad name. Beginning script writers have three-act structure drilled into them. Three-act structure is important to understand and can help you work with plot, but it can sometimes hamper your ability to see other potential paradigms. Here’s where a novelist has to use some judgment to become aware of the story paradigms that exist in the world and then decide to use them, alter them, apply variations—and ultimately not to worry too much about them until they have sat with the story for a while. So, use good judgment!
In film, and in written stories, we make merry with this three-act structure. We add many more twists and turns, we add additional key plot points. We write stories that purposefully have no resolution—the ending is that there is no ending. As many variations on the basic three-act structure as you can think of, you can write. Sometimes we poke fun at Hollywood’s classic three-act structure, but it’s also a structure that works time and time again. It’s useful for us to know the convention, because then we can build variations.
xo Laurel Leigh