When telling a story no matter how long or how short, that story must have at least three parts, a beginning, a middle, and an end. Sounds simple right? But have you ever tried to actually tell a story? Where do you start? What details do you need to include? How do you get off this story ship before it sinks? In this post we’re going to examine the three act structure on an easily digestible level.
THE BEGINNING IS NOT THE BEGINNING
I have a friend who starts most of his stories with the simple joke, “I was born at an early age.” And while that is a good ice breaker, that is generally not where you want your story to begin. There’s an entire universe full of history and your story only contains a small slice of it. So what do you say first?
It is usually best to start either just after an event or just before an event.
For example, let’s say your story revolves around moving into a new home. A good place to pick up would be on the road shortly after leaving the old home. By starting here the old house and your character’s life there will stay firmly in the backstory only to be brought up as necessary while the main story is focused on the life your characters are building in the new home.
In contrast let’s say you’re writing a romantic comedy. In this case you’ll want to pick up before the characters meet showing them in their every day life and establishing their status quo before just before your meet-cute throws all of that into chaos. In this situation your story will focus on the change the characters go through and the pain they experience in transitioning from the old life as single people to the new life with each other.
HAVE YOU MET TED?
Another function of the first act is to introduce the majority of your major characters. While some may stay in reserve for Act 2, it’s usually best to introduce or at least mention the major players in act 1. This way people have time to get to know them, know their motivations, and become invested in their sub plot.
I once consulted on a screenplay that introduced a detective character during the climax of the film. This meant taking time out of the most intense part of the story to establish who this person is, what they’ve been doing, and why we should care if they live or die. This effectively killed all the momentum of the film. The solution was simple, write a casual interaction between him and the main character that takes place early in the first act. This allowed us to know he existed, know his motivations, and know his importance early on so that when he shows up in Act 3 we already know what he’s doing and why he’s there and don’t have to take a break from our climax.
WHAT ARE WE DOING, AND WHY ARE WE DOING IT?
The majority of your first act is spent establishing the status quo, introducing characters, and world building. Your first act ends with what is called an inciting incident. This is something that compels your main character to act or gives them some sort of motivation that will last for the rest of the film. The inciting incident may be big, it may be small, but it must be impactful to your main character in a way that compels action. Once they experience this incident, they’re ready to move on to Act 2.
MANEUVERING YOUR CHARACTERS
While it is possible that all your characters will experience the inciting incident and be on the same page from the end of Act 1, more often than not your main character is going to spend some time getting the rest of the characters on the same page.
One way to view this is by thinking of each character being the hero of their own story and needing to be brought into the heroes story in time to play their role during the climax. This will be accomplished by each character having some experience that alters their path slightly and draws them into the story. They may encounter our main character and join the quest, or they may experience their own version of your inciting incident that sets them along a similar path.
This is particularly tricky when you’re having to maneuver characters emotionally. If the physical action is minor compared to the emotional action then maneuvering your characters will involve a lot of internal reflection and emotional vulnerability. This can be very difficult to write, but it makes for a deeply complex character driven story when done correctly.
FALSE VICTORY OR UTTER DEFEAT
At some point during Act 2, your main character may experience either a high that is undeserved or a devastating defeat, or possibly both. This is important because you want to show growth and change in your protagonist. If every step is another rung on the ladder to the climax the story feels hollow and fake. The antagonist needs to have a win somewhere in here otherwise defeating them is deeply unsatisfying, and quite frankly unrealistic.
For many of my stories this is deeply important because without this moment essentially your inciting incident, your maneuvering of characters all the work you’ve put in has only served to perpetuate the status quo that was established at the beginning of the story. Nothing is really tangibly different.
REFLECT AND REFOCUS
After your false victor or utter defeat it’s important to give your characters time to reflect on what just happened. This may involve some scenes of deep depression. It may involve a mentor figure (who was hopefully either introduced or at least mentioned early in the story) taking the protagonist under their wing. Regardless of the means with which you handle the transition from the defeat to the climax you need to use this period to give the main character a new perspective, a deeper understanding of their advasery, a better concept of the task ahead of them.
During this period they should be tempted to give up, go home and return to the status quo while letting their enemy win. Coming out of this period they should have shaken all the doubts, all the uncertainty and be laser focused on a collision path to the climax and the beginning of Act 3.
This is the point we’ve spent the entire story building to. The beliefs, the efforts, the confidence of our protagonist will all be tested completely and they will either overcome their enemy, or be defeated forever. Inside the climax you may have something as complex as a whole extra three act structure or it may be as quick as a single line of dialogue. Whatever the case this is the defining moment of your film after which either the status quo is changed forever or the threat to the status quo is permanently removed.
After the climax there’s usually a bit of a breather where we see the fallout from the adventure our hero just experienced. They should have learned some life lessons, forged new friendships, lost some things they once held dear, and accomplished a major goal. Alternatively, the bad guy could win, the hero could be dead and the denouement is a resolution for the side characters. Either way we are basically right where we were at the very begin of the story, establishing a new status quo. Essentially we’re showing what happened to the loose ends and establishing the new normal for the characters who live on being deeply changed because of their experiences.
Just kidding, this isn’t part of the story. But I would like to know your thoughts on story structure. The truth is there’s an endless world of possibilities the particulars of what goes into your film, and in that regard no matter how similar two films are they will never be the same. While these are the common highlights, I’ve definitely written things that did not follow this structure at all, but were still effective stories. Have you come across any stories that don’t fit this basic structure? What overarching points do you like your stories to hit before they’re over?