The Three Act Structure – James Scott Bell

In continuing going through James Scott Bell’s book, Write Great Fiction – Plot & Structure, I’ve reached the point where he talks about The Three Act Structure (I’ll call it TAS from now on).

What is it? Well, basically it’s splitting your story up into three specific sections, or Acts, usually the beginning, the middle, and the end (who thought it was that easy?). If you thought that wasn’t difficult, guess what? You probably also follow the TAS in your day-to-day life;

  • you’re born (Act I),
  • you live (Act II),
  • you die (Act III).

Want something a bit less general? How about an average day?

  • you get up (Act I),
  • you work (Act II),
  • you sleep (Act III).

The book does cover some higher level thoughts about how mystical the number three is, and how a triangle is the strongest shape in nature, but generally the TAS is used because it works.

How does this relate to my writing? As with any structure, there are some parts that need to be adhered to. I wouldn’t call them rules as such, possibly suggestions. If you can learn to keep your writing within the ‘suggested’ structure, you have a better chance of your reader finishing your novel. The TAS has been tried and tested many times and, whilst there are opportunities to be flexible with your writing and remain within the constraints of the TAS, the further you move away from it, the less chance you’ll have of holding your reader.

In the TAS, Act I is where you will normally present the problem; something is lost, someone has died etc. Act II is how your character deals with the problem; you search for something, you investigate a murder. Finally, in Act III, the problem gets solved, the murderer is caught, and the book can end.

clapperboard_ACT1

Bell suggests here that there should be at least four tasks that Act I needs to undertake;

  • Present the story world. That is, describe the setting or context.
  • Establish the tone the reader will rely upon. Set the readers expectations on what kind of plot is about to develop.
  • Compel the reader to move on to the middle. If you don’t do this satisfactorily then the story will stall – I think everyone has at least one book on their shelf that they just couldn’t get into..
  • Introduce the opposition. What is it that is going to prevent our lead character from succeeding?

clapperboard_ACT2

Act II is really the middle of your story. It’s the bit that covers all of the confrontations , where you begin to weave your sub-plots, and also where the real ‘meat’ of your story is. Picture a sandwich – we all love bread, but it’s the filling inside that makes a sandwich what it is. In this Act, Bell suggests that the following should be addressed;

  • Deepen character relationships. Make sure your characters blossom and grow in this section.
  • Keep us caring about what happens. If this isn’t done correctly, your reader will lose the ability to care about the outcome which often ends in the book being put down.
  • Set up the final battle that will wrap things up at the end. Your Act II can rise and fall many times but you should always be working towards that grand finale. No Deus Ex Machina here!

clapperboard_ACT3

Act III is the ending. It’s here that we bring all of our resolutions to an end; if something was lost, it’s generally now found, if someone died, we should now know who did it. Just a few things here that Bell suggests;

  • Tie up all loose ends. Act II was where you weaved all your sub-plots to give your story a much greater feel to it. Well, Act III is where you need to make sure you’ve covered everything off now.
  • Give a feeling of resonance. If you’ve managed to portray a sense of deep meaning to your story in Act II, then Act III is where you get the chance to keep that feeling going long after the last page has been turned. Ever finished a book and left it in your lap for a few minutes whilst you just sat there with a smile on your face? Well, that’s resonance and someone just nailed Act III.

Bell does a very good job of portraying what he talks about with examples from both films and books. However, for all of the examples used in this section, I personally found just a couple of his diagrams gave me a better understanding of what he was trying to portray.

Bell states that the TAS actually comes from film and drama and, as such, there is a formula devised that allows it to be used to its fullest extent. That is, the transition from Act I to Act II should take place around 1/4 of the way through the film, or thirty minutes into an average two hour film. It’s quite clear from the diagram but the transition from Act II to Act III should happen at a similar distance from the ending, around 3/4 of the way through, or ninety minutes into an average two hour film.

film structureWhat is interesting here is that Bell suggests the formula should be changed within a novel, seemingly because of the differences in time taken to watch a film, or read a book.

Here, Bell’s formula is that a novel’s transition from Act I to Act II should be around one-fifth in, after the first sixty or so pages of a good novel. The distance from the end of the book for the Act II to Act III transition can remain the same at one-quarter, however Bell does suggest this can be slid to the right slightly.

novel structureBy doing these changes, you are making sure that your novel won’t drag at the beginning and also that your rise toward the grand finale of your novel is well paced. If you know roughly the length of your novel and you want to try sticking to the TAS formulation then you can work out when you should be moving away from the beginning toward the middle and, similarly, when you should be tying up those subplots and working toward that feeling of resonance.

A point to note is that Bell does touch on the use of Mythic Structure, or The Hero’s Journey, and expands on how it fits quite nicely within the template of the TAS. However, he only covers it lightly, and uses Star Wars as an example (which is one of the most famous). Due to this, I’d rather pick this particular topic up at a later date and probably collate a few things before I take that particular plunge.

In the meantime, I’m going to start watching a few movies with a stopwatch and see if I can spot the transitions between the Acts.

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