Writing Excuses Season Two Episode Eight: The Three Act Structure
Key points: The Three Act Structure: Act I, hero encounters problem; Act II, hero discovers problem is bigger than first thought; Act III, he triumphs anyway. Act I needs to establish the characters and the initial conflict. Act I ends when the main character enters a new world, when the battle is transformed into a war. Act II: try-fail cycles are your friend. Don’t forget the twist, and a character hits rock bottom. Kick down the door: any time things are slowing down, it’s time for another disaster (a.k.a. mini-climaxes). Act III: monkeys are allergic to cheese, or hidden learning lets the hero win.
[Bob] Brandon is still not with us. As a matter of fact, I still remember the last thing he said to me which was, “Where are you taking me and why can’t I open this door?”
[Bob] Today we’re talking about the Three Act structure. So, Howard, what is the Three Act structure, and is it only useful in movies?
[Howard] I’ll answer the second question first, Bob. No, it’s not only useful in movies. The Three Act structure is the… Oh, I need to start the timer. There we go, now the timer’s running.
[Bob] 45 minutes long
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry and we forgot to start the clock.
[Howard] The Three Act structure, as I outline it, is — Act I, the hero sets out to solve a problem — discovers a problem and sets out to solve it. Act II — he discovers that the problem is not what he thought it was and is far bigger than he is. Act III, he triumphs anyway.
[Bob] All right. Dan, what’s your answer to those questions? Do you concur?
[Dan] I concur.
[Howard] Oh dear. The look on Bob’s face.
[Dan] Why shouldn’t I concur?
[Howard] The look on Bob’s face says we’re wrong, Dan. He’s doing what Brandon did.
[Dan] Okay , wait. Let me try to read his mind. Oh, that’s the most horrifying thing I’ve ever done.
[Bob] That’s not my thermometer.
[Dan] Yes. Well.
[Bob] Let’s talk about them one at a time then. I’ll accept Howard’s basic template. How about that?
[Howard] Thank you. That’s very generous of you, Bob.
[Bob] Let’s break it down. What do you need to accomplish in each of the acts? Let’s talk about Act I first. Dan, what do you need to accomplish in Act I?
[Dan] What do you need to accomplish in Act I? You need to establish who the characters are, and what they are trying to do — what conflict they are initially trying to overcome.
[Howard] In about 30 to 45,000 words.
[Bob] About how big a part of the story is Act I typically?
[Howard] I was going to guess that it was about a third — maybe a little less than a third.
[Bob] I think in a screenplay they say a quarter. Books can be a little smaller. In fact, often times Act I is a little boring.
[Howard] If Act I is boring, I think you’ve done it wrong.
[Bob] Well , a lot of people try to cram — one of the jobs of Act I is to establish your setting, and so it can — it can — it can drone on a bit.
[Bob] All right. So Act I has to have your dramatic setup, your characters, your setting, your inciting action of course. When does Act I end?
[Dan] I would say, based on my understanding of the format, Professor Defendi…
[Bob] Does anyone else [inaudible] study materials?
[Dan] Act I ends when they try to solve the problem that they — they think is the problem and totally fail and realize the problem is far, far bigger.
[Bob] Okay. That’s a good definition, I think.
[Howard] I would actually say that Act I ends with a triumph and the realization that we’ve won the battle but we’re actually fighting a war.
[Bob] Okay. Other people would say that Act I ends with the main character entering a new world. Luke finding out his parents are dead and he is gonna go off to become a Jedi. Eragon the boy gets his dragon. Or the girl finding out that the golden dragon egg has bonded to her.
[Dan] So Act I is when you leave the Shire?
[Bob] Yes. You hit on one of the things that I was going to bring up there, Dan, which is that often right at the cusp either at the end of Act I or the beginning of Act II there’s a big complication where everything — just seems to fall apart —
[Dan] Howard said the same thing. That you’ve won the battle but you think you’re fighting a war… blech… or the other way around
[Howard] You’ve won a battle, and you’ve discovered you’re fighting a war.
[Dan] You realize you’re fighting a war. That’s the word I wanted to say. Whether you have just had a big failure or just had small success, either way, you realize that the problem is much bigger than you thought it was.
[Howard] Well at the end of Act I in Star Wars, Lucas had something of a triumph in that he has found Obi-Wan, they’ve beaten the sand… well, they — Obi-Wan beat the sand person who is beating up on Luke, he’s discovered lots of neat things about himself, and then he comes home and realizes the Empire is on his door.
[Bob] Right. Yeah, absolutely. All right, let’s talk a little bit about Act II then. Look, we’re almost at the five-minute mark, isn’t that convenient?
[Dan] Oh, my gracious.
[Jordo?] Wasn’t it supposed to take us only about a fourth of the time to get to the end of talking about Act I?
[Dan] If we cut out all the crap with us actually setting the timer during the podcast…
[Howard] Well, that was establishing setting.
[Dan] Oh, yes.
[Bob] What you guys can’t see is that Jordo right now is making the fill sign — you’re not there yet, you’re not there…
[Howard] Stretch this one out, let’s have a little [inaudible]
[Dan] Actually, I think Jordo is making the I’m-playing-solitaire sign.
[Jordo] Spider solitaire.
[Bob] All right, so let’s talk about Act II. Who likes writing act II? Anybody?
[Howard] Oh, I love Act II.
[Dan] I like Act II.
[Bob] Do you? Okay, good. A lot of people call it the blue-collar work of storytelling because it’s the hardest, it’s the most boring to write. You’ve gotten past all the real neat startup stuff and you haven’t gotten to all the real neat ending stuff and you just have all that stuff in the middle.
[Dan] That’s true. Actually, just this morning I was speaking in a high school and that was the first question I got — I like writing the beginning, I like writing the ending, but I hate writing the middle, what can I do?
[Bob] So that’s great. I love the fact both of you like writing the middle…
[Howard] I like the middle and that’s because… well, if you have that problem, then you are suffering from… you’re suffering from two problems. One is you probably have some world builder’s disease where it’s just very, very interesting to you to build the world and your Act I, even though you had fun writing it, I’m not going to have fun reading it.
[Bob] You’ve read my books.
[Howard] I’ve listened to one of them and it was wonderful. The third act — with all the action sequences in it. Well, you like writing the car chase, the helicopter chase, the spaceship chase, the light saber duel — whatever, that’s fun to write. For me, it is fun taking the characters and exploring their dialogue and having them fight amongst themselves and experience pain and… you gotta drag the characters through some real grief before you get to Act III. And I enjoy setting that up and letting the characters wallow through it and… there’s action and there’s adventure and there’s got to be intrigue in the Three Act format. There’s got to be a plot twist. I don’t know if that’s the same as intrigue exactly.
[Dan] We talked last week about try-fail cycles and for me that’s what the second act is there for. Act I establishes things, in Act III they win. Act II is where they try and fail multiple times so you get to put all kinds of exciting stuff in there, you just have to make sure they lose.
[Howard] You take the best idea you can think of for how your heroes would save the day — and they try that first and it blows up in their face — that’s, that’s good writing — that way writing the third act is really exciting because you have no idea how you’re going to get them out of this mess.
[Bob] See, I thought Dan was going to say it was the funnest because that’s when you show the slowly inevitable descent into madness of one of the characters.
[Dan] Well, my characters actually begin the book insane so…
[Bob] I figured there had to be some tertiary character that they drag down with them.
[Dan] That they drag down with them — you have read my books.
[Howard] Beginning the book insane — that’s like Douglas Adams beginning the trilogy by blowing up the earth. He said he shouldn’t have done it.
[Bob] That’s why he brought it back later.
[Dan] Which I thought was an even worse decision.
[Remember last week’s advertisement — it was repeated this time]
[Bob] Okay. What kind of things need to happen in to keep it interesting besides what we’ve talked about before — like structure wise, what needs to happen in Act II?
[Howard] I thought we had everything in there.
[Dan] Oh Wise Defendi, please tell us?
[Bob] I think we talked a little about… Dan’s over there making [garbled] we talked a little bit earlier about having a complication right around the beginning — either the end of the last act or the beginning of this one. Of course, most people expect a twist in the middle of the story. Star Wars is a great example. You think that they’re running off and having a great old time and then you think well maybe it is a story about escaping the Death Star, and you find out it’s really a story about rescuing the Princess. That’s, I would say, probably the Act II twist in Star Wars. The Act II twist in Jaws is probably when Quint smashes the radio and says, “no, you’re not going back home. This is where you’re living for the rest of this story.”
[Dan] You know, we could do an entire podcast on why Jaws is like the most awesome story ever. It’s my favorite movie of all time.
[Bob] I could, yeah, I could, I could.
[Howard] Have you seen the bit from the Jaws Special Edition? George Lucas got a letter from Steven Spielberg when Star Wars came out and smashed all the records that Jaws had set a couple of years earlier and it was a picture that he’d scribbled of an X-wing fighter blowing up a shark.
[Bob] With thinking of you?
[Howard] Yeah, something like that… congratulations, George.
[Bob] And so the end of Act II often has a reveal that takes us into who’s the bad guy — what is the real story?
[Howard] The big reveal.
[Bob] The plans to the Death Star.
[Jordo?] Or that he has blond hair.
[Bob] That might not be quite as strong, but…
[Howard] Or this dude has six fingers.
[Bob] So how do we keep act… we’ve already talked about some… what are some other ways to keep Act II interesting? How do you pace it, I guess is what I’m…
[Dan] How do you pace it?
[Howard] You know what? Anytime the characters are talking too much, it’s time for another disaster.
[Bob] The Ron Howard method — if you get stuck, have somebody fall down; if you really get stuck, pan to the baby.
[Dan] I remember… I believe it was a Palladium book gamemaster’s guide that I read… so it was talking about how to design role-playing adventures and it said that a great way to GM a game was that whenever things get slow, have a bad guy kick down the door. And I think that applies to writing as well — anytime it starts to get slow, you don’t know what happens next, have somebody kick down the door.
[Howard] Well, and those are situations where you’re not forcing the plot on the characters by making the characters behave out of character, you’re forcing the plot on the characters by introducing an external influence that hopefully you’ve foreshadowed in some way. And that’s a perfectly acceptable way to keep it on track.
[Dan] Or that you would go back and foreshadow later during your rewrite.
[Howard] You could go back and foreshadow during a rewrite — luxury.
[Bob] I think what we’re talking about here are mini-climaxes. I remember my teacher in second grade had the dramatic chart up on the wall that we had to follow. And there were all the little tiny climaxes — looked like the Dow Jones in a bull market slowly going up and down, up and down, and up and down until you got to the climax.
[Howard] Bull market — wouldn’t that be nice?
[Bob] Yeah, wouldn’t it?
[Howard] I think we’re in Act II right now, aren’t we?
[Dan] A lot of those little mini-climaxes…
[Bob] Aargh — thank you, Howard. Go on.
[Howard] What did I do?
[Bob] You just reminded me of something, but let’s finish your thought.
[Dan] I was just going to say a lot of those mini-climaxes again can be the characters thinking they’re going to solve the problem. I think that often can be a great way to do a plot twist, to provide tension — make your characters think they’re a lot smarter than they are, they’re about to win, and then they don’t — again and again.
[Bob] I was going to say that what you reminded me of, Howard, is that often in Act II — you’ll see it sometimes in Act III, but often in Act II — is where the hero hits rock bottom.
[Howard] Yes — Disney movies. Act II is where the main character is discovered as having lied to all of his friends.
[Bob] Right, right, usually either at the twist or towards the end. I remember at one point I was in a writers group and this one guy who had me completely pegged — his name was Dave — somebody said, “Well, I feel we’re about to go into the climax.” And Dave goes, “We’re not about to go into the climax.” This was on my book. And they said, “How do you know?” “This character hasn’t hit rock bottom yet. You think this is rock-bottom, but he’s not rock-bottom yet.”
[Dan] Now let’s point out once again this is a case where the character is exposed — that’s a thing where you see all the time in the movies where the character gets exposed as a liar and everyone decides that they hate them — even though two lines of dialogue would solve that problem. And that’s a case where you can tell…
[Howard] That’s done wrong.
[Dan] You can watch the writers letting the plot drive the characters rather than the other way around because they’re looking at their little diagram saying, “oh, this is the place where he gets exposed and everyone hates him.”
[Howard] But in a situation where two lines of dialogue would solve the problem — the character is exposed, we’re about to get the two lines of dialogue — and then somebody kicks down the door and we start Act III.
[Bob] I’m waving the timer and we’re about to talk about Act III.
[Howard and Dan] Act III…
[Bob] Alright what do we have to talk about Act III — what has to happen in Act III?
[Howard] Gotta wrap it up.
[Bob] Eventually. What has to happen before that?
[Dan] Something has to happen at the end of Act II, beginning of Act III, that teaches the hero what he or she needs to do to win. Some aspect of their failure or progress has taught them the lesson they need to learn in order to win at the end. That’s the turning point.
[Howard] So we have to stick learn into the try-fail cycle.
[Bob] Do you let the character know it at the beginning of Act III?
[Dan] Not necessarily.
[Bob] That’s a good answer I think.
[Howard] Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t.
[Bob] Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t, but I think it’s better…
[Howard] They have that aha moment.
[Bob] If you go through most of Act III thinking this is just unwinnable and then all of a sudden realize that that was right…
[Dan] And then you say, “Wait, I learned that thing back there — that monkeys are allergic to cheese,” and then they win.
[Howard] We have the holy hand grenade of Antioch.
[Bob] Exactly. Monkeys are allergic to cheese. That should have been…
[Bob] All right. And then at the very end, the denouement where you wrap everything up…
[Howard] Everything that you’ve foreshadowed needs to have unfolded.
[Bob] How do you keep things interesting during the climax part? Quick as you can. How do you build your tension? What might…
[Howard] If you’re running multiple plot lines — if you’re running a Hero’s Journey, a romance, and a three-disaster sort of format, then you need to be switching between viewpoints so that these things are cascading at once.
[Bob] And all of them end badly?
[Howard] And all of them end hopefully well.
[Bob] No, I mean in the middle, when you’re switching back and forth…
[Howard] Oh, yes. Each switch happens not at a triumph, but at greater and greater peril
[Bob] Right, okay, great. And then we have denouement and we’re out — which takes us to the denouement of the broadcast, I think?
[Dan] Very quickly for us, define denouement for those who don’t know what it is
[Bob] Oh, denouement is the falling action — after you have your climax, you have your denouement. Denouement is when the characters get to wander through the devastation or the glory or whatever they have wrought and have an emotional impact — because you don’t have an emotionally factor in the climax.
[Dan] The denouement is the very last half-hour . . .
[Howard] The denouement is the very end of Slither — when the sun comes up and the last three survivors are walking out of town and everybody is dead.
[Bob] It’s 2 seconds long in Jaws.
[Dan] It’s a little longer. But it’s just long enough for them to go, okay, let’s paddle back to shore.
[Bob] Do you want to give us a writing prompt?
[Dan] Yes. Okay.
[Bob] That was a really dirty look.
[Dan] This is more of an outlining prompt. So your outlining prompt for this time is to sit down and plot out a very basic Three Act structure either for what you’re already working on if it doesn’t have one or for an entirely new idea.
[Bob] All right.
Current Mood: try-fail
Current Music: Lookin’ for a Good Time, Lady Antebellum