In the first two parts of these series, we talked about the ideal reader and the story idea. Today, we are talking about the three-act structure. If you haven’t seen our previous articles, you might want to check them out before moving to this one.
If you have ever read any book on writing, you are definitely familiar with the term, three-act structure. But, what is a three-act structure? Do you really have to stick with it? Can you use another structure or no structure at all?
To answer quickly, I will say that:
- The three-act structure represents the bone structure of the vast majority of stories ever written. It was first described by Aristotle, who defined it after thorough observation of ancient Greek dramas.
- No, you don’t have to stick with it, but it’s better if you do.
- You can use any other structure or break the rules in the existing structure or you can use no structure at all, but I don’t advise it.
What is so special about the three act structure?
The three-act structure is a scheme which is going to help you to plot your story. It’s not a paint by numbers scheme and it has been used throughout the history of story-telling; from ancient Greek dramas, through Shakespear to David Mamet and Aaron Sorkin.
The three-act structure represents the way we humans like to hear stories. We enjoy the stories which have the beginning, the middle and the end. Following a single character going through these stages has been our passion for millenniums and it will continue to be without any doubt.
We like to be introduced to the character and the world in which she lives, then we like to see her suffering while trying to get the things she wants, we like her to hit the bottom, rise again and finally wins or loses.
If there is no introduction, we feel confused, if there is no battle, we think it’s lame, if we don’t know whether the protagonist won or lost, we feel cheated, but if we have all three of them we feel that the story is true – it represents life.
There are certain things in our lives that are not easy to obtain; love, peace, fortune, career, status,… and we like seeing another people battling for the same things we want to have. We want to learn from their experience and we like to think that if they have succeeded, there is a chance that we might accomplish the same, as well.
That’s why these stories work, and that’s why the three-act structure is important.
The Graphic Representation
The easiest way to realize what the three-act structure is to look at the graph. Apart from loving stories, we also like pictures that can easily represent them.
A story is a hero’s journey from point A to point B and we want to see her go through various stages of facing various difficulties. We don’t want it to be an easy ride for our hero and we want to see the worse at the end.
The three-act structure has:
- Exposition (Beginning)
- Confrontation/Rising Action (Middle)
- Resolution (End)
You might also notice certain important points of the story
- Breaking Point
- Middle Point/Point of No Return
- All is Lost/Dark Night of the Soul
Each of these points breaks our story further. Therefore, we have:
- Set up
- All is Well
- The Battle
- Final Push
- Wrap Up
The Three Acts – Whiplash by Damien Chazelle – Analysis
I will try to illustrate how the three-acts structure works by analyzing the Whiplash screenplay. Movies are easier to analyze because they have fewer details than novels. Novels sometimes have multiple stories going at the same time and therefore they are not usually ideal for explanations.
Act I should roughly take 25% of your story. If you are a screenwriter, you should really stick with these percentages. Novelists have a little bit more freedom, but the closer you are to the math, the better the story works. It’s not science, and it doesn’t have to be exact, but it’s in your best interests if it’s really close.
The Act I represents the beginning; the exposition. It has two crucial points and it consists of two parts. So, let’s take a closer look at them.
Set up is a part of your story where you introduce your main character. You show him in more or less everyday situation. Showing his personality traits, the place where he lives, his social and economic status. We still don’t know much about his goals and ambitions, but he doesn’t also. We might get a glimpse of the ambition, and we also learn something about character’s values.
You don’t want your setup to stretch for too long; approximately 7-8% percent of your story. If your setup is too long, your reader might just get bored and drop the book. No one needs to read a huge chunk of backstory which might or might not influence the future events of the story. It needs to be interesting, precise and to hook the reader; let the reader get the picture of who they are following.
In the movie Whiplash, we meet Andrew, the protagonist, we find out that he is a drummer studying at the Shaffer Conservatory. We do find out that his ambition is to play drums, but we don’t go much into details. We learn that he enjoys playing and listening to jazz.
The Catalyst (The Inciting Incident)
The catalyst is a moment in which the protagonist gets an idea of what he wants; it’s a new opportunity; an event that pushes the character into the story.
Or, let’s look it like this – if there isn’t a catalyst, there would be no story. The protagonist would continue to live his life in the usual, ordinary way and nothing interesting wouldn’t happen.
The Catalyst is the moment that changes everything in protagonist’s life.
In Whiplash, the catalyst is a moment when Andrew meets Fletcher for the first time.
While Andrew is playing drums, Fletcher, studio band conductor arrives and listens to Andrew’s playing. Andrew knows that if he performs well, he will get a chance to play in the studio band which is the most prestigious band in the conservatory.
However, they didn’t have the best start.
If Andrew never met Fletcher, there won’t be a story. Without Fletcher, Andrew would be just an ordinary drummer in Shaffer, which is still impressive, but not enough to make a movie about it.
The dilemma, or Debate, as Blake Snyder would say is a part of the story where the protagonist isn’t sure if she has what’s needed to pursue the goal. The goal is clear. There is something that she can get and she has a basic picture of what she needs to do, but she is having a debate whether it’s worth it.
A dilemma is what always happens in life. Most of the times people never overcome this barrier because change is hard, getting into the unknown is scary.
What makes stories attractive is the fact that the protagonists decide to move forward; take the crucial step. The dilemma is here to make the reader correlates with the character, but the next step that the protagonist makes is here so the reader can admire her for her decisiveness and courage.
Usually, the dilemma is solved internally, but sometimes the protagonist have a talk with their friends or family members and they help them to make the decision, but it’s important that only protagonist can make that decision.
In Whiplash, Andrew is listening to his favorite music, debating whether he’s got what it needs to become a lead drummer of the Shaffer’s Studio Band, he talks to his father about it but his father doesn’t have the same passion for that.
Finally, Andrew makes the decision on his own. He will give his life to become a remarkable drummer; it’s a matter of life and death; not literal, but emotional. If he’s not a remarkable drummer, his life is not worthy.
This is a part of the story, where the dilemma is over, the protagonist has decided that she is going for it and she enters the new world.
In Whiplash, the breaking point is when Andrew accepts the invitation from Fletcher. If he didn’t accept it, we wouldn’t have a story.
So, Andrew decided to go for it and he entered a new world; a world of becoming a remarkable drummer.
The act II is all about conflict and that’s why it’s called confrontation. It is also known as rising action, because are things gradually becoming tougher.
The act II is the longest part of the story. It approximately takes 50%. Since it’s extremely long, it can be further divided into two parts
- The All Is Well
- The Battle
Many writers have issues with the act II because it’s long and their story doesn’t have strong enough conflict to be stretched through 50% of the book or a screenplay. David Mamet once said that anybody can write a good first act, but the second one is the most difficult and not everybody can pull it off well.
All is Well
I like to call this part of the story ‘all is well’ because the things are not as nearly as tough as they are going to be in the second part of the second act. Blake Snyder calls this part – Fun and Games.
In this part, the protagonist is oriented towards the goal, but she’s just entered the new world and it’s like entering the marriage – the honeymoon phase. Everything is perfect, we meet new people, new places, the character is learning new skills required for the new world; she is exploring and doesn’t have the clearest picture of what is going on and especially not what is coming.
It is also the place where subplot comes in; the internal, or romantic exploration; we are adding things that are later going to complicate our protagonist’s life, but right now, she is just enjoying it.
In Whiplash, Andrew is having the best time of his life; he is playing for the studio band, he is practicing more than ever, and he finally got the guts to ask that girl out. She likes him, they get into a relationship.
Things are getting a little bit complicated, he kind of sees the real, furious, Fletcher, but their relationship is still just fine.
Midpoint (The Point of No Return)
This is probably the most crucial part of your story. You really have to nail this one and it takes place exactly in the middle of the story. Imagine this one as a nail where you are going to hang your picture. It needs to be in balance if you want the picture to be leveled with the ground.
From this point on, things are getting serious and at this moment two things can happen:
- either something bad; an unexpected slap in the face, which will force your character to higher up the stakes;
- something really good; which will give your character the false hope that she’s already won, a bittersweet win.
Either way, from this point on, there is no coming back.
During the first part of the act two, the character could’ve said – Screw this, I’m going home and nothing would’ve been lost, but from this point on, she must continue. It’s a matter of life and death (remember it doesn’t have to be literal death), too much is at stake to return now and go home like nothing really happen.
In Whiplash, Andrew gets to be a core drummer of the studio band. Previously, he managed to lose the notebook of the other player who used to be the core drummer, but after he got the chance to play and proved himself worthy, Fletcher gave him a role of a core drummer.
As you see, it’s a bittersweet win for Andrew. He thinks that he nailed it, he is finally a remarkable drummer, Fletcher respects him, but wait, things are getting worse in the next part.
From this point, there is no going back for Andrew; this is his only chance to become a truly remarkable drummer.
This is where things get real. This part is also known as Bad Guys Close In. If your character has human enemies, this is where they are coming to get him. If she has won in the midpoint, the bad guys are reinforcing and changing the tactics; they are going all in.
On the other hand, if the struggle is internal, the things are getting really serious.
If your character is struggling internally and externally, even better; the more the merrier.
Your character is having fewer options to complete the goal, from scene to scene the odds are less and less against him. This is the part of the story where the pace is so fast and the troubles are coming one after the other.
Let’s see what happens in Whiplash at this stage:
- The other player is blaming Andrew for losing the charts
- During the family dinner, everybody is disrespecting his achievements and they are simultaneously praising his cousin’s accomplishments, who is a low league jock.
- He dumps his girlfriend so he could practice more.
- The third drummer joins the band and he is the real underdog.
- The third player temporarily gets the part.
- Andrew is late for the big show.
- Andrew loses his drumsticks.
- Andrew breaks his finger in a car accident.
- Andrew argues with Fletcher who doesn’t want to let him play.
- Andrew plays but he is not able to play well.
As you see, there a lot of things happening at this stage and none of these are working in Andrew’s favor. Things are getting tougher and they are going to culminate in the next stage.
All is Lost (The Dark Night of The Soul)
This has to be the worst moment for your character in the entire story. It seems that the protagonist lost his battle. Whatever she was aiming for, whatever seemed to be her goal is now lost forever. The plan is not working and the character doesn’t have the energy for a new one. She’s put everything she’s got in this project and now it’s all gone.
There is no coming back, and there is no winning; at least not for now. If a protagonist had a mentor, this is usually the place and time where she dies.
It is not uncommon for a character to try to go back where she’s started, just to realize that it’s impossible for her to go back because she’s been changed enough not to fit in the old world, but yet not enough to fit in the new one. She needs one more step, the final battle, but she doesn’t realize that yet. She’s hit the bottom and now she’s whining until she recharges for a new plan.
At Whiplash, Andrew loses everything when he gets into a fight with Fletcher. He gets expelled and all his dreams of becoming a remarkable drummer and playing at the Lincoln Center are gone. His family was right. It’s not meant for him. He gives up drums, he doesn’t have a girlfriend, he doesn’t have friends, he’s the loneliest person on the planet.
Act III is also known as the resolution because we see whether the main character wins or not. Everything unfolds here.
After dealing with the fall and hitting the bottom, our character needs to get back on her feet and have one more shot. Usually, during these dark hours a new opportunity emerges and once the character is determined to go for it, she’s entering the final act.
It’s even better if the character provides the new opportunity by herself.
Act III should also take approximately 25% of your novel.
The Final Push
Like a woman who is bringing a new life to the world, your character needs to make that final push and get what she always wanted. Now, your character has a clear vision. She’s no longer doubting in her success, she’s going for it and she is going to get it. Or, is she?
In Whiplash, Andrew stumbles upon a sign in front of a jazz club and he sees that Fletcher is playing. He goes in, listens and talks to Fletcher after the show. Fletcher invites him to play for his new band at JVC competition and Andrew sees that as his final opportunity to prove himself as a worthy drummer.
He is preparing for that final clash, he is practicing with his new band, and everything seems to be working just fine, until…
The Climax is the last stage of the story and it brings the most tension. This is where the protagonist and antagonist have their final battle. Your main character either wins or dies trying. After this point, the tension of the story is dropping significantly.
You want to put the climax in the last 10% of the story. If you put it too early, you have a really short Act III, if you put it too late, we don’t see the full resolution and the story is too stretched.
In Whiplash, Andrew and Fletcher have their final battle. They are at JVC and Andrew has the wrong sheets. Fletcher has set him up. He wants to destroy him once for all. What does Andrew do? Does he walk away and let Fletcher win?
Of course not!
What does he do instead?
He gives the best god damned solo in the history of jazz and he wins them all.
The Wrap Up
This is the place where you want to close both of your stories, emotional and physical and you also want to close all sub-plots. Apart from leaving nothing important unanswered, there is nothing much to say about his part.
In Whiplash we realize that Andrew is a remarkable drummer, Fletcher, his greatest enemy, is supporting him, his dad is finally supporting him and what’s most important, he believes in himself. He doesn’t win his girlfriend back, but at least she came to see the show.