3 Act Structure-Friend or Foe?

People were arguing about three act structure in social media the other day.
So I figured I’d chime in “real quick”.

“You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

Ready Alice?

Bottom line, we’re physical beings, in a finite universe experiencing reality through time.

This means, every story we experience has a beginning, middle and end.
Just like the story of our very own life has a beginning, middle and end.

Buddha says, this is a cosmic unavoidable rule.

And it happens to be the fundamental core of three act structure.
Beginning, middle, end.

Now unlike our lives which are infinitely more detailed than a 22 page comic, 120 page graphic novel, 400 page novel, or 90 page screenplay.

Story structure attempts to pin down some specific, sign posts if you will, in the narrative. For the writer, these sign posts help guide us in creating and writing the story. (To the audience, these sign posts should be invisible.)

Now, like pretty much anything in life–whiskey, money, social media—story structure can be abused.

  • IF you use too many sign posts or too specific sign posts.
  • IF you adhere to it too strictly, without wavering.
  • IF you rely on it too much, allowing it to overshadow the other aspects of the story.

If you do any of that, you may find your creativity limited and your work turning out somewhat derivative, contrived and mechanical. The formula you’re using may bleed through in the work, in an obvious, bad way.

But like any craftsman worth their salt, over time you will learn when to rely on three act structure and when to branch away from it (when to let the story dictate where the structure goes on its own) and which sign posts work for you and which don’t.

In fact, that’s why there’s a bazillion writing books all preaching different types of structure. All saying “Hey, these 10 sign posts here, these are the ones you want to use to develop a perfect story.” Because to that author, they do work to create the perfect story.

With all of these writing books, my own and this webpage included, take what works for you, leave the rest—make it your own. This is the only true formula for writing.

Now, I run a lot of my work in three act structure. Why?

Because it works for me, and for most stories I write, I’m not trying to create some “crazy, artsy, non-linear head trip story”. I do a lot with a handful of signposts.

Computer says:
structure – noun: the arrangement of and relations between the parts or elements of something complex.

Personally, I’m 100% convinced there are rhythms and patterns in story telling.

If there weren’t a ton of years ago (in the golden age of books perhaps), they are definitely there today… and you’ve been absorbing them since you were a baby, when your mom left you on the couch with the dog in front of the TV.

Anyone who tries to deny this, is a salmon swimming up the East River, headed for the South Bronx. Good luck fishy.

Now, purposely ignoring these arrangements, rhythms and sign posts if you want, as long as you know they are there in the first place, is fine.

An old adage I repeat a lot, “You gotta know the rules, before you break them.”

I don’t draw, but I suppose writing is a lot like learning to draw anatomy. You don’t start off like Joe Madureira or J. Scott Campbell—you learn basic anatomy 101, then when you fully understand it you say “ok, now I’m gonna boob the hell outta this babe or muscle up this guy and totally blow out every proportion I’ve been taught—and it’s gonna look awesome.”

The trick with three act structure (or any story structure) is assembling sign posts that are specific enough to give you direction, but general enough to give you freedom, creativity and allow the unexpected.

Think of it this way. Let’s say your friend visited from out of town for the day and you gave him a note with a bulleted list of what to do while you were at work.

If your list said:

  • Talk to Anne about her dog.
  • Take the bus uptown to Joe’s Pizza for lunch.
  • Go see Star Wars at the downtown movie theater.
  • Have a beer in the midtown park for the rest of the afternoon.

If you gave this list to your friend every time he came into town, he’d probably shoot himself. Of if you gave the list to different friends on different occasions, they’d probably have very similar experiences. The structure of your list is too specific.

In contrast, if your list said:

  • Talk to one of the locals.
  • Grab lunch.
  • Check out a movie.
  • Grab a drink somewhere until I get off of work.

Now, there are a lot of possibilities. Your friend could follow this list many times without getting bored. And given to multiple friends, they’d all have quite different experiences.

If you even went looser?

  • Get out of the house.
  • Do something fun.
  • Relax.

In story, the core of three act structure translates to:

Act 1: Introduction

Act 2: Complication

Act 3: Resolution

And of course, within each act you throw in your sign posts, like Inciting Incident, Midpoint Reversal, Climax etc.

I didn’t go into story structure in the Writer’s Guide to Comics and Graphic Novels for a very deliberate purpose. As I mentioned I think the structural sign posts a writer uses are unique to them. And I felt that there were already so many books out there covering the subject. In the Writer’s Guide to Comics and Graphic Novels, I tried to go over material that wasn’t already sitting in ten other books on your shelf.

Just remember, your signposts and structure are “just” an ebb and flow of the story.

Your other elements are the things doing the ebbing and flowing.

You need to put just as much focus on those guys to have a successful story. And top of that list should be your characters and theme.

Characters and theme are the soul of your story.

About the Author —
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, amazon and in select stores around the U.S.  Visit NickMacari.com for social media contacts and news on his latest releases.

For more tips, bookmark the writing craft page. For all the tips buy the book.

Show your support by sharing the writing craft page on your social media.

© 2016 Nick Macari. No reproduction without written permission.