A while ago I got hold of James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure, which talks about… well, you can put the clues together. It’s an excellent craft book and I recommend it, not least because it deliberately steers away from highly technical terms in order to get the point across as straightforwardly as possible. The opening chapters sensibly deal with 3 Act Structure and it occurred to me that I have never even mentioned that on here – something I am now going to remedy.
People have been using the 3 Act Structure as a storytelling technique for a VERY long time, and that’s because it works. It basically boils down to: beginning, middle, end. That’s not that helpful though – as someone pointed out to me recently, a Subway sandwich has all those. So let’s get a bit more specific.
BEGINNING: This is where the reader learns who the story is about, what world they live in, what the problem they face is and who/what’s standing in their way. That’s a lot of ground to cover in relatively little space (Bell defines the 1st Act as the first fifth of the book). The reader also, crucially, needs to be given a reason to keep reading. A reason to care and a compulsion to turn the page. If you don’t get this in early, you’ll lose them.
MIDDLE: The home of subplots, confrontations, deepening character relationships and tension building. This is where the set-up and preparation for the final conflict takes place.
END: The final conflict, resolution, and closure. All the loose ends are tied up and the reader can close the book with a feeling of satisfied completion.
Sounds relatively simple in principle, yes? The tricky part of this comes when you move between acts. The transitions are absolutely crucial for pacing, tension and sucking the reader in. You can have slightly fuzzy transitions or you can have very clear-cut points where they occur, but you need to know what they are.
This is where the doors come in. Bell makes the point that there’s an important difference between the inciting incident and the transition between beginning and middle. The first is the reason the story starts; the second is the reason it continues.
In order to get from beginning to middle you must create a scene where your Lead is thrust into the main conflict in a way that keeps him there… There can be no return to normalcy… The key question to ask yourself is this: can my Lead walk away from the plot right now and go on as he has before? If the answer is yes, you haven’t gone through the first door yet. – James Scott Bell
The doorways – the transitions between Acts – are the metaphorical burning of bridges. The character is absolutely committed to whatever comes next, and could not pull out of it without fundamentally altering who they are. The same holds true of the second door, except that it’s throwing them towards a concluding crisis rather than sucking them into the initial problem. They’re both a point of no return. I was at an exhibition of space and architecture at the Royal Academy of Arts yesterday and one of the contributors had the following quote on his piece:
Thresholds are places where we naturally become more aware.
Even if your character isn’t aware that they are taking an irrevocable step, you as a writer should be and your reader should certainly have a sense of the importance – the tension – that comes with a transition between Acts.
In what’s often called mythical structure the hero has an opportunity to ignore or reject the call to action. This pretty much has to happen in Act 1. If it happens later then the point of no return is broken because the hero is trying to return from it. So you can also use that as a marker – can my character throw up his hands and say no? If the answer’s yes, you’re still in Act 1.