Plot Structure

As I have mentioned in a previous blog, I am a big planner when it comes to writing and I believe that almost any decent story beyond a certain length has to follow certain rules of story. Most of us write stories following these rules without even knowing they are there. We can also consciously ignore and confound these rules but, unless you are certifiable genius, the results are unlikely to be good.

I am a big believer in the three act structure. No, to be precise, I am an ordained priest in the Holy Church of the Three Act Structure. The three act structure can be seen in pretty much every good novel, in every single movie (especially those that follow the Hollywood model) and most other story media.

The basic parts of the three act structure are, funnily enough, three acts:

Act 1

(usually the first quarter of the story) – We are introduced to the central characters and something happens to propel them into the adventure that is the story.

  • Dorothy runs away from home because she doesn’t want her dog, Toto, to be killed
  • Harry Potter lives a life of misery at the Dursleys’ although we know he is a magical boy
  • Jesus Christ is born and heralded as the messiah

Act 2

(usually the middle half of the story) – The central characters work to achieve some form of goal and are beset by obstacles. These obstacles can be physical, mental or emotional.

  • Dorothy follows the yellow brick road, picking up companions on the way and battles with the Wicked Witch’s efforts to thwart her.
  • Harry Potter spends his first year at school, exploring the mystery of the Philosopher’s Stone and generally getting on Snape’s bad side.
  • Jesus carries out his ministry, delivering healings and teachings whilst contending with the Pharisees and the devil.

 

Act 3

(usually the last quarter of the story) – The central characters engage in a final effort to achieve their goal and, in most stories, succeed.

  • Dorothy goes to the Wicked Witch’s palace to claim her broom so that she may be allowed home.
  • Harry enters the trapdoor on the third floor corridor and battles through traps and puzzles to reach the Philosopher’s Stone.
  • Jesus is arrested, killed and defeats death through his resurrection


Those are the basics but then there are additional elements. For a start, there is usually some single event in each act that drives the characters into the next.

The Act One Plot Point

Near the end of act one, something will happen to the central character that means they must engage in the action taking place in act two. When this happens, there is no turning back. The challenge of the story has been accepted (or forced upon our hero).

  • The tornado picks up Dorothy’s house, drops it in Oz and kills a wicked witch.
  • Hagrid comes along and effectively rescues Harry from the Dursleys.
  • The Holy Spirit descends on Jesus and the devil tempts him in the wilderness.

The Act Two Plot Point

Near the end of act two, usually when it looks like our central characters have got everything sorted, something bad happens that sets them back to square one and makes their situation appear hopeless (thus allowing the victories of act three to be all the sweeter).

  • Dorothy reaches the Emerald City but the Wizard of Oz refuses to help her
  • Dumbledore is called away from Hogwarts on the very night that the thief is going to try to steal the stone.
  • Jesus is arrested after the Pharisees and Judas conspire against him

Although not necessarily part of the three act structure, there are a couple of other story elements that I find are present in all good stories.

The Hook

An element that grabs your attention in the very earliest part of the story and compels you to stay with the story until the full-blown plot kicks in. This has to happen early on, maybe something like ten minutes into the viewing/reading/listening experience.

  • – Miss Gulch wants to kill Toto
  • Harry is ‘The Boy Who Lived’
  • Angels! Kings! Shepherds! He’s the Son of God, don’t you know?

The Reversal

Not always present but it does appear in many of the best stories. Partway through the entire narrative, the central character’s goals suddenly change or indeed the whole game is changed and the flow of the story is turned on its head (the shower scene from Psycho is probably the most famous example of this). In fact, some of the most startling examples are when the story’s genre changes halfway through (the film From Dusk Till Dawn is my favourite example of this, in which in a matter of seconds and without warning the film transforms from gangster movie to vampire movie).

  • Dorothy’s mission becomes one to defeat the Wicked Witch rather than one to find her way home.
  • Harry not only has to contend with life at a magical boarding school but must also prevent the theft of the Philosopher’s Stone.
  • Jesus is not a physical messiah who will save Israel from the Romans but a spiritual messiah who is going to save all of us from hell.

A story will have an over-arching three act structure but the sub-plots within the story will also have their own three act structure that may take place over the same length as the whole story or be confined to one portion of the story. The business of the Hogwarts House Points in Harry Potter is a story that has its own three act structure as does the life and death of John the Baptist within the Jesus narrative.

When it comes to plotting ‘Mr Clovenhoof’, I will be looking how our ideas fit around these structures. Some of the ideas we have been discussing, such as Satan’s expulsion from hell will be story length story arcs but some others, such as his dabbling in music and cookery, may only appear as miniature three act stories at some point in the longer story.

Posted in 2011, Writing Tagged with: , ,