Friday, September 14, 2012

Understanding the Three-Act Structure

By Jill Williamson

The three-act structure divides a story into three parts: setup, confrontation, and resolution. For this post, I’m going to use the movie The Wizard of Oz as an example. I've pulled much of these terms from script writing and morphed them into my own version of the three act structure. If you Google “three act structure” you’ll find many variations, but this is how I've broken it down for my own understanding.

Also, The Wizard of Oz is a complex film. One could argue that I’ve chosen the wrong plot points or inciting incidents. I don’t claim to be an expert at script writing or the three act structure, but I hope that my attempt to break down the story will serve as an example to help you do the same for your story to see what, if anything, you might be missing.




Act One: The Setup
In the Beginning, we see our hero in her everyday world. Dorothy is running home. Miss Gulch threatened Toto, and Dorothy wants to tell her aunt and uncle. But no one has time for Dorothy’s concerns.
Then Miss Gulch arrives and takes Toto away. There is nothing anyone can do. Dorothy is weeping in her room when Toto jumps through the window. And here we have our Inciting Incident. Dorothy packs up, and she and Toto run away.
The inciting incident is sometimes called the opening disturbance. It is the something that happens, usually by the end of chapter one, to get the story moving.
Shortly thereafter comes the Pinch Point: a tornado is coming. Dorothy runs home, too late to get into the shelter, and is whisked away in her house to the magical Land of Oz. Here she meets many new characters, including Glenda. Dorothy is a hero in Munchkinland for killing the Wicked Witch of the East and is invited to stay, but she only wants to go home. Glenda tells her that only the Wizard of Oz could possibly help. Dorothy is faced with a choice: stay or go home, which is what sends her to Plot Point 1, the major disaster she is facing. She wants to go home and steps through the door of no return.
Plot Point 1 puts the main character at a crossroads. She must choose a course of action that will change the course of the story. She makes a plan and embarks upon it.
Act Two: Confrontation
Our hero then sets out on her journey. Dorothy meets several new companions, develops some subplot objectives such as getting a brain, heart, and courage for her new friends. She also faces many unexpected Obstacles: angry trees, a fireball from the Witch, and sleep-inducing poppies (Midpoint Disaster). Yet our heroes prevail and reach the Emerald City and the merry old Land of Oz. They are pampered, and after a few more Obstacles, are finally taken before the great and powerful Wizard of Oz.
And here comes the False Sense of Security. Our hero is led to believe that all will be well. The problem is about to be solved. Dorothy will go home, the Scarecrow will get a brain, the Tin Man a heart, and the Lion some courage. They are feeling confident that success is imminent.
Until the Wizard refuses to help. Their journey had been a waste of time. Dorothy will never get home. Our hero’s goals come crashing all around her as we enter Plot Point 2. The Wizard offers to help on one condition, that Dorothy fetches the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West.
Plot Point 2 puts the main character at another crossroads. She must choose a course of action that will again change the course of the story. And often this choice is a no-win situation. To say yes is to seek out the Wicked Witch of the West. But to say no is to admit defeat and never get home. Dorothy again steps through the door of no return, choosing to go and get that broom.
Act Three: Resolution
Off our heroes go to find the broom. More Obstacles crop up. Dorothy is captured, her life threatened, leaving our sidekicks to save the day. The Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion rescue Dorothy, and in the most climactic point in the film (Climax), Dorothy destroys the Witch with a bucket of water.
Denouement occurs after the climax and is where all the loose ends are tied up. Dorothy and friends return to the Emerald City, discover that Oz is a fraud, Glinda arrives and tells Dorothy about the magic slippers, Dorothy clicks those heels and goes home.
And there you have it, more or less. 
What do you think? Does your work in progress have some or all of these ingredients? What are you missing?

28 comments:

  1. Perfect timing! I've been determined yesterday & today to get a better handle on my 100-4-100 story but I don't want to over plot

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  2. *bookmarks this post* I've been thinking alot about story structure and my outline lately and this was so helpful. I tend to over plot and now that I think about it I can probably cut my 100,000 word WIP down to 80,000 (it's a fantasy) by removing a few things. Thanks Jill! This post had perfect timing. :)

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  3. Very handy! Thanks for explaining. I've never been all that good at plot...this should help! :)

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  4. Wow, this took the plot of a story in a new way I've never seen it. Most of the time it's like "beginning, climax, resolution", but this way is more detailed and way more interesting. Thanks for the great explanation!

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    1. You're welcome, Tinkerirock. It's a formula most movies use to keep us watching. So it should work for books, too, huh?

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  5. This is really helpful! But I'm a bit confused - what's the pinch point, exactly?

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    1. I'm also a bit confused on that...

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    2. My understanding is that it's something that puts your MC in a pinch. They are forced to make a decision and fast. Dorothy wanted to run away, but the tornado forces her back to reality quickly. It forces her to the reality of what matters most to her: her family. Aunt Em. So she runs home. If it had only been rain, she may have moped longer.

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    3. So... the Inciting Incident brings them a problem, and they don't decide their course of action until the Pinch Point?

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  6. I like this explanation. Worth pondering and rereading, Jill. Thanks!

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  7. You always explain things so clearly, Jill! This was a good reminder, and I know the Wizard of Oz inside out (my sis is a fanatic), which made it easy to follow along with your example.

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  8. Thanks for the post! It really helped me understand this :)

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  9. Wow thanks! I'm going to apply some of these tips to my story now. This really helped!

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    1. Cool. I'm going to apply some to my next story too. It's fun to experiment with new ideas.

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  10. Thank you so much for this post! I'm really terrible at plot so this is very helpful. I had a couple of questions, though, just to clarify. Plot Point 1 is the 'doorway,' but is Plot Point 2 always something that the main character can't control? And is the midpoint the highest point of tension? Or am I reading the graph wrong? Thanks!

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    1. Well, many three-act structures have the highest point of tension at Plot Point two. I like this shape to remind me that the middle of the book is very important. Plot Point 2 will need to be strong, since it sets in motion the climax of the story. But to keep from having a sagging middle, I like to build up to the middle, then start the roller coaster of events that spiral toward Plot Point 2.

      I don't know that Plot Point 2 is always something the MC can't control. It could have come about as a result of a choice the MC made that backfired. And the MC will have to make a choice as to how to make it right. Plot Point 2 is supposed to be the place where it seems like it's all been worthless. The MC is going to fail. But then he turns it all around and makes one last attempt to reach his goal.

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  11. Great post Jill! I really need to work on my climax moment. That's where I always seem to have trouble, becuase I have so much plot twist going on, that it's hard to tell when you hit the main climax moment.

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    1. Yeah, try and make it clear what your MC's goal is and what is the main obstacle that stands in his way. That obstacle is what should be beaten in the Climax, if possible.

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  12. Maybe this will help me! I have a quick question: how do you know what genre to write? Like historical fantasy modern-day....i've tried a bunch n i just dont know which one! Any ideas? Thanks again for the post (;

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  13. Well, you need to write the genre you love most. That's what worked for me. Which is why I like speculative fiction. That way I can do all kinds of different things.

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  14. Thanks! This helps a lot! I have always worried about my plot and how it should go and how to form it.
    Thanks Jill!

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  15. Plotting my idea for my first novel, and I found this article. I really enjoyed the Wizard of Oz used as an example. Thanks for explaining. It so well.

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