The bare bones of the three-act structure
For this first post of 2013, I thought it would be good to get back to the basics while pursuing in my series of posts to better understand what makes a good scene.
First, a disclaimer. This is by NO MEANS a comprehensive study of structure. When I’m done with my posts about the scene, I will be moving on to a series of posts about the classical structure, in detail. This is meant to be a primer to understand the essence of structure, because structure is not only applied to the whole story. Each chapter, each scene should be seen as a small story, and should be structured that way, and because of this, one needs to understand the basics of structure to write a good scene.
Boiled down to its simplest expression, the three-act structure is simply beginning, middle, and end, also known as initial situation, conflict, and resolution.
The beginning, or initial situation, simply presents the elements needed to understand what is to happen next. Usually, this means the people or characters involved, the background or place in which they find themselves, and the situation in which they find themselves. Where are they? What are they doing? It’s also a good place to establish the emotional tone of the moment. Basically, if you need something to understand what happens next, you need to include it in the initial situation, no matter what it is. When things get going, story-wise, it’s not the time to start explaining. Conversely, if you DON’T absolutely need a specific information to understand what is happening, then you shouldn’t include it… anywhere! It’s the superfluous details that bog down a story. Like the fact that a lot of authors seem to think that they need to write lengthy, wordy descriptions, which are most often as confusing as they are unnecessary (my next post will be on efficient descriptions).
Then comes the middle, or conflict. Basically, this is something that happens to disrupt, change, or add conflict to the initial situation. It may be something big, like a building exploding or a huge secret revealed, or it can be something very small, like a mysterious phone call, or a protagonist asking a question that is too personal, or the main character simply being in a situation where he or she has to wrestle with her emotions. Anything that is conflict will do (remember that there are many different kinds of conflict… it was my last post. Yes, I do have a method), as long as you remember that conflict should NEVER be random… it has to be a plot point. A plot point, for those of you who might wonder, is simply a bit of information, a new element in the general causality (there will be an entire post about causality) of the plot. It doesn’t necessarily have to be major, it just has to move the story forward and/or provide us with the information we need in order to understand its development (for example, it can be an important information about the main character’s background, or his/her personality) but it is usually what the scene is about.
The final step is the end, or the resolution. Now, don’t get me wrong. “Resolution” does NOT mean the conflict must be SOLVED… it just means that something must make its immediacy go away. It can be something more urgent (such as a new conflict moving to a new scene) or a return to the status quo, or the character which does not want the conflict solved for whatever reason momentarily winning the argument, only to have it returned to later. Think of it as a mountain. When you’re at the beginning of your climb, you’re at the very bottom; the conflict is the peak, and as soon as you start your descent, you have reached the resolution. It does not mean you have to go all the way back to the bottom; rather, until your story is over, you will come back down slightly, only to reach new heights with your next conflict or plot point. It’s the nature of a story’s momentum. You only come back all the way down when your story is completely over; in a series, it might be the end of the entire series! And often, even then, as your characters are changed by what happened in the story, it is unlikely you will come back to the point where you were; you’ll more likely find that there is a new plateau on the other side of the mountain.
That’s all for now. I know it leaves a lot of unknown, but I couldn’t possibly cover all of structure in one post. I’ve covered enough, I think, to make you understand what kind of structure a scene needs. Feel free to ask further precisions by clicking the “Got a question about writing?” link, and keep in mind, there will be a 3 or 4 posts series on the classical structure.