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Thread: How important is the three act structure?

  1. #1
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    How important is the three act structure?

    I recently started working with someone who wanted to rework an in-progress novel to very rigidly follow the three act structure and elements of the Hero's Journey. I realized when it was pointed out to me that the my other collaborator and I hadn't really been following the three act structure, but I thought this was fine. Even when I agreed to rework things, I was surprised at the near-total rewrite they wanted and their refusal to subvert any of the steps they had learned. We've since talked and agreed to find more of a medium, but this did raise an interesting question for me: How important is the three act structure?

    Is it vital for a successful story? Can you bend it without breaking it? There are myriad other questions this raises, and I wanted to get the communities opinions.

  2. #2
    practical experience, FTW cornflake's Avatar
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    If you're writing a screenplay of a particular type, it's very important. If you're not, there are aspects that are fairly universal to storytelling, but otherwise, fucking Save the Cat needs a goddamned break. It is not the end all be all of EVERY fucking type of storytelling. It had a moment w/re features and got into the mainstream and people have gone bananas and it just needs to stop.

    Er, sorry, heh, I have a lot of feelings (and no, I don't even go here).

    I also have nothing in particular against Snyder. It's fine for what it is, but the obsession people have with it is just ... idiotic.

  3. #3
    Just Another Lazy Perfectionist Brightdreamer's Avatar
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    Three-act structure, Hero's Journey, seven point story structure... None of them are vital absolutes, unbendable or unbreakable. They're ways to help one analyze stories and think about plots, ways to help build tension, paths that have worked before and will probably work again. There are writers who will swear by each of them - and others who take one look, toss them out, and go on to write something good anyway.

    Those methods are maps that many have used to reach success, but they may not fit absolutely with the terrain of your story. To stick too closely to someone else's map, especially without understanding the purpose of that map, invites stale writing. Your friend's refusal to change any steps is a bit of a yellow flag, that they're following rules by rote rather than thinking about the reason or purpose behind the rules and how they apply to this particular story. Can they articulate just why these steps make sense or will improve things, or is it just because that's what the rules say and rules must be followed?

    IMHO, the three act structure and others make decent guideposts, containing elements that are worth considering and raising questions that you might want to answer, but they aren't necessarily the only ways one can build successful stories. Learn from them, but don't be bound by them.

    You might want to take a look at Jeff Vandermeer's Wonderbook. It can be a bit overwhelming, but it looks at some different ways to build stories, with different flow lines.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Brightdreamer View Post
    Three-act structure, Hero's Journey, seven point story structure... None of them are vital absolutes, unbendable or unbreakable. They're ways to help one analyze stories and think about plots, ways to help build tension, paths that have worked before and will probably work again. There are writers who will swear by each of them - and others who take one look, toss them out, and go on to write something good anyway.

    Those methods are maps that many have used to reach success, but they may not fit absolutely with the terrain of your story. To stick too closely to someone else's map, especially without understanding the purpose of that map, invites stale writing. Your friend's refusal to change any steps is a bit of a yellow flag, that they're following rules by rote rather than thinking about the reason or purpose behind the rules and how they apply to this particular story. Can they articulate just why these steps make sense or will improve things, or is it just because that's what the rules say and rules must be followed?

    IMHO, the three act structure and others make decent guideposts, containing elements that are worth considering and raising questions that you might want to answer, but they aren't necessarily the only ways one can build successful stories. Learn from them, but don't be bound by them.

    You might want to take a look at Jeff Vandermeer's Wonderbook. It can be a bit overwhelming, but it looks at some different ways to build stories, with different flow lines.
    It did seem to be more of the latter. Their explanation was basically "this is how you tell a good story." Basically the first thing they said after reading a summary was "where's the three act structure?"

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    Undistractable (on deadline) mccardey's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Canislupus54 View Post
    It did seem to be more of the latter. Their explanation was basically "this is how you tell a good story." Basically the first thing they said after reading a summary was "where's the three act structure?"
    People can be *very* irritating

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    Quote Originally Posted by mccardey View Post
    People can be *very* irritating
    I take it you agree with Brightdreamer that this is a yellow flag?

  7. #7
    a demon for tea EMaree's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Canislupus54 View Post
    It did seem to be more of the latter. Their explanation was basically "this is how you tell a good story." Basically the first thing they said after reading a summary was "where's the three act structure?"
    Well, what's your goal here? What readers do you imagine picking up your WIP novel? What are you going to do with it when it's done?

    If you're trying to hit maximum commercial appeal, there's solid value in a familiar structure, and your friends may be highlighting genuine weaknesses in the structure.

    If you're not fussed about commercial appeal, then it might not matter. But you need to be certain of your own goals!
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    Quote Originally Posted by EMaree View Post
    Well, what's your goal here? What readers do you imagine picking up your WIP novel? What are you going to do with it when it's done?

    If you're trying to hit maximum commercial appeal, there's solid value in a familiar structure, and your friends may be highlighting genuine weaknesses in the structure.

    If you're not fussed about commercial appeal, then it might not matter. But you need to be certain of your own goals!
    If I feel it's of an appropriate quality, I'll try to have it traditionally published. I'm fine with changing things to align more with a familiar structure, just not starting over and rigidly following a step-by-step guide on what happens in what order.

  9. #9
    Undistractable (on deadline) mccardey's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Canislupus54 View Post
    I take it you agree with Brightdreamer that this is a yellow flag?
    Yep. And also I agree with the dreamy one that
    the three act structure and others make decent guideposts, containing elements that are worth considering and raising questions that you might want to answer, but they aren't necessarily the only ways one can build successful stories. Learn from them, but don't be bound by them.
    and
    None of them are vital absolutes, unbendable or unbreakable.
    Having said that, EMaree also makes a good point
    If you're trying to hit maximum commercial appeal, there's solid value in a familiar structure, and your friends may be highlighting genuine weaknesses in the structure.
    Last edited by mccardey; 07-11-2017 at 03:05 AM.

  10. #10
    Travelling around the sun cbenoi1's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Canislupus54 View Post
    How important is the three act structure?
    It's something we inherited from Ancient Greece back when the number three - triads, triangles, three conditions, beginning/middle/end, past/present/future, etc - was deemed divine. TV folks use the 5-acts (or 7-acts) structure because of advertisements. When it comes to novels the scene is the actual story unit, not the act. So don't be hell-bent over this.

    Quote Originally Posted by Canislupus54 View Post
    rigidly follow the three act structure and elements of the Hero's Journey.
    Unless your story is about character change, then any other story types - i.e. a Mystery or a Thriller - would make the Hero's Journey feel like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. The main issue with Hero's Journey is that people apply it blindly without having read Chris Vogler's book from cover to cover. The guy clearly states his approach is NOT for every story out there.

    -cb

  11. #11
    a demon for tea EMaree's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Canislupus54 View Post
    If I feel it's of an appropriate quality, I'll try to have it traditionally published. I'm fine with changing things to align more with a familiar structure, just not starting over and rigidly following a step-by-step guide on what happens in what order.
    It sounds like you've made up your mind that you dislike that three act structure. And that's fine, as Cornflake and Brightdreamer have said, they are only guidelines.

    But I think your friends are just trying to help out, and it's a shame to dismiss the advice of those who know the story closely in favour of a forum full of folks who don't know a thing about your book.

    There's a tone to your posts that is guiding the conversation towards the answer your want. Phrases like...

    very rigidly follow


    their refusal to subvert


    This is a very, very telling way of phrasing it -- 'refusing to subvert' a standard is heavily biased wording. And hey, you don't have to be impartial, but I think the strength of your feelings (namely: you're not happy about these comments) are coming through in your posts.

    Here's my two pence: the three-act structure is a powerful tool for commercial writers and you'd be better off knowing and understanding it before you try to 'subvert' it.

    Know the rules and understand them before you break them.
    Last edited by EMaree; 07-11-2017 at 03:29 AM.
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    Quote Originally Posted by cbenoi1 View Post
    It's something we inherited from Ancient Greece back when the number three - triads, triangles, three conditions, beginning/middle/end, past/present/future, etc - was deemed divine. TV folks use the 5-acts (or 7-acts) structure because of advertisements. When it comes to novels the scene is the actual story unit, not the act. So don't be hell-bent over this.

    Unless your story is about character change, then any other story types - i.e. a Mystery or a Thriller - would make the Hero's Journey feel like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. The main issue with Hero's Journey is that people apply it blindly without having read Chris Vogler's book from cover to cover. The guy clearly states his approach is NOT for every story out there.

    -cb
    Oh, it's a fantasy book about character change, I just wanted to change or skip some steps of the Hero's Journey. Like no Refusal of the Call and no real mentor figure. Not because I don't like that structure, I love plenty of Hero's Journey stories, I just wanted to do something slightly different.

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    Quote Originally Posted by EMaree View Post
    It sounds like you've made up your mind that you dislike that three act structure. And that's fine, as Cornflake and Brightdreamer have said, they are only guidelines.

    But I think your friends are just trying to help out, and it's a shame to dismiss the advice of those who know the story closely in favour of a forum full of folks who don't know a thing about your book.

    There's a tone to your posts that is guiding the conversation towards the answer your want. Phrases like...





    This is a very, very telling way of phrasing it -- 'refusing to subvert' a standard is heavily biased wording. And hey, you don't have to be impartial, but I think the strength of your feelings (namely: you're not happy about these comments) are coming through in your posts.

    Here's my two pence: the three-act structure is a powerful tool for commercial writers and you'd be better off knowing and understanding it before you try to 'subvert' it.

    Know the rules and understand them before you break them.
    I didn't really intend to come off that way. I have nothing against the three act structure, I've just never felt obligated to use it and was wondering if I was doing it wrong.

  14. #14
    a demon for tea EMaree's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Canislupus54 View Post
    I didn't really intend to come off that way. I have nothing against the three act structure, I've just never felt obligated to use it and was wondering if I was doing it wrong.
    Ack! You have my sincere apologies. I'm so sorry for the misunderstanding. I don't usually find myself defending the three-act structure (seven point structure is my cuppa tea, and I like Jami Gold's plot point spreadsheets a lot) but something about this thread made me feel sorry for the three-act folks.

    Given how badly I misread your tone, it's very possible they're all a bunch of jerks.

    There's definitely no "doing it wrong" in writing, you're spot on. Are you getting eyes on the story outside of your immediate circle? A stranger's opinions can be difficult to handle but incredibly useful. Getting your book out to betas (when it's polished and ready, that is) really helps you spot the issues.
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    Quote Originally Posted by EMaree View Post
    Ack! You have my sincere apologies. I'm so sorry for the misunderstanding. I don't usually find myself defending the three-act structure (seven point structure is my cuppa tea, and I like Jami Gold's plot point spreadsheets a lot) but something about this thread made me feel sorry for the three-act folks.

    Given how badly I misread your tone, it's very possible they're all a bunch of jerks.

    There's definitely no "doing it wrong" in writing, you're spot on. Are you getting eyes on the story outside of your immediate circle? A stranger's opinions can be difficult to handle but incredibly useful. Getting your book out to betas (when it's polished and ready, that is) really helps you spot the issues.
    It's okay. This actually is one stranger's opinion and they were very reasonable when I told them that wasn't what I wanted. I'll post the story here when I can, in the meantime I may post it on reddit or something.

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    Is it important to me as a reader? No, I read many great books without it, or ones that blur it to the extream. But I have not seen your book, so I can't tell you if it will work in your case. My advice is, take what is said to you in consideration and reevaluate your story based on the advice. Maybe it can use a tweak here and there, or maybe it can't.

  17. #17
    Just Another Lazy Perfectionist Brightdreamer's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Canislupus54 View Post
    Oh, it's a fantasy book about character change, I just wanted to change or skip some steps of the Hero's Journey. Like no Refusal of the Call and no real mentor figure. Not because I don't like that structure, I love plenty of Hero's Journey stories, I just wanted to do something slightly different.
    People mess around with the structure all the time. The important thing is to make sure it works in your story. Does it make sense that your hero(ine) would jump at "the Call"? How do they learn what they need to begin (or continue) their journey alone?

    This reminds me a bit of a character in Goblin Hero, the middle book of the Jig Dragonslayer trilogy by Jim C. Hines. One of the characters found a book describing the Hero's Journey, and didn't understand why a hero would refuse a call, because she was eager to become a hero herself. Her experiences teach her that heroism isn't as easy as following a little guidebook. (But, then, one of the themes of the trilogy, which tweaks fantasy tropes, is that heroism isn't all it's cracked up to be...)
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    Quote Originally Posted by Brightdreamer View Post
    People mess around with the structure all the time. The important thing is to make sure it works in your story. Does it make sense that your hero(ine) would jump at "the Call"? How do they learn what they need to begin (or continue) their journey alone?

    This reminds me a bit of a character in Goblin Hero, the middle book of the Jig Dragonslayer trilogy by Jim C. Hines. One of the characters found a book describing the Hero's Journey, and didn't understand why a hero would refuse a call, because she was eager to become a hero herself. Her experiences teach her that heroism isn't as easy as following a little guidebook. (But, then, one of the themes of the trilogy, which tweaks fantasy tropes, is that heroism isn't all it's cracked up to be...)
    I think it works in my story so far.

  19. #19
    writer, rider, reader...ex-pat! BethS's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Canislupus54 View Post
    I just wanted to change or skip some steps of the Hero's Journey.
    Books (and films) do this all the time. The Hero's Journey is wonderfully flexible. You can certainly dispense with the Mentor. Or have the Mentor also be the Shadow or the Trickster.

  20. #20
    ....... Harlequin's Avatar
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    I prefer four or five.
    After all, his name was Everett C. Marm, and he wasn't much to begin with, except a man who had no sense of time.

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    practical experience, FTW chompers's Avatar
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    I personally don't follow any structure. Whatever sticks works for me. Haha. But I'm a pantser who writes out of order.

    The three-act structure can be quite helpful. My concern though would be how rigidly they want to stick to it. It might make all the books have a cookie-cutter feel to them.

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    Such a nasty woman SuperModerator Old Hack's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Canislupus54 View Post
    It's okay. This actually is one stranger's opinion and they were very reasonable when I told them that wasn't what I wanted. I'll post the story here when I can, in the meantime I may post it on reddit or something.
    Bearing in mind you said this earlier:

    Quote Originally Posted by Canislupus54 View Post
    If I feel it's of an appropriate quality, I'll try to have it traditionally published. I'm fine with changing things to align more with a familiar structure, just not starting over and rigidly following a step-by-step guide on what happens in what order.
    then no, don't put it on Reddit or anything if you want to seek a trade publishing deal. Publishers want unpublished works, not books which are available for free online. However, I'm not sure you'll have any input into how this work is published:

    Quote Originally Posted by Canislupus54 View Post
    I recently started working with someone who wanted to rework an in-progress novel to very rigidly follow the three act structure and elements of the Hero's Journey. I realized when it was pointed out to me that the my other collaborator and I hadn't really been following the three act structure, but I thought this was fine. Even when I agreed to rework things, I was surprised at the near-total rewrite they wanted and their refusal to subvert any of the steps they had learned. We've since talked and agreed to find more of a medium, but this did raise an interesting question for me: How important is the three act structure?

    Is it vital for a successful story? Can you bend it without breaking it? There are myriad other questions this raises, and I wanted to get the communities opinions.
    You're working with two other people, or just one? That means they have some say over where the work goes and how it's published. Don't put it up anywhere without the clear written approval of your collaborator(s), of you might find you're in a lot of trouble.

    Also, don't worry about the three-act structure. If the book works, it works. No matter where all the plot points fall.

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    Quote Originally Posted by chompers View Post
    I personally don't follow any structure. Whatever sticks works for me. Haha. But I'm a pantser who writes out of order.

    The three-act structure can be quite helpful. My concern though would be how rigidly they want to stick to it. It might make all the books have a cookie-cutter feel to them.
    That's more or less how I write.

    - - - Updated - - -

    Quote Originally Posted by Old Hack View Post
    Bearing in mind you said this earlier:



    then no, don't put it on Reddit or anything if you want to seek a trade publishing deal. Publishers want unpublished works, not books which are available for free online. However, I'm not sure you'll have any input into how this work is published:



    You're working with two other people, or just one? That means they have some say over where the work goes and how it's published. Don't put it up anywhere without the clear written approval of your collaborator(s), of you might find you're in a lot of trouble.

    Also, don't worry about the three-act structure. If the book works, it works. No matter where all the plot points fall.
    Thanks for the advice.

  24. #24
    practical experience, FTW Twick's Avatar
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    I suspect if you consider the three acts simply Beginning (where you're laying out the problem for the characters), Middle (where they're working it through) and End (where it, um, ends), most things have a three-act structure by necessity. Leaving out any of them would lead to a very frustrating story, and only the most avant-garde of writers could make a success of it. (Heaven help us when the writer decides that the End is dispensable, and leaves us hanging at the conclusion of the Middle. "It's ambiguous and multi-layered!" No, it's unfinished, like ungrouted tile.)

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    Quote Originally Posted by EMaree View Post
    Thank you! I've been looking for something like this.

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