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Thread: How important is the three act structure?

  1. #51
    Not as sweet as you think Aggy B.'s Avatar
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    I pantsed my way through 140k words (that is the first half of a duology). It still has structure. In part because humans learn structure instinctively and apply it to our work whether we are consciously doing so or not.

    The most basic structure is Beginning, Middle, End. It can be broken down into ridiculously small iterations of that pattern. Every story has a B/M/E, each of those acts also has a B/M/E, and each of those parts has scenes which also have a B/M/E. Chances are, if you have written a story, no matter how many other complex structures you might have followed (7 Act or the Orphan/Wanderer/Warrior/Martyr arc or a 27 point beatsheet from Save the Cat), you still have three act structure. That's why I'm scratching my head a little over folks dismissing it as unnecessary.

    Now, again, I don't usually go through any structural analysis on what I'm writing until that first draft is done. Or if I get stuck. But the structure is not just useful, it's literally how most brains prefer to try and process information so trying to do something different (assuming one isn't neuro-atypical in which case, yes, you may look at structure much differently) is... just odd to me.
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  2. #52
    Travelling around the sun cbenoi1's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Aggy B. View Post
    That's why I'm scratching my head a little over folks dismissing it as unnecessary.
    Because this is how it's been taught: Every story has a Beginning, a Middle, and an End. Now go write a novel.

    Quote Originally Posted by Aggy B. View Post
    Now, again, I don't usually go through any structural analysis on what I'm writing until that first draft is done.
    That's the gold nugget of this thread if there is one. Structure is better suited for analysis.

    -cb

  3. #53
    Not as sweet as you think Aggy B.'s Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by cbenoi1 View Post
    Because this is how it's been taught: Every story has a Beginning, a Middle, and an End. Now go write a novel.

    That's the gold nugget of this thread if there is one. Structure is better suited for analysis.

    -cb
    Except there are a number of folks here insisting that things that clearly do follow three act structure don't, or that they write in 12 acts or 42 acts or whatever. Which makes me think maybe they've not actually studied structure. (Which is fine. You do what works for you.)

    I dunno. It's kind of hitting me the same way as folks who talk about how they must self-publish because they don't want an editor messing up their work. Like, if you want absolute creative control then follow that path. But don't do it because you don't understand how editors or publishers work with an author.

    If you find that structural analysis cramps your style (no matter when you approach it - draft, revisions, whatever) then don't do it. But don't dismiss it for being something it's not. Because this is one of those things I run across with newer authors a lot that they take as some sort of Bible-truth (that three act structure is unnecessary and too constrictive for real creative minds) and then they wind up with a mess of a manuscript and no clue how to fix it. Or they advise other folks to ignore it and then those folks struggle with a mess of a manuscript.
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  4. #54
    practical experience, FTW Stephen Palmer's Avatar
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    It's not so much that the three act structure is always taught and what everyone should do, it's more that the three act structure - like the wheel - is impossible to improve. Except when you don't want wheels at all.

  5. #55
    Aerospace engineer turned writer Laer Carroll's Avatar
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    If thinking in terms of BME works for someone, fine. But for me it just says 123: there are three parts which happen this order. It says nothing about the purpose of those three parts.

    I prefer to think of them as Setup, Development, Wrapup. The Development phase of the story is everything between the inciting incident and the resolution in the following diagram.


    To further expand development, I think of this as the spine of the story. In it the main character(s) deals with a string of obstacles between then and their goal, which might be a positive like a treasure or a negative like an escape from a danger. You can divide the obstacles up into three sections, or five or seven or whatever feels best for the story which you want to tell. Three is not a magical number for me.
    Last edited by Laer Carroll; 07-16-2017 at 11:43 AM.

  6. #56
    practical experience, FTW Twick's Avatar
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    I think all but the most avant-garde stories can be divided into three acts. But their authors weren't specifically trying to put them into that structure. It's more the way the mind organizes information and processes the development of the story.

    I agree that some "beat sheets" are ridiculously constrictive - "The protagonist must have an initial unsuccessful attempt to solve the main problem at 35.9% of the way through the story. S/he must sulk about his/her failure for at least 10% more of the story's length." But it's actually simple "What's the problem? How does the MC go about dealing with it? How is it wrapped up?" In some stories the breaks are obvious. In others, they're hidden under endless elaboration. But they're nearly always *there* or the story feels unsatisfying.

  7. #57
    Preparing for winter VeryBigBeard's Avatar
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    I really, really can't bring myself to dive further into this thread, but I want to add one more thing, because it's bothering me:

    Have you considered how ethnocentric many of these structures are? Structural theory (much like post-structural theory that followed) is a very Western European construct and is taught mostly in a Western context.

    If you think all books fall into these structures, you aren't reading widely enough.

    Read some indigenous stories. Read books from the Chinese literary tradition. Read older European texts from Celtic cultures and Nordic cultures. Many of these are very popular, or were very popular in their day.

  8. #58
    Not as sweet as you think Aggy B.'s Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by VeryBigBeard View Post
    I really, really can't bring myself to dive further into this thread, but I want to add one more thing, because it's bothering me:

    Have you considered how ethnocentric many of these structures are? Structural theory (much like post-structural theory that followed) is a very Western European construct and is taught mostly in a Western context.

    If you think all books fall into these structures, you aren't reading widely enough.

    Read some indigenous stories. Read books from the Chinese literary tradition. Read older European texts from Celtic cultures and Nordic cultures. Many of these are very popular, or were very popular in their day.
    This is true as well. I found myself listening to a panel of writers back in January and had to point out to them that happy endings are a Western thing. (And a particularly British/American thing at that.) There are plenty of types of structure that are cultural in nature, and even Beginning, Middle, End may not be universally applicable. (Although when I was studying film, I'm not sure I ran across many non-Western films that were post-1940s that didn't have some sense of Three Act Structure. But that could be cross-contamination from the previously dominant Hollywood market. But, even something like Good-bye Dragon Inn - which is mostly a big middle - still has a beginning and end albeit artificially imposed by the showing of the film within the film. And Tarkovsky's The Mirror, while more abstract, has a Beginning, Middle, and End.)

    But, yes, there certainly are other structural mechanisms. I'm still not certain that ignoring ideas of structure is especially helpful though. (Non-Western poetry has some pretty dedicated forms so structure is not a uniquely Western idea. But the "how" of the structure that I'm familiar with for story-telling probably is.) It seems to me that knowing the foundation of your literary market is probably a thing that needs to happen before one starts writing outside the box. Like learning the rules of grammar before breaking them. And if one is Chinese or Aboriginal or First Nations or Indian or Latinx then one should know those storytelling conventions and structures.
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    "I loved this novella series. Brooding, earthy, whispering to us with a delicious mood of creeping dread while filling the heart with a pure sense of wonder." - Charles de Lint, author of The Onion Girl

    A.G. Carpenter
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  9. #59
    THE EXPLORERS is out now!! Toothpaste's Avatar
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    Someone already mentioned this in passing but I feel like it hasn't clearly bluntly been stated yet:

    I feel like you are conflating "three act structure" with "hero's journey" and other kind of structural story telling elements. The things, for example, you cite as things you wish to subvert (like the refusal and lack of mentor) has zero to do with a three act structure. The three act structure is, as many here have been saying, basically a beginning a middle and an end. That's all. Now most genres have beats they tend to hit within that structure, so the hero's journey tends to have things that happen at particular moments, such and such must happen by the end of Act 1, ditto Act 2. But that doesn't mean you have to have those elements in order to be writing a three act structure.

    Essentially I'm wondering if you aren't actually already writing in a three act structure because quite frankly if you've read a bunch a western books and consumed a lot of western media, that structure is kind of already in our DNA. I remember as a kid watching movies and even though I had no concept of that structure knowing "this isn't the end because it doesn't feel like we're there yet". It's quite possible you've accidentally already structured your work as such. I find often with new writers that is one of the things we struggle with the least. It only becomes a bigger issue when it comes to screenplays when you have to hit certain marks by certain page numbers etc.

    Anyway, something on top of all the other somethings to think about.

    Regardless no, you aren't obligated to write any one particular way ever. Whatever is most effective is all that matters. But yes sometimes that which is most effective is indeed the tried and tested.

  10. #60
    practical experience, FTW Stephen Palmer's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by VeryBigBeard View Post
    I really, really can't bring myself to dive further into this thread, but I want to add one more thing, because it's bothering me:

    Have you considered how ethnocentric many of these structures are? Structural theory (much like post-structural theory that followed) is a very Western European construct and is taught mostly in a Western context.

    If you think all books fall into these structures, you aren't reading widely enough.

    Read some indigenous stories. Read books from the Chinese literary tradition. Read older European texts from Celtic cultures and Nordic cultures. Many of these are very popular, or were very popular in their day.
    This is a very good point. You only have to watch a Japanese animé film to see they do things very differently.

  11. #61
    ....... Harlequin's Avatar
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    I didn't find anime to be vastly different in structure, but perhaps I'm missing something.
    "Though one evil spirit may drive a woman out of Eden, all the devils in hell cannot drive Heaven out of a woman."

    -- George MacDonald

  12. #62
    Not as sweet as you think Aggy B.'s Avatar
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    I do think, as Toothpaste mentioned, that folks are conflating "The Hero's Journey" with Three Act Structure. Different stories and different cultures have different fine structures and purposes. And there's a lot about the so-called "Hero's Journey" that is deeply flawed - even for Western literature. (You see this with Syd Field's Screenplay as well. He gives a very detailed analysis of Chinatown because he considered it a classic that perfectly demonstrated his theory. Other films do not fall so neatly within his box, but are still excellent examples of how to tell a story, but he doesn't talk about them because he wanted something that showed he was right.)

    Analysis always requires knowing "the rules" in order to better understand how and why someone breaks them. And, analysis is best applied not at the draft stage, but the editing stage as a writer. Then you are looking for concrete reasons why your gut says "This sequence doesn't work here." If you try to do that at the drafting stage you are likely to never move past the first chapter or three. (Obviously, some folks do work this way, but I've found they tend to be outliers, not the norm.)
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    Touch: A Trilogy - AVAILABLE NOW!
    "The 'Touch' trilogy is a masterclass in world-building, tells a fascinating story with economy and intelligence, and does so with fine, pared-down prose." - Eric Brown, author of The Fall of Tartarus

    "I loved this novella series. Brooding, earthy, whispering to us with a delicious mood of creeping dread while filling the heart with a pure sense of wonder." - Charles de Lint, author of The Onion Girl

    A.G. Carpenter
    @Aggy_C

  13. #63
    Aerospace engineer turned writer Laer Carroll's Avatar
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    Read some indigenous stories. Read books from the Chinese literary tradition. Read older European texts from Celtic cultures and Nordic cultures. Many of these are very popular, or were very popular in their day.
    Erh, I have. In fact I was a Chinese linguist, though the language is pretty rusty nowadays. Chinese stories follow pretty much the same patterns as "Western" stories. Indeed, it may be that a lot of European stories have their genesis in China. It's history goes back well over a thousand years BC. That's a long time for cultural osmosis to affect the Western world.

    On the other hand, people from The Mysterious East think pretty much the same as people from anywhere. They too live the patterns of birth, life, and death, experience joy and sorrow, love and hate, and all the other panoply of human emotions. Their stories follow the same profound patterns as do those of The Way-Too-Obvious West. So it may be that the similarity between Eastern and Western stories and their shapes are the result of much deeper and more primal thought processes.

    These facts don't keep people from propounding the theory that there are two major types of thought, divided along the lines of West vs East, rational vs intuitive, individual vs collective, practical vs artisitic, and a lot of other dichotomies. Chinese are as rational, practical, and individualistic as Westerners.

    This talk of China as somehow central to Eastern Thought is likely to piss off many of those who live in the other countries in the East. The are divided up into many different countries, each of whom are proud of their own cultural traditions. People from India, Japan, Korea, and all the others are likely to resent any attempt to lump their distinct cultures in with that of the Chinese. Especially since the Chinese have long had imperial ambitions toward the land owned by those other countries, a fact which has not changed to this day.

  14. #64
    practical experience, FTW Stephen Palmer's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Harlequin View Post
    I didn't find anime to be vastly different in structure, but perhaps I'm missing something.
    They use a lot of sections where nothing apparently happens, but actually it is symbolically.
    A great example is the "umbrella scene" in GITS 2.

  15. #65
    practical experience, FTW Twick's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Stephen Palmer View Post
    They use a lot of sections where nothing apparently happens, but actually it is symbolically.
    A great example is the "umbrella scene" in GITS 2.
    That's more of a pacing issue than a structural issue, though. To the author, something *is* happening.

    I went to see Your Name. last weekend. It clearly had a beginning (the two MCs discover something strange happening), a middle (where they work on figuring out what's going on and dealing with problems that develop) and an end which gives an emotionally satisfying conclusion to the story arc, rather than a feeling that the author stopped randomly at that point. Now, you could say that the pacing was different that a "typical" western story (lots of time jumping around and so forth), but I didn't feel that the arc was glaringly different from the three-act structure.

  16. #66
    practical experience, FTW Stephen Palmer's Avatar
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    I must check out that film! it got great reviews.
    I'm not an animé obsessive, so I don't have a wide frame of reference, but if you watch GITS it's more stop/start than in the West.
    I guess I should read a Japanese novel to check this out.

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