Is The Three-Act Structure Formulaic Crap Or Necessary Storytelling Tool?

The noise around writing fiction goes something like this: there are no rules! There are all the rules! You must follow these rules! Never follow any rules! Do it like this for supreme success! Never do *those* rules or you will FAIL! All stories are like this! Bad stories follow a formula! And over and over until you fall on the ground sobbing.

At some point during all of this you will come across the three-act structure. In fact, almost straight away in your writing journey you will be bashed over the head by it because it is everywhere. Double in fact, our novel planning course Plotstormers loosely follows a version of the three-act structure, so – disclaimer – we’re kinda big fans.

But the big worry with using the three-act structure as a go-to storytelling mechanism is that you end up with something horribly formulaic or trite.

Here’s a secret: it’s not the structure that makes it formulaic, it’s the characters. If your characters are stereotypes acting in a way we’ve seen a thousand times before – oh hello tedious manic pixie girl, yes yes you *are* kooky aren’t you, well done you – then the story is going to feel like we’ve seen it a thousand times before, i.e. formulaic. If, however, your characters are three-dimensional, relatable and compelling, telling us something in a new and engrossing way… well then.

Let’s look at the evidence: is The Time Traveller’s Wife formulaic? No freakin’ way. Does it follow three-act structure? Yes it totally does. In fact, it’s the non-linear chronology, the chopping and reordering of timelines, that specifically creates the classic rising and falling action structure.

Is The Book Thief formulaic? Not even close. American Gods? Jitterbug Perfume? We Need To Talk About Kevin? None of them are remotely formulaic.

And yet they all follow this basic story structure of starting with a problem that needs solving, rising tension to a point of crescendo about two-thirds in, and then falling to a satisfying resolution (which isn’t necessarily a Happy Ever After).

Maybe they don’t follow it exactly to the letter (because, remember, it’s a guide not a straight jacket), but pretty much you can plot the uppy-downy chart from inciting incident to crisis to crisis to crisis to climax to resolution with ease.

A handy test of this is to ask yourself how you’re feeling at specific points in a story. Do you feel like you’ve come to care about the characters in the first chunk? Like you’re ready for adventure about a third in? Like you’re shocked slap-bang in the middle? Like you’re on the edge of of your seat about two-thirds in? Like you’re satisfied at the end?

Guess what? There’s a reason for that!

The AMAZING thing about story structure is that it exists in the first place, that it evolved from our brains and has become ubiquitous without us even realising that it was happening. This isn’t a chicken and egg situation. What came first: story structure or literary criticism? The former, without a shadow of a doubt. Structure appeared before we noticed it, and it was only *when* we noticed it that agents and publishers and producers and directors and Learn To Write types started pushing it.

The fact that this structure, which we find so satisfying and crops up without us even noticing, came first also suggests that it exists for a reason. Hold on to your pants because here’s the reason…

Story structure exists because it mimics the exact way we process the world.

1. We are missing some knowledge
2. We acquire knowledge
3. We absorb that knowledge and discover how to use it

Act one: the hero has a problem to solve – they’re missing something
Act two: the hero learns what he needs but has no idea how to use it
Act three: the hero gets her shit together and fixes everything

And for the nerds, as John York points out in Into The Woods, here’s Ye Olde Hegelian Triad: 

Act one: Thesis
Act two: Antithesis
Act three: Synthesis

Stories are about processing the world and finding equilibrium. Even a sad story has to leave us feeling emotionally satisfied, and we find equilibrium by pitting opposites against each other and resolving to a comfortable median.

Act 1. Discover the problem
Act 2. Journey to fix the problem
Act 3. Learn how to live with the new world

In the words of the great Neil Buchanan, now try it for yourself. Sit down with a good film/book and grab a piece of paper, then make a note of where you think each act falls in the plot, and which scenes are the big plot points that keep the action ramping up and moving forward. Even better, watch a TV box set and work out how they manage to do the three-act thing in a mere 40 minutes AS WELL AS incorporating an overall structure into the series as a whole.

Tl; dr. No the three-act structure doesn’t make for formulaic crap. The three-act structure is, essentially, why we tell stories. The only requirement for ensuring your story isn’t formulaic crap is to tell it with truth and passion and to tell the story that only you can tell. So. What are you waiting for?

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3 Comments. Leave new

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Cynthia Scott
6 April 2018 8:11 pm

Yes, as concerns creative fiction, the characters can “make or break” a story. The reader must be able to at the very least, empathize greatly with the character’s experiences, so that he/she cares enough to finish the story, and yes, in order for a reader to empathize, it helps for the character to be unique, although even your average “Joe” can provoke compassion if you tweak his character just right with great dialogue. That being said, I also agree that the 3-act structure is not a “bad” thing. It is merely a tool to bring about some order to a story. I believe any particular tool that one finds effective in building an organized story structure is bound to be useful, and each author finds his own method to the “madness” of his own writing by trial-and-error. The more simple the better in the beginning. For example, one can begin to build a great story just by writing one sentence that includes the same elements as the 3-Act structure, then gradually expanding on that sentence to more and more detail, then adding more scenes that show the action involved in bringing about the end that the original sentence expressed. This article was a great read, and I truly enjoyed it. It made me think of how I want to make my own characters come to life on the page and be more unique.

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Great article! Explains the 3 act thingy which I had previously dismissed as too formulaic, boring, methodical and uncreative.

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Good read. But it would be good to see the alternatives being discussed to get some context. Otherwise we will all use it and that cannot be a good thing. Oh and respect for mentioning Perfume. My touchstone book. If somebody doesn’t like it, I don’t like them

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