In the first post I published on this blog, I bemoaned the reductive nature of writing advice. “If you write like everyone else,” I wrote, “your writing will read like everyone else’s.” While I have gotten away from that theme from time-to-time, I try to return to it every now and then as part of my series: Rules: What Rules? which consists of a series of blogs that deal with common pieces of writing advice, and then present a famous work–by a successful author–which breaks those rules. My aim is not to criticize these authors—I enjoy all of them, that is the point. Rather, I present their works as examples of successfully writing, which might cause you to reexamine the writing “rule” critically. I am not advising you to ignore these rules, rather to take control of your own craft, and consider your choices actively. As always, I believe there is more than one path to success, more than one formula for great writing. Consider these posts synecdochally. The specific rule is not the point; it speaks to a general attitude which is prevalent within the contemporary writing community.
In each blog post in this series, I will give a brief summary of the rule, followed by a case study of a successful author, work, or series that breaks that rule. Finally, I will provide some analysis of the rule and the alternative techniques the featured author makes. Since the posts in this series will not necessarily be consecutive blog entries, I will link each piece to previous entries.
Previously in this series:
The Rule: The Three Act Structure
Stories, we are all taught at a young age, have a beginning, a middle, and and end. This fact–for it rarely stated as anything but a fact, goes back at least to Aristotle, who explained the basic plot structure, or, as he called it, protasis, epitasis, and catharsis, using the metaphor of string. In the first act, the protasis, the various plot strands are introduced, in the second act, or epitasis, the strands are wound around each other so that they tighten into a rope–the plot thickens–until can’t be wound tighter, and then in the the third act, the catharsis, the strands are cut at the climax of the action, and fall away.
Modern critics have taken Aristotle’s ideas and adjusted them to focus on character instead of plot, but, the general idea remains the same.
Pulitzer-Prize-winning-poet-and-screenwriter David Mamet, one of the most successful and influential contemporary writers, also advocates for the three act structure in his book Three Uses of the Knife. The title of the book comes from this Leadbelly quote, which is one of the cleanest representations of the three-act plot: “You take a knife, you use it to cut the bread, so you’ll have strength to work; you use it to shave, so you’ll look nice for your lover; on discovering her with another, you use it to cut out her lying heart.”
In fact, nearly every writing class, from kindergarten through the graduate level, as well as nearly every independent course or article for writers, advocates for a three act structure. You might think it was the only way to structure a story.
There are many successful stories which do not follow the three act structure. Shakespeare’s plays have five acts. Many successful modern plays (Waiting for Godot and the Elephant Man immediately come to mind) have only two. The Glass Menagerie has seven scenes which are not divided into acts. Star Trek (The original series) is a four act show, as is Eugene Oneill’s The Ice Man Cometh. Kishōtenketsu, a traditional Japanese story structure also has four acts.
It’s worth noting, additionally, that the ancient Greek plays and epics which Aristotle analyzed in the poetics were not conceived as three act stories either. The plays were told in a series of scenes and choruses, and the epics were largely episodic, and if anything, tend more toward a circular or two act structure than three.
I’m going to start off by saying there is nothing wrong with the three act structure. It’s a fine way to tell a story. It’s just not the only way to tell a story. The examples above prove there are others.
I do not object to the existence of the three act structure when it is appropriate. What I object to is the reductive nature of writing instruction and criticism which tries to shoehorn every successful story into this framework. Tennessee Williams could have made The Glass Menagerie a three-act play if he wanted to. He wrote Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as Three Act Play, for example. If he didn’t include acts, there must have been a reason. Similarly, I cannot tell you how many lessons I’ve seen where a teacher tries to teach a Shakespeare play like a three act play.
Moreover, for most of history, the three act structure was a critical tool, not a creative one. Aristotle–who has been proven wrong (through still historically important) in most fields said Sophocles plays were composed of three parts. There is nothing to indicate that Sophocles felt the same as he was composing them.
Modern analysis, which attempts to reduce Joseph Campbell’s hero journey (itself a critical rather than compositional tool) to a three act structure, is an interesting crutch, but are likely more accurate as a description of how modern stories synthesize the hero’s journey with the three act structure, with the older, epic form. It may be useful for some writers–and work for some stories–but they should not be considered one-size-fits-all prescriptions, and there are other types of circular narrative (see Alan Moore’s writing and writing about writing for examples).
Experimenting with different structures can help us get out of our ruts and solve common compositional problems. When I teach, I often suggest my struggling students try a simpler structure to begin with. A two act structure is a powerful structure with a long history. It allows the writer to set up parallels and juxtapose moments by placing their characters in similar situations before and after a central event or turning point. Many writers have the most trouble with the second act. Why not get rid of it, and just focus on two? Other students may have difficulty with the beginning or the end. Why not follow Shakespeare’s example (he is generally considered the greatest writer of all time for a reason) and try to plot your story across five acts to resolve those issues.
More generally, however, all of these divisions are tools rather than rules. Even if we focus exclusively on the hero’s journey narrative, there are all sorts of ways to divide the story structurally. We can, of course, divide it, into the classic three act structure around the crossing of the threshold, the journey, and the return to the familiar world; but we can also divide it into four acts, up until the character crosses the threshold, from the crossing to the underworld/belly of the beast. the heavy price, the return, changed, to the familiar world (this divides the circle into quadrants); or even into just two acts: descent and return. The pie, being a circle, can be sliced in infinite ways. The writer should choose whichever form works for them, and leave the critics to their own analyses.
On top of that, Star Trek, The Eastern forms like the Kishōtenketsu , Shakespeare, the great Russian novelists, and the post modernists who consciously reject classical forms, show the myriad of other forms a story can take.
Again, there is nothing wrong with the three act structure. It’s a great structure, and many successful stories use it. As writers, however, it is important to recognize that there are other ways to write a good story. Limit yourself at your own peril.
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