Saturday, August 04, 2012

Brick by Brick: Three Act Structure, Part One

(Three Act Structure will be the epic posts that will seem to have no end in sight. Settle in and bring snacks.)

Have you ever played telephone as a kid? I did. I loved to see how distorted the message ended up by the time the last person heard it. Great game. Unfortunately, this is the way I learned the Three Act Structure.

I’d successfully completed and written three novels using the “wrong” method of the three acts before I realized I was doing it wrong. Thankfully, by then my newbie author status had worn off and I wasn’t afraid to do things in a way that worked for me.

I had also learned one other valuable lesson, but first I’m going to walk you through the “right” way. The Michael Hauge’s way (Turning Points and How To Use Them In Fiction), because it’s a brilliant breakdown of the ebb and flow in movies that also can be applied to the structure of novels. It involves six stages, and five turning points.

Summary of Michael Hauge’s Three Act Structure

Stage 1: The Set Up

Here the hero/heroine is seen in their natural habitat. It’s the handshake. Hi, my name is Susie and let’s look at my world as I know it now. The purpose of the Set Up is to create attachments to the character. It’s to make you care enough to keep watching. Or pluck down your hard-earned cash and walk out the store with the book.

Turning Point 1: The Opportunity

Something in the character’s mundane world changes. This is the chance the character has been waiting for or didn’t know they were looking for.

Stage 2: The New Situation

You will see the character react to the opportunity. That choice brings about a whole set of other avenues, and the character must choose one road for their journey.

Turning Point 2: Change of Plans

In a sense it’s self-explanatory, but let’s use See Megan Run as the example. Megan has decided to stay for her mother’s wedding. The carrot at the end of the stick is getting the deed for her father’s home. Should be simple, right?

Yet, Megan has to deal with the emotional landmine that is the relationship with her mother. Also, she needs to deal with the ex-boyfriend she left behind. So the plan to keep her head down and wait leisurely for the wedding date to roll around is shot to hell.

Stage 3: Progress

In which the character deludes themselves to believe she has a handle on the situation. She might have a handle but just barely. If anything else comes along in their path that hold will become unsteady. Of course....

Turning Point 3: The Point of No Return

Something else is thrown in their path, and the character will have to make a choice that will forever change them. Hauge’s says this happens exactly midway through the movie.

Stage 4: Higher Stakes and Complications

If this is a 5-mile marathon, your character has just reached mile 3.5. So what’s 1.5 more? Except that small hitch in her side has turned into a full-blown muscle cramp and that healthy, fruit-only breakfast isn’t feeling so good in her stomach.

Turning Point 4: The Major Setback

All hope seems to be lost. There is no way she will get what she wants. In the romance world we call this the black moment. The hero is found out to be a liar. The heroine can’t seem to trust the hero no matter what he does. Cue the Angela Basset scene where she burns her ex-husband’s car, or at least the heroine feels like she wants to do the same.

Stage 5: The Final Push

Despite the odds not being in her favor, the heroine pushes through. She has reached .5 left in the final mile. The finish line is in sight. Even if she has to crawl bloodied-soldier style across it. She will do it dammit.

Turning Point 5: The Climax

Remember that locked door? The character breaks out the key they would have never used.

Stage 6: The Aftermath

The resolution, the happily ever after, or if it’s a mystery novel, a huge info dump that explains everything in a nice neat bow. This happens at this point of the movie. Roll the credits and outtakes.

This structure is foolproof. Hauge even gives you percentages on when the stages and turning points are supposed to happen and for how long. You can use it again and again and come up with different scenarios.

How did Telephone distort something so simple?

Easily enough. I spent the first year of being a serious writer learning as much as I could. I did my best to incorporate everything I learned at the same time. Bad idea. If you’ve been on this hamster wheel long enough you know that information can conflict with each other, bleed together and make you dizzy. You can end up with a novel that you’d rather burn than edit if you followed every rule.

So, at the same time I was trying to take in the Three Act Structure, I was learning a new rule of thumb: Start where the story starts. I needed to apply this knowledge, because I had fallen in love with a writer’s worst friend–backstory.

Susie received a red letter in the mail that would change her life forever. Holding the thin parchment in her sweaty palm made, Susie remembered the first letter she received. It was 1992 and her once A cup breasts had finally turned into solid a B. It hadn’t mattered to Bobby Macky as long as he...

On and on and on it went until I circled back around to the red letter. But, by following that advice off the edge of a writing cliff I ended up smashing together The Set Up, The Opportunity, and The New Situation. I went from one extreme to the next. I did not give myself or the character breathing room, for fear it was really backstory. Eventually, I swung to the middle. (Refer to the spreadsheet to see the layout of my version.)


Today's post was brought to you by why my way is so totally jacked up. Next up is a hard look at my jacked up way.

As usual I'm more than open to questions or outright disagreement. Do so in the comments.

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