Revising in Three Acts
All stories have three acts, so says Aristotle in Poetics. Who am I to argue with Aristotle?
What are the three acts?
We could simply call them beginning, middle, and end, but that doesn’t tell us anything. Everything has a beginning, a middle, and an end—a vacation, a dinner, a war, a line for the bathroom. Instead, Hollywood has given us names for the acts—The Setup, The Confrontation, and The Resolution—which hint at what takes place in each of those acts.
The Setup: This is where we meet the main character, our hero, in her normal world, doing the things that motivate her, facing her usual challenges, and handling them in her own way. We meet the people she interacts with regularly in her world, the ones she loves and the ones she has conflicts with. We also see a disruption coming to her world. It might not be recognizable to her at first. It will appear as a problem she needs to solve, but the solution will create a larger problem. We might also meet, or at least learn something about, the bad guy. The agent of her problems. Another feature of the setup is the call to adventure. The main character will be asked/invited/told to get out of her normal world and deal with the disruption. The act ends when she answers the call.
The Confrontation: Confrontation with whom? The bad guy of course. The great writer Stephen J. Cannell, who gave us most of television worth watching—Hunter, Rockford Files, Adam 12, and many others—said the second act is the bad guy’s story. Everything that happens in the second act is the result of actions taken by the bad guy, even if we do not see them happen directly. The second act actually has two parts. The first half of the second act is when the hero develops her plan for solving this big problem, puts together a team to help her, and learns the skills she will need to confront the bad guy. At each step of the way, her efforts will be thwarted by the bad guy. The second half of the second act is when the confrontation with the bad guy turns disastrous. Some major revelations will occur; her plans will unravel; her team will fall apart and some might even die; the bad guy will be revealed and might turn out to be a trusted ally. At the end of the second act, the hero’s plans are ruined and her goal has been thwarted. She is on the mat, battered and bleeding.
The Resolution: This is where the hero pulls herself off the mat and fights back. She will regroup, possibly with a new team or a reorganized team. She will draw on the skills she learned in the second act and she will take on the bad guy in his domain. In Hollywood terms, she will assault the castle. She might achieve her external goal, but she will certainly achieve her internal goal.
The three-act structure leads to five plot points.
- The inciting incident. This will usually be the opening scene. It is the action that gets the story rolling. In The Splintered Paddle, it is Traxler’s harassing phone call to Ava Rome. In Star Wars, is is Leia hiding the hologram message in R2D2, in The DaVinci Code, it is the museum curator fleeing from the albino monk.
- The act break number one. Think of this as the curtain dropping on the end of Act I. This can be part of scene or it could involve several scenes. It is a plot point that spins the plot in a new direction. Sometimes it is called a doorway through which the hero passes from her normal world into the special world of the adventure. It is a one-way door. There is no going back for the hero. The hero commits to the adventure and the reader is able to formulate the story question (Will hero X be able to do/save/find/etc.Y?) In The Splintered Paddle, Jenny shows Ava a video she has intercepted which implicates Detective Nevez in a crime. In Star Wars, Luke returns to his family’s farm to discover all of them killed by the storm troopers.
- The center point. As the name implies, this occurs mid-way in the story and divides the second act in two. It could be a part of a scene, an entire scene or several scenes. Usually the last. Syd Field is sometimes credited with recognizing the importance of this in movies. James Scott Bell, in Write Your Novel From The Middle explains how the entire story is built on the center point. He says that what happens at the center point is an encounter with death, whether physical death (or near death, often followed by resurrection), death of a relationship, death of a career, death of a way of life. In The Splintered Paddle, Ava is attacked and beaten and one of her nemesis’s to that point is killed. In Star Wars, Luke and the others are in the garbage hold of the Empire’s star cruiser, the walls are closing in and a tentacled creature drags Luke under. He is believed lost, but is finally released. In Gone With The Wind, Atlanta burns.
- Act break number 2. This is the end of the second act and the doorway to the third act. The hero’s plans are shattered. She is at her lowest point. In The Splintered Paddle, Ava has learned the secret that Traxler brought from her past, but Traxler has eluded the police and is in the wind. Her relationship with Cassie hits the rocks over a driving lesson, and police detective Nevez is also in the wind. In The DaVinci Code, Langdon learns that is trusted mentor Sir Leigh Teabing, is the teacher who has been trying to gain possession of the crypt ex that would lead to the Holy Grail.
- The end: The resolution of the story. At this point the hero realizes that what she has really been searching for all along is not what motivated her through the action, but some internal goal. In The Splintered Paddle, Ava acquires redemption for the death of her father and brother.
Putting the structure into place.
Having created a set of cards that covered all of the scenes in Day Of Infamy, (see last week’s post), the next step was to identify those cards, or sets of cards, that fit each of the five plot points listed above. This was not a difficult task because I already had an idea of what those points would be. The first and last, of course, were pretty much set in stone. For point number 2, I had to determine in which scene did Ava commit fully to the task of solving the cold case murder. It was not the most dramatic or the most action-packed, but it was one where she responded to an earlier event by shoring up her resolve to “never back down.” Point number 3 was easy to determine. Death was clearly present in the from of a hit-and-run vehicle attack that nearly killed Ava (the death and resurrection.) Point number 4 finds Ava on the run from the police and the killers, suffering from her injuries, and trying to return home with information she has learned about the case. The entire point is presented as a hallucinated conversation.
Once the points have been identified, the next task is positioning them in the proper place in the story. Points one and five, by definition, take place at the beginning and end of the story, so they do not need to be positioned. It is the other three—the doorway between Acts I and II, the center point, and the doorway between Acts II and III—that need to be positioned.
At this point, one more feature of the three-act structure comes into play. The first and third acts each take up about a quarter of the story. The second act is the longest and takes up about half of the story. So now I turned to a calculator. The first draft came in at 651 pages. Dividing by four, I find that the first doorway should occur on or about page 163, the center point should occur on or about page 325 and the second doorway should occur on or about page 488.
This is not rocket science. The story will not fail if any of those points are off by ten or twenty pages in either direction, but this gives and indication of which parts of the story will need deletions or additions and about how much of each. In the final draft, a reader should be able to open the book to the middle, for example, and find themselves immersed in center-point action. Now I can look at each part of the story and decide if it contains too much or too little. As the editing progresses into shorter drafts, I will need to keep an eye on my shrinking page count and adjust the locations of the major plot points accordingly.
Next, some plot and character elements for each part of the story.