I’ve been enjoying studying the intricacies of writing stage plays with my Drama Writing class. Today we were talking about structure; specifically, the three-act structure.
As a novelist, I will have to admit that my view of the three-act structure has been pretty elementary over the years: Act One, get your hero up a tree; Act Two, throw rocks at him; Act Three, get him down. And there’s a kernel of truth in that. But there is lot to be said–and learned–by novelists and other writers in learning more about stage play structure.
My new understanding tells me that Act One is similar to Chapter One in a novel. You introduce your characters, you hook your readers, er audience, excuse me, and you present your quandary. What is the issue at question? What is the protagonist’s goal? Our textbook tells us that question needs to be addressed within the first few minutes of the play. That accomplishes two things: first, it signals a social contract with your readers. This is who were are and what we are going to do. Second, it hooks your readers into the story and gives them the opportunity to buy into that contract. I talk a lot about social contract with my writing students. If a potential reader, or audience, doesn’t buy into what the contract says, they give up early. And that’s OK. Not everyone is into Shakespeare, or Tolstoy, or Stephen King for that matter.
But if they sign that contract and the writer breaks it–has the protagonist do something out of character, has a Deux Ex Machina moment–then the reader/audience will not only reject the book or play but the author as well. It’s the difference between a bad first date and a monstrous fight after a terrible break up.
But on to Act 2. That’s where the meat and potatoes of the story go–generally about 75% of the story. I would assume that would go for fiction as well as plays. Act 2 is all about raising the stakes. The protagonist tries again and again to accomplish his goal, only to be thrown back. Finally he is confronted with the Moment of Truth. There is only one option left, and it is the thing he wanted to do least of all. He must decide: will he put ALL of his poker chips on the table and risk losing it all? His decision is the Mental Climax of the story, and everything that happens after should be the inevitable result of that decision. If there is a terrific physical battle between protagonist and antagonist, for the most part it will be preceded by this Moment of Truth.
Act 3 follows. It is the wrap-up, the resolution of everything that happens after the Moment of Truth. This includes any battle that might happen. Just remember that the true battle has already been fought, the decision by the protagonist to commit everything to his quest.
As I go through these exercises and look at the structure of plays, I can’t help but think of my own writing projects and how they fit into this structure. Sometimes they fit quite well; other times they are issues I feel I need to go back and fix. In any case, I think an occasional review like this–especially from a different medium–is a healthy thing to do.