So here’s a recap for the week:
- Monday – Storytelling in general
- Tuesday – Plotting using simple structure
- Wednesday – Opening the story and using exposition
What’s in store for today? My final entry on plotting for the week, of course!
We’ve expanded our simple 3-point plot structure to now include 4 points: INCITING INCIDENT, RISING ACTION, CLIMAX, and RESOLUTION. I hope yesterday I made it fairly clear that inciting incident is not the same as story opening, although the story opening needs to foreshadow or in some way tie into the story at large.
Today, we’re going to look at RISING ACTION, CLIMAX, and RESOLUTION.
If you remember back to Tuesday, I began discussing BEATS and SCENES. I offered a push/pull model which alternated the emotional energy of each scene to maintain reader interest. Now, I want to take things to the next level: ACTS.
Study writing and you’ll hear lots about the THREE ACT STRUCTURE. It’s a structure that works very well for screenplays and is also applied to many if not most popular novels. ACTS are a series of SCENES which create a STORY ARC.
This is where a lot of writers get uneasy, feeling as though a pre-developed structure is a formula in which they’re simply plugging values. On the surface, yes, maybe it is. But rather than view this as a formula, look at it as a framework. Just as all houses must have a foundation and a roof, support beams and load bearing walls, yet two houses can be vastly different from one another, so too think of these as elements of a story to aid you in the development process.
Here’s my take on the traditional THREE ACT STRUCTURE:
|– ACT 1: INTRODUCTION –|
< POINT OF NO TURNING BACK >
|– ACT 2-A: RISING ACTION –|
|– ACT 2-B: RISING ACTION –|
|– ACT 3: RESOLUTION –|
You’ll notice Act 2 is divided into parts A and B. This is because Act 2 will consume at least half of your story, maybe more, and essentially functions as two separate acts within the story in terms of this model.
The first act begins with your story’s opening and ends with the point at which the hero commits to his or her journey. The inciting incident can be at the beginning of act one or the end of act one, or anywhere in-between. But it really needs to happen before the character makes the decision to go on this journey.
<POINT OF NO TURNING BACK>
The point of no turning back is that deciding moment that defines your story. This can be a figurative moment of decision, say when Billy breaks up with his old girlfriend because he’s met someone new. Or this can be more dramatic and irreversible, as when Cortez landed in Mexico and burned the ships to prevent his men or himself from sailing back to Spain. There can be a sense of going back, as we may want readers to believe that Billy could reunite with his ex (so long as that becomes part of the story’s tension), or there can be a very real sense of permanence to it, as in the case of Cortez. But this is the point in the story where a disruption needs to take place that propels the hero into the rising action of Act 2, and the character must be changed enough that even if he tries to go back, he will find himself discontented and unable to return to the life he once knew.
I like to call this is the youth an exuberance act. Our hero feels unstoppable. No matter what happens, the hero’s confidence is unflappable. There will be setbacks along the way. Tension and conflict should be applied liberally. But there should be no room for doubt at this point. Defeat shouldn’t even be in the hero’s vocabulary, at least not yet.
This is the point where mortality rears its ugly head. The hero must suffer a setback that alters the course of his journey. Billy must watch the girl of his dreams chose her boyfriend over him, Indiana Jones must watch the Ark of the Covenant fall into enemy hands and his only escape from the underground tomb where it was kept sealed off permanently with him still inside. This moment of defeat must be so strong it makes continuing the quest seem hopeless, and the hero must contemplate giving up.
With false defeat ringing in his ears, the hero pushes forward. Perhaps the stakes are too high to give up, or perhaps he just can’t go back. Regardless, the setbacks become bigger and bigger as he battles onward, to the point of being punch-drunk and staggering. Each time he confronts evil, he is knocked back down. It’s two steps forward, two steps back, until the only way to gain ground is to crawl.
This is where something big happens. Maybe the hero discovers the bad guy’s weakness. Maybe the hero discovers strength he didn’t know he had. Maybe the tension releases in such a way that the hero can see things differently, more clearly, or with more focus. This is the eureka moment, when hope again returns to our hero. He goes into the final battle knowing that he will win, despite the odds.
This is where the final showdown happens. Events are set into place, neither hero nor bad guy has anywhere else left to run. All avenues of escape are exhausted. This is the final showdown. This is where Billy makes his big play for the girl he loves, where Indiana Jones outsmarts the Nazis and takes back the Ark. And then we have a falling off of the story, the return to a normal life. Billy and his girl walk hand in hand across campus. Indiana Jones hands over the Ark to the government agents who sent him on his quest. We see a glimpse of a normal life emerging, sweetened by all the changes that took place over the course of the story.
If you think about it, the THREE ACT STRUCTURE is really just an extension of the basic three-point plot structure. Instead of a formula, think of it as a series of milestones. Acts 1and 2 serve as your rising action, act 3 is the tipping point for climax and resolution.
The rising action doesn’t have to be literal action. There may be no fighting, no attacking enemy troops. Instead, rising action can consist of a series of character interactions, all fraught with tension. The back and forth can go in favor of and then against the hero, with the end results still falling int our Three Act Structure model.
The two biggest payoffs a reader wants after investing their time in your story is a climax that makes the struggle of rising action worth it and a resolution that makes the climax worth it.
Imagine sending your character up a treacherous mountain to fight an evil monster bent on destroying the world, a mountain so hazardous that the hero must overcome death hundreds of times. And then when he gets to the top to face this monster, all he has to do is push a button and the monster goes tumbling down the other side of the mountain.
This might make sense in the story world from a logistical standpoint, but your audience won’t like it one bit. They want your hero to fight the monster ever bit has hard as he fought the mountain to get there. They want that battle to reflect the value of what’s at stake. If the monster has the power to destroy the world, they want that hero to battle within in inch of his life to save it.
And once the monster is defeated, they want a satisfying resolution. Maybe the hero dies from his wounds on top of that mountain. This ending only works if the death is a redemption for the hero. If not, then the reader feels let down. Think about the last movie you watched where the hero didn’t make it through to the end.
The reader needs a sense of closure from the resolution. The reader wants to see the hero climb down that mountain victorious, hailed as a hero. At the very least, the reader wants to know that if the hero did die, they died for a reason and their death had meaning. In the movie TITANIC, when Jack dies, the viewer knows that his death has inspired Rose to live the life of her dreams. And Rose, ultimately, is the true hero of that tale. In our story about Billy, the reader needs to see Billy happy at the end. In Indiana Jones, we need to see the hero ride off into the sunset with the girl on his arm or a saddlebag full of treasure.
More on that tomorrow.
Now, you may be asking, do all stories need to follow the Three Act Structure? I’m not sure. I’d like to think not, but then, nearly all stories I can think of follow the basic 3-point plot structure, and the two are definitely related.
Regardless, the purpose of these last three days hasn’t been to lay down a definitive plotting structure. The purpose has been to get you thinking about the final shape of those Lego blocks we started out with on Monday. If you have a road map to work from at the very outset, it tends to make the journey far less laborious.
Tomorrow I’ll wrap up with some thoughts on characterization.