I’ve been thinking a lot about narrative structure recently. Some of that has to do with the process of outlining, which tends to draw into sharp relief when a story doesn’t have an underlying plot skeleton. My current potential for the 2013 NaNoWriMo idea right now seems to contain a lot of battle scenes, but nothing that significantly raises the stakes or does something to pique a reader’s interest. I’m glad I’ve spotted that now, as I can make alterations and graft on some type of structure to the story.
The most common type of structure is the three act structure which is roughly:
Act 1 – Setup
This is the first 25% of the tale and is there to provide a lot of the exposition and setup for the world of the tale. There’s a general rule of thumb that in a novel that says the protagonist, key supporting personnel and the scenario of the story should be introduced within the first fifty pages. That’s a significant portion of your first act covered. Typically around halfway through the first act, some kind of event happens that puts your protagonist on the path of following your plot.
Act 2 – Confrontation
This will be the middle 50% or so of your narrative and will typically be where the main characters meet their mentors, any love interests and first start facing true obstacles preventing them from getting what they want. Most notably, this will likely be where the presence of an antagonist will manifest. As the point where your protagonist and antagonist become aware of each other, this is likely the point where they’ll have their first confrontations, and they probably won’t go to well for your protagonist. Roughly halfway through this act, the protagonist should seem on the cusp of their ultimate goal, only to have it snatched away sending the character into their own personal nadir, often giving up completely.
Act 3 – Resolution
The final 25% of the story, which typically features the main character getting over themself and returning to the narrative is all about the climax. This is where the renewed protagonist will have a final confrontation with the antagonist, which tends to go somewhat better than earlier confrontations (
not always of course, as not all endings need to be happy) After the climax, we get some form of denouement where we can see how the story’s events have changed both the character and the status quo of the world they live in.
The three act structure is a fine tool, but like all the tools in a writer’s toolbox it has to be deployed correctly. If it’s not used well, you end up with a story that is somewhat cliché, and worse, something that is utterly predictable. Of course used well, or even subverted, that structure can breathe life into a story and keep your readers turning the page.
The three act story is so well known, and there are so many parallels, especially in mythology, science fiction and fantasy tales that in his seminal book The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell came up with the concept of the “monomyth,” noting the similarity that many heroes journey’s take. Indeed, an alternative term for the monomyth is “The Hero’s Journey,” and it’s a structure that has been used in many, many tales and media, though perhaps most famously in Star Wars, thanks to George Lucas explicitly mentioning Campbell’s work. Interestingly, the journey is often cyclical in nature, and like the three act structure above, it’s divided into three parts:
Part 1 – Departure
This consists of a Call to Adventure, and the Crossing of the Threshold, both things I intend to look at more deeply in later entries in this series. This is usually the stage where the hero gains some kind of supernatural or at least unusual aid that will come in useful later (In the Star Wars example, this could be Luke learning of The Force or receiving a light saber)
Part 2 – Initiation
This is the point after the hero has crossed the threshold from the ordinary world into the unknown world of the story. This part contains the Road of Trials, and finds the hero reaching their lowest point, which Campbell compares to dying and names The Belly of the Whale, after the tale of the biblical prophet Jonah.
Part 3 – Return
This is where the final confrontation or Apotheosis will take place and often will be the point where the hero receives their reward (frequently a beautiful woman or princess in the mythological tales). The hero then has to cross the Return Threshold back to the (presumably now-changed) ordinary world they were in when the story began where they might wait and receive another Call to Adventure and the cycle begins anew.
Think of some of your favorite works. Can you envision how this structure fits the tale? Or do you see points where the author deviated from the structures? If so, was it to the detriment or benefit of the story?