photo of Elizabeth Engstrom by Mary Bartnikowski

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Writing Tips

The Three Act Structure
Point of View
Overdone Plots
How to Write a Query
Weekly Writer’s Workshop Format
The Art of the Short Story
The Synopsis
The Art of the Essay
A Simple Approach to Plot
Evaluating Your Original Idea
Last Draft: The Final Polish



THE THREE ACT STRUCTURE

The three-act structure is a way of looking at the unity of the story that is being told. If a story doesn't have unity, if it doesn't progress logically and believably from incident to related incident, then we find it unsatisfying, whether or not we're able to pinpoint exactly why we feel that way. Please don't think, however, that we are presenting some sort of formula that will be a straitjacket that prevents you from telling the story in your own way. All architects learn that in order not to collapse, a building must have a sound foundation, but the need to provide that foundation doesn't constrain them from designing a wide variety of buildings. By the same token, learning the nature of dramatic structure will not keep you from writing what you want to write, but will help ensure that your scripts have a solid base.

It has been observed that most stories feature a main character who wants something, who has a goal. His quest for this goal becomes the overall thrust of the story. There are people or forces opposing him in his quest, and these are the source of the obstacles he encounters. At the end, he either reaches his goal or he doesn't.

This progression has also been encapsulated this way: Get your character up a tree. Throw rocks at him. Get him down or have one of the rocks hit him and kill him.

Answer for yourself the following questions:

Act I:

Who is my central character and what does he want?

Act II:

What does my central character do to bring about his goal and who or what opposes him? What are the three or four key obstacles my central character overcomes along the way? What is the "moment of truth" in my character's quest, from which there can be no retreat?

Act III:

What are the events that finally bring my character to reaching (or definitely failing to reach) his goal?

—Jurgen Wolf & Kerry Cox, Successful Scriptwriting

The story starts at the point where nothing before is needed. Don't "set up" the action. Start with the story in motion. Lajos Egri's "rising conflict" theory should be emphatically present in scene 1. The beginning. And that scene should foreshadow the story. Even the ending.

Recall "la ronde" in poetry. The end is the beginning. Alpha and Omega. Rosebud at the beginning and end of Kane. E.T. coming in, then going out. A plane at the beginning and end of Casablanca.

The second act is where the plot must thicken. Actions stimulate reactions which stimulate further actions. Those actions become complications. Complications cause conflict, and conflict is born in character.

Your job in the second act is to unfold the complexity of reasons. Characters getting into trouble because of their own actions or the actions of others and the conflict exacerbated by the character's reactions and subsequent actions.

Life is when things happen one after another. Structure is when things happen because of the other.

Acts One and Two exist only to set up Act Three. Act Three exists solely for itself. Once again we deal in increments of three. As there is a beginning, middle and end to existence, screenplays and lovemaking, so there is a beginning, middle and end to your third act.

The Act Three beginning is the preparation to implement the decision that triggered your curtain drop on Act Two.

The middle of the end will be the action itself. This middle-of-the-end action, be it emotional, physical, or a combination thereof, will be exactly what the entire movie has been leading the audience toward: the accomplishment, the victory, the coup de grace.

All of the memorable last few film frames have a scene that promises the future of the protagonist.

—Lew Hunter, Screenwriting 434

You generally present a situation in Act I, and by the end of Act I the situation has evolved to a point where something is threatening the situation.

In Act II you solve the problem, producing a more intense problem by the end of Act II.

In Act III you solve that problem, either happily or unhappily, depending on whether you have a comedy or a tragedy or a drama: You work out a final solution accordingly. It sounds nice and pat, but it never really works that way. Nothing ever works that easily.

—Paddy Chayefsky

Joan Tewkesbury, who did Nashville, came to me and said that Taxi Driver knocked her out because every scene moved the story forward, yet seemed to be episodic. That was the whole goal -- to create a series of episodes which look episodic; yet every single one deals with the movie thus far, then moves the movie forward. You can't point out anything that happened in the movie that isn't tied into everything else. It appears to be episodic, but the appearance is not artless.

You have to try to arrange scenes that appear to follow each other in what seems to be a natural way, but is anything but natural. Because you can choose only forty, forty-five, fifty scenes to tell a story. You have to pick those fifty scenes very carefully if you're going to get a rich story.

—Paul Schrader

Protagonist Growth

According to Aristotle, who in fact was only offering his observations, not setting them down as rules, the skeletal structure of a drama means that a question is asked at the beginning. The process of asking that question is known as exposition. I formulate the problem. Act One: The ghost tells Hamlet, "I was murdered by my brother, your uncle, and I want you to get revenge." So here's the question: Will Hamlet kill the king? The job of the dramatist is to raise as much suspense as possible as to the outcome of that question, and when the question is answered the audience goes home. End of play. What will happen if? That's dramatic structure.

Aristotle also seemed to say that character is fate. We learn about a character from the decisions he makes or fails to make. Hamlet sees Claudius praying and doesn't kill him. Through every decision we keep learning about Hamlet's character; he seems to be indecisive, and yet people can argue for four hundred years about why he's indecisive. Everyone has a theory.

If you put those two things together, the question and the behavior of the character, that is the skeletal structure from which I would derive drama.

—Nicholas Meyer

Plot not only changes, but creates character; By our actions we discover what we really believe and, simultaneously, reveal ourselves to others. And setting influences both character and plot: One cannot do in a thunderstorm what one does on a hot day in Jordan. As in the universe every atom has an effect, however miniscule, on every other atom, so that to pinch the fabric of Time and Space at any point is to shake the whole length and breadth of it, so in fiction every element has effect on every other….

—John Gardner

The best flaw is obsession. Your hero should want something so badly, he or she will battle any equally obsessed heavy to get it against all odds.

The hero must have something at stake. Heroes must not be in a position where they can shrug their shoulders and walk away from the problem.

One heavy, one hero.

Every classic human heavy has one of two motivations. Greed or power. Period. Don't look for more than greed or power. That's it. Villainy emanates from those two motives.

—Lew Hunter