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I see that the 3 Act structure can be applied over almost any story, from Hamlet to Mulholland Drive, from The Matrix to Rocky. Story structures like 3 Acts, or 4-5 Acts, always feature a Character Arc and a series of plot turns (i.e. Turning Points) which make the story move on, proceeding from inciting incident, to temporary success, to climax and finale.

But I find it hard to detect these elements in movies like Pulp Fiction, Shimmer Lake, Memento, which proceeds back and forth in narration, and thus seem to elude the typical steps of a story. For example, how can something be an inciting incident if it's shown at the end of a movie? How can it be a climax of the hero's journey, if it is shown at the beginning?

The question is: how can you insert the Plot Key Points in a story which is not narrated linearly?

NB please retain from answering by bashing the 3-act structure as wrong / fad / old / cliche - that is not the core of the question. Thanks.

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The three-act or five-act structure can still exist even if the elements are not shown in order. It's the effect on the audience which is changed.

In the case of Memento, you see the end first, and then work backwards through all the successes and setbacks. The "end," the resolution, becomes an inciting event of sorts, because it is where the audience first enters the story. The inciting event in chronological time happens at the end of the film, which retroactively changes how the audience understands the series of events, so it acts as a climax.

In Pulp Fiction, the audience has to hold all the pieces of the narrative in their heads and slot items in chronological order as they appear in the film.

In both movies, once the entire film is done, the events have now all been told to the audience, and the audience can review those events in linear, chronological order, which creates the standard three-/five-act rise-and-fall plot. It's the experience of learning the events out of order, and the retroactive "oh, now that makes sense!" which makes these stories more interesting.

  • I see... But the plot points are still about the character, right? not the viewer. So the final scene of Memento is actually the inciting event of the protagonist's storyline: is that what you are sayin? – FraEnrico Jun 15 '17 at 13:57
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    @FraEnrico Precisely. The protagonist experiences his/her story in linear time. How the audience receives the tale of that story is up to the writer/creator. The method of presenting the tale can affect how the audience feels about it in the moment, and may make it more powerful than just telling it straight from beginning to end. When the story is done, though, the audience will know the story in its correct order. – Lauren Ipsum Jun 15 '17 at 14:09
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Awesome question. I'm answering from memory, so do forgive me if I veer off slightly.

As I recall, Pulp Fiction and Memento, which are both wonderful examples of non-linear narrative, both in fact have an inciting incident roughly where the 3 act structure would place it (using your example as a point of reference), but if memory serves it isn't the typical inciting incident that a hero would experience in a linear story. Normally your main character (Vincent and Jules in the case of Pulp Fiction) would be on screen and the centre of the action/dialogue. But in this case, they barely feature if at all. The incident happens in their vicinity, but to/by other people. Because of that multi-faceted approach, the main characters were in fact 'invited in the traditional sense, but as you point out the incitement we're more used to with linear storytelling happens much later. I would cite Memento but I haven't seen it in years and don't want to be very very unhelpful, but I think my response would be to figure out how you want to subvert the narrative, and what purpose it would serve. Do you want to hide a particular plot point from revelation that cannot be otherwise removed as it's integral to a scene? Or do you want something to piece together in a confusing way so as to unsettle or guide the audience in some way? I would perhaps look at Pulp Fiction with the viewpoint that it does in fact follow the 3 act structure pretty rigidly, and see how it affects your perspective. Might give you an idea of how to approach this.

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    I think spoilers would help drive your point (especially for people who haven't seen the film but want to understand how that works). Could you mention what exactly was the incident and how it works? Or give a made up example.. – Sara Costa Jun 15 '17 at 9:44

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