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I'm interested in the elements of how a good story is compiled.

When in high school, I was exposed to Shakespeare plays where the stories were divided into different acts. While I was reading through these plays, I thought that it was simply a way that plays, specifically were compiled.

Over the years, I have heard many references to the structure of different stories across many different types of media. These references normally came from stories that had particularly meta themes, or TV shows that broke the 4th wall.

One of the more recent references that I've come across is one contained in an episode of Comedy Bang Bang. In this episode, one of the characters mentions the transition into another act of the story line.

I have done some searching online for explanations about the composition of the acts of a story line, but I have not been able to find anything that fully describes how/why stories are divided into acts.

How is character and plot development generally spread out or concentrated among these acts? Is there a standard number of acts in each story, and can there be any variation in this number? What are the reasons for these standards?

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I feel like there's a lot of talking around the central point rather than addressing it:

The word "act" is sometimes used as part of a metaphor.

This metaphor imagines a story to be somewhat like a play, with certain logical breaks in the story dividing it up into "scenes" and several of those scenes being lumped together into larger story segments called "acts." In a play, these logical breaks are moments for the stage hands to work at setting the physical configuration of the set; in a more general story they may not be clear or nice at all, since metaphors do not usually perfectly describe reality.

Many story-writing or story-analysis guidelines try to break a story into acts. Possibly the simplest one is the three-act analysis, which goes something like this:

A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning sets up the bigger question of the story as well as little questions of the story: including the people who are asking the question and the setting that the question is being asked. The middle is a series of anecdotes which answer some questions and raise further questions along the way. Finally the end sees the bigger question answered, allowing some form of closure for the audience so that the story does not have to continue forever.

As you can see, this is very generic. It is also not the only way to analyze a story. For example Dan Harmon has an 8-point storytelling structure which I would call "the descent into Hell" and describe in four acts:

In Act I, "Introduction", we are introduced to characters who are living in some "normal" setting, but we are also introduced to something wrong or unsatisfactory with that setting, which prompts the characters to begin a journey into some new "abnormal" setting which we might call Hell. In Act II, "Descent", these characters descend into Hell, usually failing due to their unfamiliarity, until they adapt to Hell and can finally make their own way. In Act III, "Trial by Fire", they learn whatever they wanted to learn or get whatever they wanted to get, but in order to do so, Hell burns them somehow. Finally in Act IV, "Ascent", they return from Hell back to the normal world, having whatever they needed, but also having profoundly changed.

This has strong ties to Joseph Campbell's "monomyth" ideas as well. We see that the three-act analysis above probably would lump "End" into the second half of "Trial by Fire" and the entirety of "Ascent", or so. The breaks are fuzzy because metaphors do not perfectly describe reality.

In addition while the second template describes way more stories than it should (see e.g. the 2015 Tina Fey/Amy Poehler comedy, Sisters, as well as 1979's classic Alien to get an idea of how widely this thing works), it cannot describe all of the stories that the first one can describe. For instance there is a story structure which is the diametric opposite of the descent into hell; one might call it the ascent into Heaven, favored in Chinese/Korean/Japanese culture and called kishōtenketsu in the latter. There's still an introduction act, but there is nothing unsatisfactory about the starting setting: rather the characters there introduced pursue some Heaven for obvious reasons and in the second act Ascend into that Heaven. But in a third act there is some "Twist" act, some strange thing that should not be happening or some observation or question that reveals that not all is perfect in Heaven: and then as this twist unravels the abstraction, the characters are kicked out of heaven and descend back down to their original setting. Still a beginning, middle, and end: but exactly the opposite story arc.

It is very likely that your show was using some related metaphor for how their comedy show was broken up into "acts." It is not a uniquely defined metaphor; it is a fuzzy application of play logic to other stories.

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Roughly speaking, acts divide the action into sections. At the end of each act is a turning point. Some disaster has befallen the protagonist(s), who must then choose whether to turn back or go forward.

The Snowflake Method guy calls his acts "three disasters and an ending." In the Hero's Journey, the ends of acts are the Thresholds. Each represents an obstacle, like as not interior, which the protagonist must overcome to continue on the quest.

The point of the disaster or threshold is to help character development along and to give the plot a conflict which the protagonist must overcome. Without conflict, there's no plot; the story doesn't go anywhere. If the protagonist solves the initial conflict immediately, that's boring. If the protagonist solves the conflict and doesn't learn anything, that's also boring. Having additional, rising crises beset the protagonist (often caused by the earlier attempts to solve the previous crisis) is more interesting for the reader and gives the protagonist opportunities to learn, grow, and change.

TV shows on network TV are now broken into five acts to allow for ads, but four was the previous standard — again, as much for advertising as anything else. But three, four, or five acts is somewhat arbitrary. You want at least three acts or the action doesn't rise and fall. Four or five may be influenced by and depends on your story and the medium.

You can write a six-act story if you want; no one will stop you. Whether it is well-written or well-received is an exercise for the student. Character development is also up to you. I prefer it more or less evenly spaced, and attached to some kind of story logic rather than "he changed because I as the writer needed him to change here." But you have to do what works for your story. Maybe your character's growth is what creates the disaster at the act's end, or maybe it's what solves it. There are no standards about that.

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Short answer, there are no standards.

Long answer, it depends on what you're writing. A typical TV show or movie is a three-act structure (generally separated by commercial breaks in the former case). Since all stories will feature dynamic characters, these acts are generally structured so that the first act establishes the setting (who are the players, what are their relations, what is the world like). The second act introduces the conflict... the impetus of the story that will cause the protagonists to react. The third act is a combination of the climax and the falling actions (the resolution of the conflict and the aftermath of that resolution).

In a novel or a serial story, these look like economic graphs, showing the rise and fall of the action. In its simplest application, a story must net at an improved location at falling actions, but not have as much dynamic change as the build-up to the resolution (which is the highest point in a series). The serial or novel can afford to start at a higher point and resolve to a lower point, provided that new low point will be given a correction upward (for example, one can argue that the end of The Empire Strikes Back is a low point for the protagonists compared to the beginning of itself or even of A New Hope, but that the end of Return of the Jedi still leaves all protagonists at a much better place than than any point in the entire film or six films that precede it story wise (All the heroes are reunited, the Empire is defeated and democracy is restored, Vader is repented and has seen the light, Jar Jar Binks is nowhere to be seen, everyone lives happily ever after)). Again, it's not always the case. Breaking Bad, for example was a series of progressive descent and all protagonists, despite beating the antagonists, are in a worse place than in the very first episode. This is acceptable because the whole point was the tragic nature of Walter's quest for his family's security being the very thing that destroys them all.

Even simpler, the three-act structure is merely to delineate a beginning, middle, and end, to a story. They are easy to do in stage plays and scripts that have out-of-story information for the setting and the required participants for each scene in that stage. Novels, serials, and final products of TV shows rarely show this to the intended audience and barring obvious act breaks (a sudden revelation that changes the nature of events in the story, with an intermission or pause in the action, or teasing information that will resolve in a sequel story) they are best not noticed by the consumer of the story. They would better serve the behind-the-scenes creation (when is the right time to address this prop, or show this bit of information) than assisting in enjoying the end result.

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    Modern US scripted 1-hour drama is teaser + 4 or 5 acts + tag. ABC network mandates 6 Acts – paulzag Aug 2 '17 at 14:35
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    I see... I'm more familiar with cartoons, which tend to be three and in live action, I normally consider the pre-title sequence action as part of the first act and normally the last break that interrupts the story as breaking the climax and falling actions... there's usually a break after the story's conclusion and the closing credits. Also, these can get changed around in syndication and can blend even easier in dvd and streaming, where the comercials won't exist at all, so the more traditional three acts are the only noticiable break in the story. – hszmv Aug 2 '17 at 14:48
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Some definitions: The Oxford dictionary [link here] lists four meanings for the noun „act“. These are: „A thing done; a deed“; „A pretence“; „A written law passed by Parliament, Congress, etc.“; and „A main division of a play, ballet, or opera“. You know the last definition — in the context below, the first one is more interesting. It refers to an action.


Preamble: I’ve spent the decade more or less constantly researching the Hero’s Journey, an idea that was first introduced by the mythologist, writer, and lecturer Joseph Campbell in 1949. When I first hear of it, I treated it simply as a pattern, and I enjoyed finding it in the books I read and the movies I watched. Back then, it was little more than a rough template that I never used, because I felt that „applying“ the Hero’s Journey to a story could only end in disaster(*). Then I read Chris Vogler’s interpretation of Campbell’s structure and started to understand the psychological dimension of the journey Campbell described. Vogler helped me to get rid of Campbell’s rigid terminology and develop an interpretation of the Hero’s Journey that suited the type of story I write. These stories usually focus on the psychological development of the characters and rarely know a physical antagonist. While I have a vague idea what plot and turning and other points in a story are, they never helped me as Vogler’s Journey did. Below, I sketch the concept with respect to my character-driven stories.


So: What is a story? I’ve mulled over this question quite a bit and the best definition I could come up with is this: A story is change. An apple that sits on a table is not a story. An apple that falls from a table and is carried away by a tribe of ants that decide to worship it as their new deity is.

How does change work? How can we describe it in a way that others will understand?

First of all, we need to set a benchmark. Change is relative. We need to anchor our narrative somewhere. The statement „Ellen drank her last bottle of beer two weeks ago“ is not meaningful. We don’t know who Ellen is, or what not drinking a bottle of beer for two weeks means to her. Is she a girl of 15 years that had only recently drunk her first bottle of beer? Is she a mother of two that is so busy she can’t find the time to relax and have a beer with it? Is she an alcoholic who decided to stop drinking? Only if we provide this type of information, our audience is able to understand the impact of the change we describe.

Next, we have to state what the change is. In the example above, it is that Ellen hadn’t been drinking for some time. Again, whether this is big news or can be shrugged off as irrelevant depends on Elen herself and her situation before she stopped drinking.

And that, you might argue, is it.

But it isn’t. Imagine Ellen truly was an alcoholic. Would you be happy with the statement that she didn’t drink for two weeks? Probably not. You would want to know whether she „really made it“. Did she manage to stop drinking for sure? Or did she relapse? I would imagine that most people would be happy about the first ending, and sad (or angry, or disappointed) about the second. Why? Because it meant that the change you presented before really wasn’t a change. You told your audience about a brave effort, but in the end, Ellen failed. She still drinks and continues to wreck her life.

An interesting observation at this point is that the last part of the story and the first part serve a similar purpose. Both the „anchor“ and the „consolidation“ part help the audience to decide: Is what happened really important? Is it real? I believe this is one of the reasons why the Hero’s Journey so often is referred to as a circular journey: You start somewhere, go somewhere, and then you come back to the beginning and compare what you have achieved with how things were before.

Ellen’s story is a very clean, very simple Hero’s Journey. In more abstract terms, the three acts of the Hero’s Journey could look like this(**):

  1. Act I: Status Quo. What’s the anchor of your story? Why is it important, or, equivalently, why should your audience care about it? What happens if the change that you talk about does not happen?
  2. Act II: The Change.
  3. Act III: Consolidation. Is the change for real? Or will the hero relapse and everything will turn back to how it was?

Lastly, in terms of storytelling, I understand an act to be nothing more than a structural element of a story, like chapters and scenes. Per se, it doesn’t mean something.


Footnotes:

(*) I still think that. What the Hero’s Journey really does for me these days is to help me organize the stories I already have in mind. I never use it to create a story.

(**) However, don’t get hung up on words. I did that in the beginning, and it did not help, at all. For me, the Hero’s Journey really only unleashed it’s power when I stopped thinking about „The Road of Trials“, and the „Magic Forest“, and so on. The only term that I still use because it appeals to me is „The Shadow“.

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    "A story is change." EM Forster makes an interesting distinction between story and plot. Story is events in a time sequence. Plot adds causality. -- "'The king died and then the queen died' is a story. 'The king dies and then the queen died of grief' is a plot" I suspect we might reverse the terms plot and story today, since "story" is now our word for the whole the art, across media. But I think the point about causality is important. Story is change for a reason. – user16226 Aug 2 '17 at 19:28
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A play has certain practical requirements that are met by dividing it into acts:

  • It provides an opportunity to change the set or to redress the existing set.
  • It allows you to suggest a change of time or place to the audience.
  • It gives the audience a chance to pee and visit the snack bar.

Part of the art of writing a play is lining up the dramatic structure of the play to align with the physical requirements of acts.

TV has similar problems with its need to show commercials. Again, you want the dramatic structure to line up with the commercial breaks. That is part of the art of writing for broadcast TV.

Even movies have some need for dividing the story up into somewhat regular time units, because while they don't have to pause to change sets, and no longer pause to let the audience pee and visit the snack bar, they do still have to deal with the passage of time, and they have to keep up a pace because the audience is captive in their seats and needs some sense that things are moving along.

Novels, on the other hand, have no need for acts in this sense. The audience is not bound to read at a set pace or in a fixed time and the novelist can indicate the change of time or place by simply stating that they have changed. There is therefore less need to fit the shape of novels to a structure of acts.

Nonetheless, thinking in terms of acts is a common way to describe the structure of a story (particularly in works that focus on the stage and screen, which is where most of the writing on story seems to come from these days). And so, as other answers illustrate, acts tend to get mapped to events in the story arc, usually moments of crisis.

Still, the novel has long had its own unit for breaking the story into parts: the chapter. The chapter is a flexible unit. Some authors use short chapters and some use long ones. Chapters generally have some unity of theme or action, but no one suggests that they always delineate the major turning points of a story. They might better be described a "beats" in the story.

Is it really useful to import the very mechanical function of the Act from the stage to other media that do not share the same constraints of place and time. Some seem to think so. And some seem to stumble over it. Given this I would say that if you are writing for the page, use the concept if you find it useful; ignore it if you don't. But if you are writing for the stage, you are pretty much bound to follow it, and, to a lesser extent, for the screen as well.

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ACTS when the word is used to designate timing in a story, refer to commonly accepted phases of a story line. These phases and what is in them have been observed over tens of thousands of successful stories (ones people like) in print and in film; and when we find stories people do not like, we often find they have violated the act structure.

In general the structure is in four parts. "Act I" introduces major characters, including the villain, even if the audience does not know it is the villain yet. This is typically in the first 15% to 20% of the story; if you are watching a 90 minute (of acting) movie you have probably seen both your hero and the antagonist in the first 20 minutes. You also have to introduce the setting, and any major suspensions of disbelief must happen there: You can't get halfway through the story and suddenly introduce magic. If there is going to be magic, or aliens, or at the end of your story your hero wins using martial arts or shooting a man from a block away, you need to introduce such "improbable" skills in Act I. She is wearing a black-belt in a Dojo, finishing up her daily exercise; she and her instructor know each other.

Even if your hero does not know magic exists in her world, your audience must. Even if your hero does not know an asteroid is going to wipe out Earth, your audience should.

"Act II" is usually broken into two parts, each about 30% of the story. The center of Act II usually contains the Major Turning Point: In most plots things are getting progressively worse for the hero until then, and may continue to get worse, but around the half-way point when everything seems lost and defeat seems imminent, something happens, or is discovered, or a decision is made that is the key to the hero's success.

(The opposite plot still follows the turning point idea: Things get progressively better for the hero in Act I, until "happily ever after" seems inevitable, but the Turning Point transpires and eventually means the undoing of everything.)

The second half of Act II is marked by progress, often with continuing bad stuff that is the ramifications of what has already happened: People are still dying, the villain is still powerful, the hero is still struggling and losing assets and people but she is making progress in some way, the audience is in suspense and rooting for her, but it still seems the hero can be lost. The villain or his henchmen are crazy skilled and smart and it seems the hero is barely a half-step ahead of him (but do not make her too lucky to escape, or introduce a new knife-throwing skill or ability to instantly hypnotize hotel clerks).

The Third Act is the explosive finale. The hero finds or accomplishes the last piece of the puzzle, knows how to solve the problem, and "locks in" the solution. You have to tie up any big loose ends here, but it can be done briefly.

Usually villains are defeated in the last 5% of the movie; and any scenes after the defeat are very short, tying up a single significant plot point introduced in Act I, for a kind of closure with the beginning of the story. This is the hero's reward, in essence: He kisses the girl, or beats the bully that was picking on him in Act I (the one you introduced to show how weak and pathetic he was). In The Pelican Brief, Denzel and Julia are successful and safe (respectively).

In essence, anything after the defeat of the villain is to briefly suggest how the future unfolds from here, and prove the success was permanent. This often involves a jump into the future; which can be hours, months or even years, depending on the scope of the hero's dilemma. The jump may be necessary to ensure plausibility of new emotions being expressed: After the harrowing run from assassins and horror of murders all around her, it would be ridiculously implausible for Julia to be happy and relaxed on the beach a few hours after she and Denzel finally won their battle. It would take months for anybody to believe they were finally safe, and that is the jump made.

The Act structure, and what story elements belong in each Act, are a shorthand story professionals use for typical, commercially successful stories; in a way they condense human psychology concerning stories and how we (on average) expect them to unfold, what we find suspenseful and fascinating, and what to avoid to prevent boredom or confusion.

Minor violations certainly exist; but you cannot have no conflict or villain until the last 15 minutes of a film. It is hard to imagine a good movie in which the hero does not appear within the first five minutes; usually they are in the opening scene. And so on; basically the Acts are about the touchstones and landmarks of a good story. Violations are (to me) usually cheats, laziness, and detractions from the story; to me it usually means the author wrote themselves into a corner and couldn't figure a way out, so they used some sort of magic or something bordering on a secret super power (ninja level martial arts) or some implausible coincidence (Sheila, to her alarm, finds a loaded gun on the floor of the bus, and for the safety of children puts it in her purse, intending to turn it into the police...).

To me the definition of a good writer is that they can follow all these rules and still come up with a fun new story; they have imagination and can put a character in a situation that truly does seem hopeless for them, hanging by a thread, yet plausibly still get them out of it in the middle of Act II.

  • This is one specific theory of movie structure. I suspect I know where you read it, but you might want to acknowledge the source. (It is a perfectly valid and useful answer, but one swallow does not make a summer. Naming the bird would make the answer more useful still.) – user16226 Aug 2 '17 at 11:44
  • @MarkBaker Beats me, I have been writing for 30 years, I do not recall the shelves full of books I have read on the subject. Feel free to provide details if you want, I am sure the OP will appreciate your research effort. I do not regard this as "one theory of movie structure" with many equally good alternatives, I regard it as the distillation of a majority of successful fictions that also avoids a distillation of the problems found in a majority of failed fictions. There are still ways to succeed without it, or fail with it, but IMO it strongly improves the chances of success. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Aug 2 '17 at 11:57
  • Well it sounds a lot like James Scott Bell. Of those I have read, he is the only one who is this precise on the timing of things and very big on mid points. It seems further from McKee and further still from Vogler. And I do think, as I said in my answer, that we have to be very careful in carrying over lessons from synchronous media like stage and screen to asynchronous media like the page. – user16226 Aug 2 '17 at 13:28
  • Just looking at three books on my shelf; Syd Field says the same, so do Wolff & Cox, so does Katherine Herbert... That was just the first three I grabbed. As I said I consider it a distillation of what works, sells, and is commercially successful in story telling in general. Although it is true Stephen King can take a few thousand pages to get where he is going, he is still not going to wait until halfway through his story to introduce either his hero OR his villain. If you know of any theory of movie or novel structure that would allow that, and actually sells, I'm happy to read a link. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Aug 2 '17 at 15:04
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It seems complicated, but it isn't. Even the word act is misleading, because you can have a one-act play, with an entire drama taking place in that one act. That's an artificial structure.

A true story structure, also called classical drama, has three parts. First, the antagonist changes the protagonist's world in some way. Second, the protagonist confronts the antagonist. Third, the protagonist reclaims his old world or finds a way to survive in his new world. You can compare this paradigm to Hegel's thesis/antithesis/synthesis or a hundred others, but that's the gist.

A poor drama will try to distract you with side trips, hesitations, emotion, spectacle, or tropes of the genre, with countless variations. At bottom a story has to have a moral of some kind, a lesson that the protagonist learns. Without it, a storyteller is wasting your time. And yes, sometimes all you want is to have your time wasted.

The five-act structure is really an elaboration of the three-act structure, as seen here. Act 1 is Exposition, which introduces the setting, the characters, and the conflict. Acts 2 and 3, Rising Action and Climax, show the conflict playing out. Acts 4 and 5, Falling Action and Denouement, show the results. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

The Hero's Journey, a further elaboration, adds several more steps, but they don't contribute to the basic story. As seen here, you can break this structure down into the same three parts.

The most important thing is to tell a good story. Audiences will notice if you take a paint-by-numbers approach, that is, follow a pattern without thinking of the overall effect. Others can come behind you to classify, analyze, and parse it to death. Be a writer and the rest will take care of itself.

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