10

Many Movie scripts use a Structure where there are 3 Acts (Setup, Climax, Resolution) with 2 Plot Points (end of Act 1 and end of Act 2) (Three Act Structure)

I wonder if there are standards for organizing Novels? Most (Fantasy or Sci Fi) Novels that I've read seem to have a lot more Acts and Plot Points and simply a lot more going on, which doesn't surprise me as there is so much more Room for Content in a Novel.

Am I just not looking hard enough, or is Act 2 (The Act after all the main Characters are introduced and we move forward towards the finale) simply extremely long?

  • 6
    AFAIK the three act structure was proposed by Aristotle, so it long predates movie scripts :) – ggambett Dec 10 '10 at 2:32
  • 1
    I can't remember which musician (I do remember it was bluesman) said it, but "I just play what I feel like playing, let others analyze what I actually played" (paraphrased from hazy memory). Same goes for novels, for me: just write it (and they will come ;-). Write it the way the story demands. That's all you really need to know. IMPAO. – Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 22 '10 at 14:24
  • 2
    @jae - au contraire. 'The unexamined book is not worth writing' -Socrates – jon_darkstar Mar 29 '11 at 22:55
  • 2
    @jae -- that's why most jazz sucks. Only a truly phenomenal talent can produce art of any value without introspection, practice, reflection. When the milieu of some popular art form encourages improvisation, most of the result is unbearable. – Malvolio Apr 17 '11 at 17:34
  • 3
    Jazz doesn't suck; jazz is musician's music. Other musicians understand how the improvisation on top of a structured backbone is artistic, and that the art is in the variation. Writers are looking for words, meaning, structure, a story. I usually can't stand jazz because I think it's boring, but I fully understand why it's considered an art form. – Lauren Ipsum Sep 19 '11 at 16:04
8

The three-act structure is very common, but for longer works, the traditional second act usually becomes a series of acts similar to two and three in the three-act structure. You'll normally not see that in your average 250 page paperback, but when dealing with large novels like the later works of Neal Stephenson, or lengthy fantasy and sci-fi novels, the act structure begins tending toward this:

  1. Introductory act (TAS Act 1)
  2. First conflict (rising action)
  3. First conflict resolution, set-up of second conflict
  4. Second conflict (rising action)
  5. Second conflict resolution, etc.
  6. (repeat as needed)
  7. Final/main conflict (rising action)
  8. Story resolution (TAS Act 3)

This is very much simplified, given that said longer works usually have several stories threaded through them (like A, B, and C plots in film and TV). Those secondary conflicts handled throughout the novel will usually focus on the main story, but some of them will tie into the other story threads, or even focus on them primarily.

Depending on how you want to look at it, those points 2..7 in the list above could be seen as a very long Act 2, but the truth is, it's more like a series of acts grouped as a super-act than anything else.

6

Novels follow that structure, more or less. Following a structure does not mean you have to be its slave. And yes, Act 2 could be that long.

Look at what is important:

  1. Introduction: Introduce your characters in the beginning. Coming up with an important character in the last third of the book is disturbing at best.
  2. Rising action: You do not have to introduce that much, but describing the main conflict, should take a while. Why do you think have the readers bought your book?
  3. Resolution: Your happy end, your sad end, your cliffhanger (well, that's not resolving, but a possibility).

The points sound all straightforward? They are! But you need some structure to keep them in mind. Straightforward things can be easily forgotten.

If you are interested in a more detailed plot structure, maybe you want to have a look at the Hero's journey. I will not describe the details here. Sounds like a different question.

  • 1
    Your three important points are, in a nutshell, the 3 Act structure. :-) That's why basically every single novel has one. Your first few chapters are intended to grab readers, introduce main characters, and finally hit the first doorway - that's the introduction. The middle is the rising action. The end is that action coming to a resolution. There you have it. A basic structure for you novel, even if you do no other structuring at all. – Nathan Fischer Dec 9 '10 at 14:02
  • 1
    @Nathan: I know, that's why I have listed them. – John Smithers Dec 9 '10 at 15:53
  • I apologize. When you said "The points sound all straight forward? They are! But you need some structure to keep them in mind." it confused me. I thought you were saying those aren't the structure or something. Sorry about that! – Nathan Fischer Dec 9 '10 at 16:07
  • I see, @Nathan. I thought it was obvious that I refer to the 3 Act structure. No need to apologise, btw. You are talking to someone who offends people on purpose (even if I did not do it here). – John Smithers Dec 9 '10 at 16:56
1

To me, the structure comes from the nature of the story you are telling.

Most stories introduce. Even convoluted stories, like the movie Memento, have an Introduction, even if it's fake-ish and multi-headed and meant to misdirect.

Aside: Single novels, technically, are not slaved as much to an Introduction as multi-volume stories. One of my favourites, Jim Butcher, has a small "introduction" somewhere in the beginning of each of his Harry Dresden novels.

  • If you do enough world / plot building, you could theoretically write a novel that jumped right into the action without any setup, many threads going right from beginning. BUT, you'd have to be an absolute genius at making sure it sucked the reader in from the get-go.

The thing is, who would give up the joy of writing the setup / introduction act? Seems like it would be a lot of fun.

1

The three act structure is used, but not by everyone and not all of the time. It would be fair to say the three act structure originated either in plays where the content necessarily needed to subdivide and fit into a given period of time; Movies, relatively recent phenomenon with profit incentives really formalized it and pushed it to make as much money as possible. But back to books...

There are lots of ways to write a book. And there are lots of ways to analyze books. If you talk to writers you'll find that the number that intentionally structure their books into acts is quite low. However, it does happen and many of the writing methods that people use lead towards that format. It's an open question though as to why. Do they do it because ultimately that's what works best? Or do they do it because our culture is so familiar and inundated with 3-act that it's what is easiest, and therefor best for our culture? And even if they don't do it, 3 act structure is close enough to astrology that you can usually make it fit any work if you try hard enough.

I've heard of various structures for novels. 7-point, 3-act, 3-act-snowflake (actually 4), 15 point-3-act (Blake's beat sheet, from save the cat), mice. There are all sorts, but what almost everyone agrees on is that you should introduce your conflict, have tension, a climax and wind down.

To answer your question concisely: Some novels follow the 3 act structure, but not all novels. Even those that appear to follow 3-act may not have intentionally done so.

1

Screenplays are short-stories

In film school we were taught that movies are not like novels, they are like short stories, because:

  • 1 protagonist
  • 1 central theme
  • concise timeline – a sequence of events that only pertain to the protagonist and theme.

We were taught this is the opposite of what novels do (readers were expected to have longer attention spans back then for "serious" novels). Adapting a novel for film meant cutting and combining characters, dropping themes and subtext, most likely re-writing the whole thing into a much simpler "short story" format.

Full novels were sometimes adapted into "event television", a 2 or 3 night mini-series with a total running time between 3.5 and 7 hours depending on how it was formatted to fit the time slots.

Gone With the Wind was adapted into a 4-hour 2-act film. It was literally divided in two, the curtain came down and there was an intermission. The main character is very different in the 1st and 2nd act so it's a logical break. (A modern adaptation would probably divide the book into two movies, but marketing conventions would demand a trilogy.)

Popular entertainment = mass marketing

There was of course a vast selection of trashy mainstream paperbacks at every grocery store: westerns, romances, thrillers and formula crime stories – the descendants of "pulp" fiction, printed on cheap paper to be disposable and marketed around obvious tropes. Their narrative structure was like an extended short story: 1 protagonist, 1 theme, but with more "fan service" – detectives got in more fights, spies blew up more submarines, romances had more sex. It's what we call "genre fiction" today, although genre has arguably expanded the scope of formula it's still very obviously rooted in formula and tropes as a promise to the reader.

Popular media has a lot of crossover. Did you like the movie? Buy the comicbook. Did you read the book? Go see the movie. Pop-media crossovers are well-funded marketing campaigns. As consumers of media, we get a very distorted idea of what is heavily marketed conflated with what is "popular", not to mention "good".

Mass marketing requires conforming to industry standards

Movies are the length they are to suit maximum showings in one day. If the movies were too long they got cut by the theater owners. Other factors included the expense of printing and shipping each reel, which held a specific amount of time. The size of the reel was limited by the size of the projector, so the industry created "one-reelers" and "two-reelers", but frowned on 20-reelers. 5-hour silent films existed that were "important" highbrow think-pieces; shorter slapstick and melodrama was for low-brow audiences (Guess which made more money). Television came with stricter time constraints. Dramatic beats were tied to commercial breaks. Cinema shifted from storytelling to spectacle, featuring wide screen formats and Technicolor™ – technical innovations which also influenced the kinds of stories being made. None of this has anything to do with crafting a compelling narrative.

This year's pop songs will seem very much like pop songs from 50 years ago if you ignore all the artistic music choices and just focus on how it's structured to fulfill the promise of a pop song that fits within the broadcast radio time-slot. There are other types of music of course, but they don't get played on the radio between commercials.

the 3-Act Screenplay is bs

Any cake can be cut into 3 slices, but that doesn't make it a "3-layer cake". Likewise any story, no matter how disorganized and unfocused, can be divided into a beginning, middle, and end. As long as something happens, the conflict beats can be emphasized or inflated to "magically fit" the extremely uninformative and reductive 3-act format. Most people would agree that the 3-act screenplay is actually 4-acts, which proves my point: any story can be shoehorned to fit a 3-act formula if you decide that's how it should to be described.

The "3-Act Screenplay" is a hoax invented by a guy who wrote a How to Write Screenplays manual. It's a helpful idea for new screenwriters to realize they can use conflict and tension to keep the audience awake, but it's not a formula for writing a good story – hence generic screenplays with invented conflicts that make no sense but hit the dramatic beat on page 17 and 87. It's just a formula for preventing the 100 minutes of filler dialog in a movie from dragging. It's not a "universal rule" for writing, not even for cinema. Bollywood movies are usually 5-acts. TV sit-coms are 1-acts, while 1-hour dramas are typically 4 acts of diminishing lengths, with a final scene as an epilog fitted around commercial breaks.

You are right to be skeptical of all writing formulae

Writing formulas like 3-Act Screenplay and Hero's Journey are the pics and shovels of the Hollywood gold rush. Comparisons between pop media formats are misleading (if useful at all), and one media can easily borrow tropes from another – for better or worse. Calling it "3 Acts" is just a metaphor anyway, unlike Gone With the Wind no curtain comes down and there is no intermission. The terminology isn't accurate or insightful, that's not even what theatrical acts do.

The original 3-point structure is called Freytag's pyramid. It's also "universal" because it is a reductive way of looking at all stories. Any story can be described as fitting any structure, if you are willing to ignore the things that don't fit and add some invented drama beats where required, especially if that structure is as broad and generic as possible to begin with.

Jaws could be a Broadway musical if you made it fit the "3-Curtain Structure" of a Broadway musical (with a full-cast opening number and an "I wanna be somewhere else" wistful solo at the top of the 2nd act…). Is that the formula to tell the story of Jaws? Does it mean Jaws the Musical would actually be any good?

0

The three-act structure is extremely common in novels, although not universal. I would guess that part of what makes a novel feel different to you is simply the overall length. Even if you are a fast reader and it's a short novel, reading the book will generally take a lot longer than watching a movie.

Because the book is longer, all the acts are stretched out. However, the second act is the "meat" of the story, and it will generally get more than a proportional share of this additional story time. Even in a very large novel, some readers will be frustrated if the setup or resolution are too long. Most novels will have a longer second act (proportionally) than movies.

Of course, as with everything, there are exceptions. Lord of the Rings, for example, has extremely long setup and resolution phases, even in proportion to its impressive length.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.