Ditch the Three-Act Structure
As a young writer, I met a man at a party who was a traditionally published author on a series of books about maritime history in Canada. At the time, having anything published was a far away dream situated firmly upon an unreachable horizon. At first, I had been keenly interested in what he had to say, and he was all too happy to share some advice with a young writer. He told me to learn the three-act structure, do your research and plan every aspect of your book before setting pen to paper.
I took his advice wholeheartedly. I learned the three act structure, a common element in Hollywood movies and theatrical performances. There were times I spent days reading up on things that would earn anyone else a visit from concerned government agents. I had made checklists and schedules and set myself to describe each moment of the story and fill in the space between these moments.
At the time, I thought the advice was golden. It was exactly what I needed to fulfill my dream of being a writer. And certainly, eventually I had a complete story out of it. It wasn’t the best story, and it was riddled with typos and errors of my own making due to self-editing my own manuscript (which is generally a bad idea. More on that later.) Nonetheless, Amazon Kindle wasn’t that picky about what they published. And hey! I could put my name in print with a 500 page novel and know that I followed through on what was, at the time, my most ambitious project and bask in what limited prestige the act would afford me.
I had written a book. It was a beautiful moment.
So I set out to write another. For months I followed the same formula. Use the three-act structure. Make sure I do my research. And plan.
I got close to 180,000 down for the next book, and then one day, during my first revision of the draft, I purposely scrubbed every trace of it from existence. Looking back at that time, I’m not entirely certain why I did it with such finality. I knew I wasn’t happy with the story. I wasn’t impressed with where it was led. And worse, I felt as though I had effectively written myself into a corner.
I tried again. This time I only got 40,000 words in before I gave up. I tried another project and faltered even sooner. This process continued for years. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t commit to complete a book. I wrote only once in a while. And worse yet– I stopped reading altogether after gaining full custody of my daughter.
But then something changed. A few years on, I started reading again, this time much more in the way of philosophy and psychology. I consumed Nietzsche, who was a teacher to Carl Jung, whose theories on the structure of the human psyche had a profound influence on the work of Joseph Campbell. And then I realized where I’d gone wrong.
I was writing books, not telling stories. I had put too much effort into crafting a series of three-act structures and attempting to pair them together into a single grand story when the nature of stacking three-act structures atop one another are more attuned to telling episodes. It was cold. The simple act of describing events in a sequential order. Great for Hollywood Studios who rely on formulas and statistics… not as great for the creative who is trying to tell a story. Certainly, you’ll find some writers who swear by the three-act structure. And certainly it can work. But, having put some thought to it, my concern with the nature of the structure is that it is both too limiting and far too vague.
Consider what the three act structure was developed for: Plays. Each act could be separated by a curtain call, and allow the actors time to change costumes or take a short break. If you simplify it into its individual parts, all it really tells you is that stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is both vague and redundant to the point where it makes one have to hold back snide comments about fecal matter and a famous fictional detective. Life rarely plays out in a three-act structure. And for that matter, neither do the oldest, most enduring stories known to man. Even ancient Greek plays had a single act. Romans had five. The number of acts is thoroughly arbitrary and serves little purpose other than to break a story up.
But organic, breathing stories shouldn’t be divided into their individual parts. Certainly writers can find utility in such things, particularly if they’re writing for Hollywood, but storytellers undoubtedly want their stories to flow.
The three-act structure is a great device to help you write a story. But not to tell one. This isn’t to suggest that you can’t dig deep on what structures great stories take. Joseph Campbell’s insights into ancient myths and contemporary stories are a wonderful place to start, but it’s only just a start. Shakespeare said a fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool. The more we apply ourselves to learning, the better.
It is our job as storytellers to take the ideas that burn within us, and loose them upon the world. Don’t let the arbitrary nature of the three-act structure limit your ability to achieve that. The best way to become a storyteller is to remember to put your pen to paper.