Probably more than 80% of you have heard about this three act structure thing and like remaining 20% doesn’t know what the hell it is. The chances are that even if you are in that eighty percent you might have wondered about it. What is this three act structure and how to implement on your story? Don’t worry we all are in learning phase at there was a time when I too didn’t know much about it. In fact, I still think I don’t know much about it. So today we are going to decode this three act structure widely used for writing whether it’s a novel screenplay, drama or any form of fiction writing.
Before we start, I want to say that don’t just stuck with three act structure you can have as many as acts you want. You can be innovative, and you can stretch as per your need. The only reason I am doing three act structure is that it is widely known. And is a standard measure in the industry.
We are going to take it slow, so in this article, we are only going to talk about the first act. Simplifying, the thing with no jargon words, just deciphering the first act
Have you seen any movie?
Now you must be thinking why am I talking about movies suddenly. That’s because in today’s culture movies are much more relatable and when I talk about movies visual images run through your mind. And as you know if your brain is processing images in the form of information it is much easier to grasp and to retain it for much longer time.
So coming back to the topic have you seen any movie. Well, okay film, for example, take Doctor Strange for the first four minutes the visual effects of bending the reality shape-shifting thing things with impressive CGI. Now you haven’t met the protagonist of the movie, but you are already pulled towards the movie. And by the end of the scene, you know who is a villain and who is the ancient one.
Another example Reservoir dogs if you have seen the movie in the first ten minutes of the movie after a brief introduction to all the characters you see a wounded man been driven as the heist has gone all wrong. All the bleeding and the sense of emergency pulls you into the story, and there is 90% chance that you won’t click the next button.
Now, these two movies have pulled the same thing but a with a different method. One used the impressive and innovative CGI Graphics the other one just followed the storyline bating the hook. You should know that the three act structure is the basic structure practice done for screenplay writing and for novels too.
The first scene
The first part of act one always begins with the first page or first view. This is where you say hello to the readers. Now if I have to write a novel then I wouldn’t go with the opening act of doctor strange because it too much relies on the computer graphics. On the other hand, the first scene of reservoir dogs can be a good first scene.
You have to notice few things here
• First, as they say, the first impression is the last impression, so greeting readers and viewer with something good and fast-paced scene automatically grab the eye of readers. In the movie, I think it’s much easier put a car chasing scene or a wounded man like above example. Another reason is that the moving images as I already said the people grasp images much faster and retains that information.
But that doesn’t mean writing is way too difficult although in my opinion if we compare writing the first scene is much harder because as a writer we are conscious about our first impression. What would my editor think? What about readers will they like it? What if they don’t and they put back my book on the shelf? As a writer, we want to be as perfect as we can be maybe that is the reason we end up doing more stupidity in our first scene than any other. But please don’t take this as an impossible feat stay positive.
The other thing I have noticed while reading and editing other writers is that most of us are now starting with a high-end action scene or something related to an emergency. It’s a product of writing courses “grab them by their neck” as they say. As a result, most of the work I edit or even read starts with a high-end action scene. They don’t even wait to introduce the character and jump right into the action. It’s same as saying to a girl lets fuck forget names. I am pretty sure that it only works on the movies when Ryan gosling or Johnny Depp does that. In real life, there is a slim chance it will happen even if a girl is looking to hook up. You have to at least buy her a drink and talk to her until you make yourself familiar enough.
I have even read stories when someone very close to the protagonist dies in the first chapter.
For example, you just met someone, and you came to know that their grandfather died. Of course, you will feel sorry for the loss, but it won’t touch you the way it will touch you when your best friend grandparent dies.
That action is same here but what changed is the relationship with the affected. One is just a guy you met, and one is your best friend. So when you do something like that in first scene or first chapter, it’s too early to expect us to broke into tears.
Remember its three act structure leave deaths to other two acts. Don’t try to cram everything in the first act.
Another problem with first scene action is that most of the time writers don’t know what to do. We focus so much on our fear of losing the reader that we write the best possible action, but after that scene, we really don’t have much to offer. Reason for that is we haven’t thought it through.
Please don’t write stuff just for the sake of writing it. If it doesn’t add up to the story or it doesn’t contribute to character building. I don’t see any reason to do so.
The goal is not to give them an excellent first scene only, the goal is to provide them with an extraordinary story.
The second part of the first act begins with the end of a first scene or first chapter. Now a writer is much relaxed and is less conscious. This is where the real writing begins because now you have to write an actual story. You can’t beat around the bushes now.
What is the goal of your character? What does your character want? Or if your story is more plot-driven then where are you now with your plot. How will you organically build you plot?
In reservoir dogs, it’s not about a single character, but more about the plot a heist went wrong, and one of them is a rat for this bloody mess. Cops are on their tale few of them are dead, few are injured it is a total mess which is a good thing.
In character-driven story, the first act moves little slow as compared to the plot-driven stories and for obvious reasons. In character-driven story, it’s also about the personal journey. Sometime some scenes may not add to the story but are necessary to develop a character or to give readers a sneak into the mind of the character to connect emotionally. Therefore more elaboration is required.
If you are not clear about the goal of your character or about the character itself, you are going to have a hard time. And the reason I said that is because the second act and the third act is the reaction of the first act. The character must do something, or the plot is intertwined in such way that the other two act is more of a reactor. Especially the third act. It highly depends on what you do in first two-act and what stages you have been through.
Either you have to have a good set of a blueprint, or you have to have a perfect goal for your protagonist. The first act is your foundation and if your base is not that strong there a chance that your house will come falling down.
This brings me to another point.
Yes, we are already talking about structure, but even in that first act you have semi-structure just like even in a team, there are defensive player, attacking player, coach, physicist, PR manager likewise. The team is divided into the specialist group.
What I mean here is that you should know that which scene should come after which scene. You are the writer. You have a certain vision for the story. Even if you are telling a back story you should know the tone. This is called alignment and its very effective tool to sharpen your story. Just like we all know that after the first act the second act follows and then the third act. The same goes for the scenes, or if you like then you can break it into chapters.
Every chapter carries a theme or brick which is essential for building a house the way you will align your bricks will determine the shape of the wall you are building. If done systematically your story will be crisp and sharp. Taking the exact shape, you want them to take.
If you really like compartmentalize you can have your own three act structure within your first act.
The first act is the perfect time to build your character and your only chance. You can’t build your character in the third act by then it will be too late. To some extent, you can stretch to the second act, but then it means that there is a lot of dragging in the first act. Because if you haven’t build your character then what the hell did you do. You just kept describing how beautiful sun looks or sky.
Is your protagonist genius/ strong/ weak/ disabled/ poor/ rich.
What does it want?
The character is the huge chunk of your first act if the readers don’t connect with your character in the first act. The following acts is gonna be just weak. If you don’t care why would you read? As simple as that.
Another way of doing that is reacting. How would your character react when thrown in certain circumstances. Just like us how we react and handle different situation tells about our character. The same goes for the characters in your book.
Please remember few points
** The first scene is just a part of first act.
** Your work is not over after the first intriguing scene
** Connect the first scene towards your plot. Ask how that interesting scene is adding to your story.
** Don’t forget about your character. Action and reaction
** mini structure
** Just don’t write for the sake of writing.
So you see it not only just an act, but a lot of things is happening beneath the surface. Writing is not as easy as I used to hope for. There are certain skills and patience you require. I hope now you are much clear about the first act. If you still have some questions do jump in the comment section. I will be writing three act structure into three parts one dedicated to each.
Stay tuned for next part that is the SECOND ACT.