The last two weeks, my mind has been preoccupied with the science fiction short story I’m working on. All sorts of problems so far and I’m not yet finished with the first draft. The biggest problem was its structure. I have to think about structure for a short story? Sure. Any story, no matter how long, needs a solid structure. OK. What is the structure of my science fiction short story?
I learned about structure when I studied screenwriting. In the class I took, we studied two structures: 3-Act Dramatic and Sequenced. The first is probably the most common story structure. The second can actually be broken into 3 Acts as well as standing on its own and isn’t as common. The story I always think of for sequenced structure is the 1995 movie Heat starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. For a while I was thinking that maybe my sci fi short story was a sequenced narrative structure until my imagination finally handed me the solution to one of the other problems it had. Now I know that it’s a 3-Act Dramatic narrative structure. So, what’s the difference between the two?
Sequenced narrative structure begins at a relative low point in terms of plot and story. The reader is dropped into the story in media res or in the middle of action albeit not necessarily crucial action in which a character makes a defining decision or sets a specific goal to achieve. There is very little set-up or exposition. From there, the character(s) encounter one obstacle after another, one conflict after another, in escalating intensity until the climax and resolution.
In 3-Act Dramatic structure, there are three sections or acts weighted approximately as 1-2-1 or 25%-50%-25%. The acts are defined as follows:
- The Exposition Act or Set-Up: in the beginning there was the introduction of characters, setting, time, and the situation. There is a rising tension until the main character makes a decision or sets a goal to achieve, i.e. a turning point. This is sometimes also described as the main character’s primary desire. What does the main character want and what will he do to get it?
- The Conflict Act: in the middle is one conflict after another, one obstacle set in the main character’s way after another, one development after another. In this act, the reader often finds out what the villain wants and what he’ll do to get it, working against the main character. The difficulty of the obstacles/conflicts increases until at the end of this act, when the main character is in crisis — it looks like all is lost for the main character and he has no way of achieving what he wants.
- The Climax Act: at the beginning of this act, the main character learns something or realizes something from an accumulation of information/detail during Act 2 that gives him what he needs to achieve his goal or not (the climax). Then there can be a short “resolution” that ties up any loose ends or provides explanations.
Readers expect conflict in a story. It can be a conflict of the main character vs. another character or group of characters; the main character vs. Nature; the main character vs. him or herself; or the main character vs. God (which is rare). The first two conflicts are the most common. There can also be peripheral conflicts that function as obstacles. But there must be conflict.
In my sci fi short story, I realized that I didn’t know what my main character wanted. Then it hit me what she wanted, that she’d been actually telling me throughout what I’d already written and I just hadn’t been paying attention. And then I felt that exquisite physical sensation of cascading tingling from head to toes that tells me YES! THAT’S IT! Now I know that this story has a 3-Act Dramatic structure.