Yesterday afternoon, while riding a city bus home, I started thinking about narrative structure. I couldn’t remember ever studying it in school. For all the fiction I read in junior high and high school, as well as plays, I cannot remember the teachers ever discussing overall narrative structure. It wasn’t until I took a screenwriting class almost 14 years ago that I learned about 3 Act Dramatic Structure, the most common narrative structure. The teacher also talked about sequenced structure and non-linear structure, both not that common. I had a terrible time actually applying 3 Act Dramatic Structure to the screenplay I was writing. It took about a month for me to truly understand the protagonist’s decision moment that drives him and the rest of the story. I felt that I should already know this stuff and my mind resisted learning it. Eventually, with the teacher’s help, I got it. And I’ve not forgotten it.
The 3 acts are: exposition, conflict/obstacle, and climax/resolution. It is the structure humans have used for hundreds of years, and we continue to use it whether we’re writing a novel or telling a friend what happened at the mall over the weekend. I’ve used it for each Perceval novel (at least the first 3, and I expect to use it for the last 2), as well as for the overall structure of the Perceval pentad.
The expostion act, also known as the set-up: introduction of setting, characters, situation, all through action rather than expository writing. In a novel, it’s also possible to use internal monologues as well. At the end of this act, the main character faces a situation in which he must act or make a decision which clarifies or defines what he wants. Some writers call this moment establishing the character’s goal or desire. The character needs to want something which provides the motivation for his actions. I often ask myself at this point: what will he do to get what he wants?
The conflict/obstacle act: the longest part of the story (and where it’s easiest to get bogged down), the protagonist acts to get what he wants and deals with any obstacles or conflicts that arise to thwart him. The best obstacles are people, of course, especially someone working against the protagonist to fulfill his or her own agenda. The protagonist can also be his or her own obstacle. But each conflict or obstacle needs to be harder to overcome than the previous one. This leads to a scene when all looks lost, the protagonist will fail. But then he gains an insight, discovers something, or another character has something that will help him get what he wants, and this leads immediately into —
The climax/resolution act: this act can be a page long or 10 pages, whatever is needed for the big ending when the protagonist gets what he wants or doesn’t. Sometimes there’ll be a few pages of resolution to tie up loose ends or set up a continuation. The climax, however, is directly related to that decision moment at the end of Act 1. If it’s not, something’s wrong and the whole structure needs to be re-examined for that story.
I enjoy watching movies or reading books and making a note when the decision moment comes. One of my favorite examples is the movie The Verdict starring Paul Newman as an alcoholic lawyer who’s hired for a medical malpractice case involving a young woman on a ventilator in the hospital. The decision moment in this movie is a silent one, punctuated by the sound of Newman’s Polaroid camera and the ventilator as he takes photos of the young woman. His face changes, his movements slow down, and suddenly it becomes evident what Newman’s lawyer wants. Rarely does a character say “I want….” at this decision moment, but it will still be clear.
As an interesting challenge, the screenwriting teacher asked us to outline the structure of the movie Slaughterhouse Five. The story jumps around in time from present to past to future while the setting changes accordingly for Billy Pilgrim. It’s interesting that while Billy is the protagonist, he is not the character on which the structure is based, but the object of the character’s goal. So, 3 Act Dramatic Structure can be used for the structure in a non-linear story as easily as in a straightforward, traditional story.