Friday, 16 October 2009

Plot structure - expanded

This post focuses on the classic Aristotelian three act structure.

Broadly speaking, any work of fiction, whether a novel, novella, short story, play or film script, will fit into the three act structure. I'm going to generalise here, but the structure goes something like this.

Act one:
About one quarter of the length of the work. Starts off with the main characters going about their daily business. A little scene-setting, as it were.

A short way in (3-7 minutes for a film, somewhere in the first chapter for a novel) comes the

Inciting incident (also called the complication.)
This is the thing that forces the protagonist into motion. It doesn't even need to be in the work. It can have happened way back in the back story. In Lord of the Rings for example, you could argue that the inciting incident happened in the Hobbit, when Bilbo found the ring. Or a thousand years ago, when Gollum found it. Or three thousand years ago, when Isildur didn't destroy it. But generally, it happens in the work you're creating.

The II is the thing that propels (or perhaps compels) the protagonist to become involved in the action of the story, often reluctantly.

Also in Act one, all other significant characters are introduced, especially the nemesis. The threads of the main plot are laid. Some of the major sub-plots are introduced.

Act one ends with

Plot point one, a critical incident. Our hero(ine) discovers a crucial fact, gains a significant ally (buddy, rival, mentor or similar) or develops a talent he or she will need to defeat the nemesis.

All the significant features of the story have now been exposed to the audience. From this point on, all that occurs is inevitable because of the groundwork you have done.

Act two:
This is where the majority of the character development, the other sub-plots and a lot of the action takes place. Generally about half the length of the work. If Act one was about laying the foundations, Act two is about building the house. About halfway through this act comes the

Midpoint. This is the first significant trial of strength against the nemesis. Our hero may retire, defeated but alive. He may defeat the chief lieutenant of the enemy. The point is, it is inconclusive. The threat remains, and from here on to the end, intensifies.

Act two concludes with

Plot point two (also called the Crisis.) Our protagonist is at his lowest ebb. His wife has been kidnapped, his dog shot, his son proves to be the spawn of the Devil, and he's hanging head down over a vat of boiling sulphuric acid.

This point is perhaps the most important of the whole story. This is why our protagonist is a hero. Remember the classic themes mentioned in the last post.

Now, any reasonable being would give up at this point. Heroes don't. They're too stubborn, or stupid, to recognise that they're beaten. Instead of dying quietly, they get mad. They stiffen themselves for one final attempt.

They take full responsibility for their life and their actions, taking charge of events. If they have been reacting so far, now, in a titanic expenditure of will and courage, they take charge of events, driving on to the end. Their entire life has narrowed down to one focus; victory or death.

Act three:
This occupies the final quarter of the work. If Act one was laying the foundations, and Act two was building the house, then Act three is defeating the neighbour who objects on planning grounds, stopping a horde of crazed bikers from trashing the place, throwing up a wall of dirt to stop the flood from washing the house away and finally moving in with your loved one.

Almost immediately, we are plunged into the

Climax. The final trial of strength. Our hero generally overcomes his fears, his limitations, masters that crucial flaw and defeats his nemesis, who cannot do the same.

OK, our hero may die in the process. In many ways, it is deeply satsfying if he does. After all, who would actually want to know or live with a genuine hero? They can't be easy people to get along with.

Of course, if you're writing from the 1st person POV, it is not a good idea to have your hero die here. That's the end, fini, right there. If you've used third person, shifting POV, fine. Film scripts, you have written omnisciently anyway, so no problem.

The climax was presaged in Act one, developed in Act two, and is now fully realized in all its violent, terrible beauty.

Act three finishes with the

Resolution. All the loose ends are tied up. Unless you want to leave room for a sequel. Boy gets girl, music swells, they walk hand-in-hand into a beautiful sunset. The audience sighs in appreciation, gets gently returned to reality and walks out happy, having shared time with someone who took charge of their destiny, albeit briefly.

Something most of us can never, will never do.

That's why they're called heroes.


  1. This was a great post Paul and something I think even seasoned writers can take advantage of. Though now I'm curious as to how a first person POV death would be written. The possibilities....

  2. Intriguing idea, isn't it? You could start off with a scene where the protagonist is dying, then as his/her mind starts switching off, you'd have an extensive series of flashbacks, detailing the entire course of the story. Though that's been done before - Dead on Arrival, for example.