I’ve trodden the boards most of my life. No, I’m not talking about walking the plank, although it sometimes can feel that way during the infamous period known by theater people as hell week. That’s when troublesome musical passages, elusive lines, and final costume fittings collide with an overloaded slate of rehearsals. When it comes to stress, an author on deadline has nothing on a thespian in the last week before an opening. Blessedly, the night before the first curtain rises the set is left dark, abandoned by tradition. This allows the cast and crew an opportunity to catch a collective breath before the new crisis that is opening night.
Ah, theater! Greasepaint in the blood. Settings. Characters. Dialogue. Beats. Three acts to bring a story alive for an audience.
It should. Today’s prevalent three-act plotting structure, based on Greek tragedies, comes to us from the mind of Aristotle. Yes, that Aristotle. The thinker who lived over 300 centuries before Christ took on flesh. Although many methods of telling a story have arisen since Aristotle organized the first known written plot structure, his model remains viable today. Blame it on my theater background, but of all plotting methods, Aristotle’s speaks to me most.
He plotted in three acts. This makes sense on an intuitive level because every story comes in three parts with a beginning, middle, and ending. Act One makes up 25% of a storyline, with Act Two taking up 50% and Act Three the final 25%. The story is divided in half as well, with the midpoint squarely in the middle of Act Two. The first half of a story involves introducing characters, themes, motivations, settings, conflicts, and important elements. In the second half of a story all its threads untangle. In fact, the term denouement is drawn from desnouer, a Middle French word which means “to untangle.”
Aristotle’s Incline names six key scenes. I’ll define these and provide examples from a fairy tale you may know, Cinderella:
1. Opening: Hook your readers at once by raising an intriguing question they’ll want answered. Give at least a glimpse of what normal life is like for your main character. This scene may include the inciting incident. Modern tastes often prefer the inciting incident closer to or as part of the opening scene, but depending on story needs and genre dictates, it can occur later in Act One, even immediately preceding the first plot point.
EXAMPLE: In Cinderella, the King decides to have a ball in order to find a wife for his son and heir.
2. First Plot Point: Springboards off the inciting incident. The main character becomes engaged by the change brought about by the inciting incident. This Y in the road forces your main character to react with an irrevocable decision and brings down the curtain on Act One.
EXAMPLE: Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother turns her rags to a beautiful gown, turns a pumpkin into a coach, and tells her to be home by midnight.
3. Midpoint or Reversal: In this powerful centerpiece scene your main character decides to stop simply reacting and start acting. The character is now fully engaged in the story.
Example: Cinderella is at the ball dancing with the prince and forgets all about being home by midnight.
4. Second Plot Point: This scene brings the curtain down on Act Two and sets up the conflict that launches the story’s climax.
EXAMPLE: The clock strikes midnight and Cinderella flees the ball, losing a slipper in the process.
5. Climax: Your main character experiences a black moment which leads to an epiphany, or personal revelation and a moment of release. The epiphany transforms your main character in a way that enables him to overcome a previously unconquerable obstacle and obtain either his desired or needed outcome which proves the story’s theme.
EXAMPLE: Cinderella believes she has lost the prince forever (black moment). When the footman comes around with the glass slipper, she has a personal epiphany (moment of enlightenment) and realizes that she is the only one who will fit her slipper. She is worthy. She challenges her stepmother’s abuse by asking to try the slipper on.
6. Closing: This scene resolves any remaining plot threads and allows the reader to savor the main character’s victory.
EXAMPLE: Cinderella marries her handsome prince and lives happily ever after.
How do you fill the gaps between your story’s key scenes? By a process I like to call Reaction-Response-Consequence Cycles. Your main character reacts to the inciting incident and sets off a chain of events that climbs with increasing tension to the climax.
Reaction: Your main character reacts to the antagonistic force by making an irrevocable decision, often based on a lie he or she believes to be true.
Response : The antagonistic force in your story responds to your main character’s decision.
Consequence: Fulfillment of your main character’s greatest desire is derailed and the story moves toward a confrontation with her greatest fear. As she reacts to this new obstacle, the cycle begins again.
Actors in a theater production become comfortable with the story and one another during the first read-through. When they first go off the script, their lines may seem stilted and their movements confused. But soon they own their lines, delivering them with the ease of familiarity, and command the stage with grace. Like performing in a theater production, it takes practice, patience and talent to plot in three acts. But once you’ve mastered this technique, your delighted readers may just call for an encore.