Whether novels, campfire tales, or film – from Aristotle right on through to Star Wars – most stories follow the story arc of the three-Act hero’s journey.
Imagine playing a game of catch: You’re in a field with a friend, and you throw the ball up; it comes down in another place. There’s a sense of anticipation in your throw. There’s a sense of relief when your friend catches the ball. But all the real excitement is when the ball is up there in the air. Everything before the throw is Act 1. The ball hanging in the air right up until the moment it is caught or dropped is Act 2. Everything after the catch is Act 3. This is the basic pleasure of setup, tension, and release that we experience in most time-based art forms, including dance and music.
Sure, there are plenty of famous examples of short stories and novels that don’t conform to this template, but there are countless more examples that do. So, in an effort to understand how this basic story arc can help frame your prose, let’s take a closer look at the 3-Act journey.
Image taken from a great article on this topic called “Conflict and Character Within Story Structure.“
Act 1: The setup
Here is where you briefly set the stage for your story, describe the setting where the action will take place or take off from, introduce the major characters, and provide context for their motivations. Suspense, menace, or complication may begin to build throughout Act 1, but the real tension begins when a particular plot point (towards the end of Act 1) causes the hero to tumble into a complex world where something is at risk.
Act 2: The struggles
Whether your protagonists face emotional or physical peril, Act 2 is the meaty section where you put them through the ringer. They move from obstacle to obstacle, overcoming some, failing at others (but without a sense of great resolution), until the story builds to a climax that will determine the ultimate outcome of your characters. Readers will expect a happy ending, or at least a glimmer of hope. But we live in an ambiguous world. Cormac McCarthy certainly wouldn’t fault you for killing off your hero here. Then again, everyone loves when the Death Star blows up!
Act 3: The wrap-up
Following the climax, your readers will have suffered (along with the hero) the ups and downs of the narrative. They won’t have much endurance for a lengthy denouement. The tension of the tale should resolve quickly along with any plot details or loose ends that need tying.
A more complex variation on this basic structure is what the sagely Joseph Campbell termed the “Monomyth,” a common 12-stage journey found in many myths across most cultures (pictured below). For more information on this structural variation, check out MovieOutline.com.
This post originally appeared on PlayingWriter.com. Reposted with permission.
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