Today, we will be looking at the three act structure; beginning, middle and the end.
As touched upon in chapter 4,
Act 1 covers the introduction of our characters. Certainly our main characters. We find out who they are, what motivates them or not, and introduce a problem which has to be solved. End of Act 1
Act 2 How they go about solving the problem. A solution is found. End Act 2.
Act 3 This is actually the process by which they solve the problem.
So let’s examine these acts in more detail.
A typical screenplay would have 30 pages to cover Act 1. We are introduced to the hero, finding out about his or her situation, friends, family, work etc.and then the problem which must be resolved – which is usually laid bare almost simultaneously with the appearance of the characters’ nemesis. This does not always have to take human, or even alien form, it can be a crane shot of lava bubbling deep within a volcano, or an approaching hurricane, or even the first tentative signs of an earthquake. Stories, certainly novels, take longer to build this up, and I must confess that while writing my second novel, The Strongest Man Alive, it took a while. And here’s why; the problem – which revealed itself earlier on – was a symptom of the actions of our anti-hero. This meant that our protagonist, Nevadon, was following breadcrumbs on a voyage of discovery, and as there was going to be an element of surprise, it would not do to reveal the antagonist just yet. In the film Alien, the true revelation of the size and sheer hostility of their beast only manifested itself later, well past Act 1. But the problem in Act 1 to be solved other than how they were getting back home was how to deal with the creature which had attached itself to the character played by John Hurt. Personally I prefer this approach; it’s a bit of a guess work as to what foul deeds we will discover before the ultimate revelation of the enemy and showdown. Guess that’s why I love Predator so much. However, a very successful typical Act 1 structure is shown in a fantastic film where we see our hero and villain early on; size them up quickly and then it’s cat and mouse games all the way. For me not many films execute this with the precision and style that produced this visual treat and spawned its obvious sequels. What am I talking about? I’m talking about Die Hard. Once again it depends what kind of story you’re telling. Act 1 also gives us a chance to examine carefully the character traits of our hero – who should be likeable and relatable – and our antagonist, or the type of antagonist we will most likely be dealing with, depending on the crime scene laid out. It shows us their relationships, existing problems, and/or their existing hopes or aspirations before the problem is foisted upon them, unless it is part of their job of course. A typical screenplay would introduce us to a character who has a problem; divorced, drunk, depressed, dangerous, desperate. Of course the adjectives don’t all begin with “d” either. Our hero, who can be a child, might be a bit lonely, like in ET, or is fed up with their job, or society. The point is the hero cannot be a happy, contented, squeaky-clean goody two shoes. Not in film anyway. Apparently we don’t like to watch flawless characters. Not saying that my character didn’t have problems, but he was pretty average and reasonably happy when we are introduced to him. Once again stories tend to take a different path. A book at least some 500 to 1000 pages in length has the luxury of time to build up the character and chart his journey, as well as his friends, in a way in which a film cannot do. A typical film has to drive the story on very quickly. Certainly very quickly compared to a story.
Act 2 – The longest Act.
This is where all the fundamental elements are fused together. Taking what was established in Act 1, we build up the characters, their reactions to the problem, their steps to resolve it – and they may fail first time around – the problems may build or escalate, threatening them, their lives, or love lives or reputation, or even the world. And then when they are about to be captured, or killed or have almost lost all hope, then they have a Eureka moment. Like Jeff Goldblum’s character in Independence Day, they discover a way to solve the problem. In his case, it’s the virus. In the Strongest Man alive, our hero not only discovers a problem, but while trying to solve it, stumbles upon another problem and then another. It’s escalating. These problems, these abandoned villages are all interlinked – they are all connected in some way. They are all part of a bigger problem. It’s not just a question of trying to find out what happened to all the villages of a town, but what happened to all the villages of all the other towns! And as the rumours begin to circulate about the culprit and the mysterious forbidden zone, he realises that he’s going to need help. As much as I enjoy a Superman, a Rambo or Commando storming or flying into a situation and single-handedly (or near enough single-handedly) wiping out the town full of bad guys and heading off into the sunset or sky, appropriate female in hand, I much prefer team work. For every fantastic John McClane or Man With No Name in a Fistful of Dollars, I much prefer The Magnificent Seven or A Team or Mission Impossible. Even the team in Predator. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always gravitated towards realism. Funny that, since I preferred Science Fiction stories to thrillers. But here’s the thing; when you have a team, you have two things. A numerical advantage, as any number greater than one has to be better than a sole warrior, and helps the odds of a mission being more successful, even if that sole warrior is talented. After all what’s he going to do if a virus comes and bites him on the ass? Can’t exactly bazooka the virus in your own body. Also, I love the fact that as individuals – never mind a commando or international rescue team – we all have our own talents and skills. Each person is good at something. And I think way back when, in Ghana, when I was first introduced to the sixties TV show, Mission Impossible. I loved the concept. Perhaps I subconsciously took inspiration from it. The A Team is basically an updated version it, except they are fleeing the government and have a guy who can fly and is nuts. Nevadon, our hero, began recruiting or being introduced to colourful characters, each of whom specialised in a particular set of skills. God, I sound like Liam Leeson in Taken.” I have a particular set of skills…” So our protagonist builds a team around him, and we see how he interacts with each of them and how they react to each other. Egos versus skills, and this brings up another important ingredient in this case that is Act 2; conflict. We have the large, ultimate conflict of our hero achieving his goal of destroying evil in whatever form; but then we have the smaller conflicts too. When I was studying screenplays, one of the first, most important things I learned was that no two characters can think alike. And yet I somehow knew this instinctively, based on the films I’d watched. This creates a dynamic, some tension. We will discuss this in further depth later. Nevadon has to ensure some harmony among his team; he needs them, but must manage them. His team is an alliance of various egos and concerns, but manages them he does in a task fraught with danger, on a journey filled with peril. And he is able to establish clearly the strengths and weakness of his principle team members. In this act he comes face to face with the challenges and final obstacles that must be overcome in order to achieve his goal and emerge victorious.
Act 3 – The Resolution.
At this point, we have the final conflict based upon the analysis of the situation, sizing up the enemy, negotiating the best route to find the lost people, employing the strategic and tactical advantage they have. The outcome is by no means certain. Nevadon’s team come across unexpected opposition, the enemy reveals things they had not anticipated, threatening to dissolve the co-operation between them. Each man in Nevadon’s team finds himself stretched beyond belief, each Amazon finds themselves examining their conscious and self-belief, and all the while chaos rages around them. They get split up. Suddenly they are being influenced by events beyond their control rather than the other way round. Out of nowhere springs up multiple objectives, and each principle protagonist is assigned or finds themselves by fate in charge of one of the major goals. Each one knows that should he or she fail, then the overall mission fails. So interwoven are they. People need to be located and quickly, then rescued. A hostile environment has to be avoided, battles need to be fought, and the culprit vanquished. In this section all the elements come together, the culmination of Acts 1 and 2. The establishing of the characters, their fears, hope and dreams. The discovery of a problem and the journey involved in analysing this, and seeking out friends and solutions to deal with this – all elements leading to this one overall objective, split up into many. It is about the last half hour of a film – this is the final resolution. We know the characters, we know the villain, we know the goals of each, we have the location, we know the tools (or most) of each, and now for the final showdown. In The Strongest Man Alive, this takes place in a mountain in the forbidden zone; an environment which has all the natural advantages for the antagonist and raises the challenges of the protagonist. If there are traps, only the villain knows. Secret passages? The same. Loose dangerous footing among the rocks and ledges? You can be sure that the good guys will find out the hard way, and at a price. But it is here where we find out more about the strength and resolution of our heroes; here we discover what it takes to truly fight for your dreams, your aims, your mission, against all the odds. And the odds are indeed frightening. This becomes the clash of titans, and the winner takes all. And like Tolkien’s Return of the King, this is not a short engagement; every player has a great deal to win – or to lose. This is Act 3.
That was lesson 8.
- My lesson 8
- To make the final clash between the forces of the protagonist and antagonists really powerful, exciting and worthy of the time spent reaching this part of the story. All characters were going to be heavily involved in the drama and action in the final phase of their mission.
- In the final resolution, we would still learn about our heroes, we would still discover things on both sides of the battle; we would be surprised and shocked; frightened and grateful, excited and filled with a sense of foreboding. But that at the end of the journey, at the end of Act 3, we would have a definitive and satisfying answer. There would be surprises, but the epic journey and mission would have been fully upheld by the way the final battles were fought, by the way the characters conducted themselves and the outcome, either way, would be logical and satisfying. Here is where the story finally ends.
- Next week, in part 9 we shall consider in detail how to build the interest and objectives in the narrative.