Three Act Structure
Last week’s post, this week’s and next’s all come from Do The Work, our new book that comes out, on amazon.com only, a week from today. The e-version is available for free right now, though it won’t go “live” till pub day.
At that time, a hardback and an audio version will go on sale, along with a collectible. By the way, you don’t need an e-reader to download an e-book; it’ll work on your iPad, your Mac or PC, your Android. Here’s a link to free apps that make this work.
But enough salesmanship. Let’s get down to today’s post:
I was talking last week about the Foolscap Method of getting a project started. The idea is to beat Resistance by forcing yourself to boil the whole shooting match down to one page—a sheet of yellow foolscap, a cocktail napkin, the back of an envelope.
Our project is what we want to get down. But how do we do it?
Here’s a trick that screenwriters use:
Break your dream down into three parts. Act One, Act Two, Act Three. Beginning, middle, end. Setup, story, punch line.
Three-act structure works for a play, a romantic seduction, the 1st Marine Division marching up to Baghdad. It’s the architecture for a WWE wrestling match, a Frank Gehry concert hall or an infomercial.
Here’s Moby Dick in three acts:
1. Ahab sets out after the whale.
2. Ahab chases the whale to the ends of the earth.
3. Ahab and the whale duke it out to the death.
Act One is the hook. “A priest, a rabbi and a gerbil walk into a bar … ” The purpose of the first act is to engage the audience. The greatest Act One ever is a roller coaster. Up, up, up and then … over the falls! You’re hooked.
Two other aspects of a great beginning: it must be unique and it must make a promise. A great fishing lure is a shiny, eye-catching object that makes the prey think, “Ah, a delicious meal!”
Here’s the Vietnam Memorial in three acts:
1. Visitor approaches site, which she realizes as she comes closer is below the surface of the ground, arrayed in a “V” and extending from a shallow end to a deep end.
2. Entering, the visitor sees a wall with the names of the fallen in chronological order of the dates of the deaths.
3. Visitor descends to view the wall, which has no barrier to impede her from touching the names of the memorialized or from leaving tokens of love or honor at the base of the wall.
Act Two is deepening complications. This is the meat of the project. Billy Wilder said, “In Act One, get your hero up a tree; Act Two, set the tree on fire; Act Three, get the hero down from the tree.”
The first movement of a symphony establishes the musical theme. The middle movements exhaust variations on the theme. Our middle passage—whether it’s a novel, a startup or a philanthropic venture—plays out the promise of the beginning to the point of excruciation. Think of making love. Think of a great meal. Think of middle age.
Act Three is the payoff. The release of tension. The climax. The resolution of the dilemma.
In the third act we learn if the defendant will be hanged or go free. Will Janie and Joey get married? Do the good guys win or lose?
For some reason, the human mind loves items that come in threes. That’s the key to laying out our structure.
On your single sheet of foolscap, write this:
Now fill it in.
To drive us all crazy, let’s add one more requirement for Act One (this is the killer): it must contain, embedded within it, the resolution of the dilemma it poses. But that’s enough torture for this week.
Next week we’ll take this Foolscap Model a step further.