Alternatives to the “Three-Act Structure” for Your Writing
Wordsmith Essays provides student essay editing services for people at all different levels of academics, but we also want to help you with your creative writing, as well. We’re your top internet resource for writing and editing of all sorts, be it technical, creative or descriptive. Today, one of our editors talks about alternatives to the much-maligned three-act structure.
Last time, we discussed the weaknesses of the three-act structure. Today, let’s discuss two possible alternatives: the five-act structure and the “unlimited structure”.
The five-act structure is a popular dramatic structure for playwrights and screenwriters. It is often associated with Shakespeare, although the structure predates him and was already falling out of popularity during the time he was writing. The key element of the five-act structure is that it corresponds to a larger character arc. The five acts of this type dramatic structure are called many things, but they’re best thought of in terms of how they end: the break, the plan, the complication, the change, and the climax or resolution.
The “break” is the first act and it ends with the protagonist making a decision to end the previously established status quo through some form of action or inaction. This is Hamlet swearing to avenge his father, Bilbo leaving the Shire, etc. The second act ends with the protagonist committing to a plan to resolve the problems or obstacles they face, such as when Hamlet makes his plan to “trap the conscience of a king”. The complication comes in the third act, where some major change of circumstance or failure on the part of the main character complicates the story. In Hamlet, this happens in the Queen’s closet, where Hamlet kills Polonius and the audience realizes he actually be insane. This is followed with an act that ends with the protagonist recognizing some sort of change or growth in character in themselves that will allow them to either succeed or fail in their plans during the final act: the climax or resolution.
This structure has the advantage of being very active and centered around the protagonist. However, some writers consider this to be too strict and lacking a certain flexibility. They point to plenty of examples of modern day stories that can be said to have anywhere from six to twenty acts, including “serial” stories, such as comic books and television dramas.
These writers propose more of an “unlimited” structure. They define an act as any “significant” point of change in a story and organize the story around accelerations or decelerations in action through the variation in act lengths. This can be a useful model for focusing on plot timing, but for inexperienced writers it can be a very difficult model to work with.
One variation on the “unlimited” structure is a form of serial plot structure that was popular in television writing and comic books, the “ABC” method. In this structure, every “episode” has an “A”-plot, a “B”-plot, and a “C”-plot. The difference between each is the amount of time the episode spends with each plot.
For example, consider an episode of a television show where a cop is investigating the murder of a popular state senator. That would be the “A”-plot and the focus of the episode would be on resolving this particular plot. However, at the same time, the cop’s wife is discovering that he has been hiding his alcoholism from her. This is the “B”-plot. Finally, in one scene the cop notices that his partner may have received a bribe from an unsavory character. This is the “C”-plot.
In the next episode, with the “A”-plot from the previous episode resolved, the cop’s wife confronts him about his alcoholism, becoming the “A”-plot of that episode. Meanwhile, the “B”-plot becomes about the cop investigating his partner for corruption and a new “C”-plot is introduced.
This structure works great for serial stories, constantly resolving plots and moving things forward, but it’s extremely focused on plot and often developing strong character arcs can fall by the wayside. It’s also not the best method for writing contained stories and gives no direction for writing satisfying endings.
Regardless of the model you use, it’s important to remember that the famous “three-act structure” isn’t the be-all and end-all dramatic structure. There’s a lot of different methods to experiment with and you should find the one that’s right for you.
Next time, we’ll take a break from the exciting world of creative writing and take a look at one of the more maligned branches of the craft: technical writing.
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