1. archerfenris
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    archerfenris Active Member

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    Controversy Over 3 Act Structure

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by archerfenris, Jul 14, 2013.

    As a new writer and a writer in the morass of writing my first novel, I have done my own research and readings into the advice from other established authors. This includes joining this site and participating in the workshop and discussions on here.

    In my readings I discovered the 3 act structure, which is largely how I had planned my novel anyway (without realizing it). After learning the finer points of this structure I figured "Okay. No duh. That's how you tell a story." However, it seems there are many who do not seem to approve of this 3 act structure. They find it archaic and cookie-cutter. I find myself trying to wrap my head around a structure other than beginning, initial conflict, a change in approach, and climax (later ending).

    Is it the name of the 3 act structure or the fact of writers building their story around a rigid plan that irks these opponents? What are the alternatives? I'd like to hear what many of our older, more experienced writers here think about this 3 act structure as well as what they think about those opposing it.
     
  2. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I've read dozens and dozens of how-to-write books, and hardly any of them mention 3-act structure. It just doesn't come up when you're talking about novels. The only books I've seen that talk about 3-act structure are books about screenwriting. It seems to be a movie thing more than a novel thing.

    I've also read literally hundreds of interviews with writers, including some of the best writers in the world. Many of them are Nobel Prize winners. I can't remember any of them mentioning 3-act structure. It just seems that most of the great writers, including many who are among my favorites, don't concern themselves with it.

    To me, it seems like a gimmick. In my mind it gets classified with Ten-Steps-To-Writing-a-Bestseller and the snowflake method. It's like a crutch for writers who have no confidence in their ideas, or who have no ideas to begin with. (I'm not saying you fall into either of these categories; I'm just saying you'd do as well, if not better, if you forgot about 3-act structure and just got on with the story.)

    I'm reminded of a story about Mozart. He was giving music lessons in Vienna and was approached by a young man. The young man said, "Herr Mozart, more than anything else I want to compose a symphony. Please teach me to write a symphony!" Mozart looked him over and said, "You're too young to write a symphony." The young man said, "But Herr Mozart, you wrote a symphony when you were only twelve years old!" To which Mozart replied, "Yes, but I didn't have to ask how!"

    That young man was looking for the musical equivalent of a 3-act structure, and wanted Mozart to give it to him. Mozart never bothered with that sort of thing; he just composed his music. He had the confidence and the ideas and, as far as he was concerned, the structure would take care of itself.
     
  3. archerfenris
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    archerfenris Active Member

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    Ha! I remember reading about this "snowflake" method and was thinking "are people really buying this 'how to' bullshit?" Indeed you are right. You need the actual talent to begin. I remember going through articles of these type of "how to" articles and thought how little they actually helped. "Naaaaaah, I have to create CULTURES and GEOGRAPHY for my fantasy world? Who'da thunk it!"

    What I gather from you is that the biggest issue is the rigidty of thinking only in those terms. But, honestly, it seems to me all it does it show you how stories are structured. And that's largely how they are. Not precisely, every story is different, but largely every story has an initial plot point (and those where they happen FAR TOO LATE. Damn you Outlander series) and a climax. Maybe you didn't need anyone to point that out to you, but why the anger over someone outlining this to others?

    Further, on the Mozart bit. I am not Mozart (for writing), and I'd be willing to bet all the money I have in my bank you're not mozart either. Mozart's sheet music was perfect. Have you ever even met a writer who published a piece without any editing? There's another member on this site with a quote from Hemmingway saying even he thinks his first draft is shit. I once played baseball as a kid. I had a really bad year one year and me and my father practiced in the off season until, the next season, I was the best hitter on the team. It didn't come from raw out of nowhere talent. It came from practice. I didn't end up being the next babe ruth and neither did any of us on my team. But I did get alot better from putting in the time. Sure, I needed the talent to be able to play the sport in the first place. But every other kid on that field had the same talent.

    Point being. Maybe Mozart can make art at 12 and do so on the first try. I can't. I have to write and read and study. And do that alot. And then alot more. And since you've read dozens of how to write books I'd bet you're the same way. So again, why the opposition?
     
  4. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    I could swear I've seen this exact discussion here in the last month or so.
     
  5. ithestargazer
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    ithestargazer Active Member

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    You did EdFromNY. Here's the link to the one I read (though I'm sure there have been many discussions on this topic): http://www.writingforums.org/showthread.php?t=62531

    There's some discussion on the '4th act' in this link which the OP might find interesting.
     
  6. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    Well, it seems to me that there could be an issue with a circular definition here.

    For example, a story could have more than one conflict, each of which comes to a resolution. But then you could circle the definition around to say that the story just contains multiple stories. If the multiple conflicts and multiple solutions interact, you could say that it's an interconnecting (or braided) multiple-story story.

    A story could have a conflict, change of approach that doesn't resolve anything, new conflict, new change of approach, etc. But then you could circle the definition around to say that the story is a repeating version of the basic story definition. This could interact with other repeating stories in the same book, so that you have an interconnecting multiple-repeating-story story. Whee!

    So I suppose it depends on whether you consider the "story" definition to be descriptive or prescriptive. Descriptive, as a word to summarize conflict-change-resolution, it seems harmless. Prescriptive, so that a person might say, "NO! You've already had your conflict! You can't have another one or it's not a story!" it would be a problem.
     
  7. sanco
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    sanco Contributing Member

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    Yes I learnt the 3-act structure in film school. It's more of a screenwriting guideline than one for novels. It's just a guideline. Not a strict how-to.
     
  8. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Of course I'm not Mozart. And I'm not Hemingway or Tolstoy or Nabokov or Saul Bellow or anybody else. And yes, I do have to study and practice and revise my work a ton. None of that, though, means imposing a 3-act structure on it. I don't oppose revision or editing or study or practice. I oppose the imposition of only one of an uncountable number of possible structures onto a story that might not fit that structure. In the cases of most of my stories, actually, 3-act structure doesn't really work. I have lots of emotional risings and fallings throughout, as well as the occasional new character emerging late in the story who changes everybody's relationships. It's hard for me to even think in terms of acts.

    As I said, I've read hundreds of interviews with writers, and almost nobody even mentioned 3-act structure. The question isn't "Why the opposition?", it's "Why bother?" Why bother thinking about 3-act structure? Nobody else does, unless they're writing a screenplay. Movies have constraints that don't apply to novels: length is one; the inability to get inside the heads of characters is another. Also, because the costs are so huge, movies have to be pretty simple, and have to be presented in such a way as to give the same experience to everyone in the audience. Novels can be profitable even if they only sell to a small segment of the reading public. A $250 million movie has to appeal to pretty much everybody in order to make its money back. So for movies, structure is important - it keeps the whole audience on the same page, as it were. But novels don't have those constraints, and so novelists don't have to pay attention to 3-act structure.
     
  9. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    if you want to write screenplays, then it's worth discussing... if you're writing prose fiction, it's not worth wasting time on, imo...
     
  10. archerfenris
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    archerfenris Active Member

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    Thank you for this
     

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