The Three Act Structure is probably the only term I remembered from past English courses I’ve taken; though I didn’t remember specifics about it. This was a great refresher, and more than that it was eye opening. “How could it be so insightful?” you might ask. Well, in the last article of this series we’ll look at how the Three Act structure is used to balance gameplay. This came to light not only in the story design sessions, but nearly every other design lecture I went to at one point or another used this structure to describe the flow of user experience in their games. I feel that understanding this, or at least bringing it back to my front-of-mind knowledge has helped me to better plan designs, and communicate with professional designers.
As mentioned in the last article, the insights and illustrations from Star Wars are coming from Evan Skolnick. The exception is the other movie examples I give in this article. That’s me applying these concepts to other stories. The concepts presented here end up in about every story we have in the west; though in some stories (Pulp Fiction) they’re harder to spot that others.
With all of that said, let’s dive in.
Who Came Up with This Anyway?
Let’s first give credit to the originator of this idea. The Three Act Structure was first envisioned by Aristotle, and published in his work titled ‘Poetics’. Aristotle and this particular work of his is considered to be the birth of western story telling. Its influence is very much alive today, even in video games. If you’d like to check out Aristotle’s ‘Poetics’, the entire classic work can be found for free online. Here is a link to the text, hosted by MIT.
The three acts are used to divide up the main plot points into bits of information digestible by the audience. The naming convention can vary. Here are the names the three acts go by. It is possible I will use them interchangeably throughout this and my following posts.
• Act 1 – Act 2 – Act 3
• Beginning – Middle – End
• Setup (of conflict) – Conflict – Resolution (of conflict)
In the first act several things are accomplished to setup the story and usher the audience into the world of the Main Conflict. It is this act that introduces the hero of a story, the world the story will take place in, and the conflict that will ultimately resolve at the close of the story.
Introducing “The World”
When introducing the world of our Main Conflict, we need to communicate the following critical points. First, will we be fighting the world or attempting to save it. By “world” we are referring to the environment in which the Main Conflict takes place. This doesn’t always have to be a physical location.
The World of Independence Day
In some stories, such as Independence Day, it is literally our world. In ID4 we don’t have to spend time explaining the world, because it is the “real world”. The audience goes in understanding it.
The World of Middle Earth (Lord of the Rings)
In cases where it is a fictional world, more time is needed establishing the setting. For example, in “Lord of the Rings” one cannot assume the audience understands the ins and outs of Middle Earth. Time is needed to show what Middle Earth is all about. Once the audience has a reasonable understanding of it, they can see that the world of Middle Earth is one worth fighting to save.
The World as a Metaphor
In other stories the “world” could be metaphorical for such things as relationship(s), or the environment created by a relationship(s) (*cough, “50 Shades of Cliché”, *cough). It doesn’t have to be a world in the literal sense, but the immediate environment of the character(s).
Say Hello to Our Hero
Somewhere in the introduction to the world, the hero of the story will be introduced. While a story may have a number of characters that can be called heroic, there is one that will ultimately be “the Hero”. What defines the Hero of the story, is that it will be the character who is most (or entirely) responsible for bringing about resolution to the Main Conflict. The Hero of any given story is also the one who shows the most character growth. The components of a hero is a deep subject of its own, and we will look at The Hero’s Journey (aka the Monomyth) in the next post. For now, let’s just acknowledge that the Hero of a story is introduced in Act 1.
The inciting incident is the element of a story that introduces the Hero to the Main Conflict. This incident will always happen to the Hero. It is what pulls them in, and sends them on The Hero’s Journey.
Once again leaning on Star Wars IV as an example, the inciting incident is when Luke receives the message for Obi Wan Kenobi hidden in R2-D2. It is this message that calls him to action. The action is to seek out old Ben Kenobi, which puts everything in motion.
Plot Point 1
The first plot point is when the Hero has been introduced to the Main Conflict, and receives understanding as to how the Main Conflict should be resolved. The close of Act 1 will conclude this first plot point.
This Act is largely characterized as confrontation. The Hero, now understanding what must be done to resolve the conflict attempts resolution. During the confrontation, the stakes escalate. This is where the rising action comes in to play.
It is also here that we experience the midpoint which sends the story in a new direction. Upon Luke encountering Ben Kenobi, we are sent on a journey of escalation. The midpoint is encountered when the Princess is saved and Luke joins the Rebel pilots. Up until this point the Hero, Luke, understood resolution to be bringing the droid to the Rebels, then saving the Princess, finally he realizes it’s not over until he joins the effort to destroy the Space Station. We go from getting the plans to the Rebels, to a new direction of attacking the Death Star.
Plot Point 2
The close of Act 2 will conclude the second plot point. The second plot point is where the Hero understands the resolution. For Luke, this is when he lets go and uses the force instead of his targeting computer. He now understands how to take the shot that will resolve the Main Conflict. This will be the climax of our story, and usher in Act 3.
The third act brings resolution to the Main Conflict through a series of events. Rewards and punishments are doled out to characters. The Hero receives confirmation of their growth; which cements them as the story’s Hero. This act is an epilogue that walks us down from the climax and brings closure to the story.
Upon the destruction of the Death Star, everything else is falling action. We see the characters celebrating, and are literally dealt medals (except for Chewie). Everyone on the Death Star is dead. This is just punishment dealt to Tarkin, and Darth Vader is left spinning through space. Everything feels fair and just. This is how western audiences like their stories to end. The entire third act of Star Wars IV is an epilogue to the story that was just concluded, and provides closure to the audience.
Star Wars has a way of following narrative structures with very literal examples. In most stories the hero characters won’t actually be given medals, but there will be some equivalent moment or action that validates the journey they have taken.
See You Next Time
Alright, that’s a lot to chew on. I’m guessing that for many this is a refresher. As I walk through this information high school is all coming back to me. In or next session we will look at the more detailed story structure of the Monomyth, or “The Hero’s Journey”.
Stick around, and thanks for reading.