Each of us who’ve studied our craft knows that cornerstone of writing wisdom: the Three Act Structure. Beginning, middle and end; introduce characters; present the problem; bring about the solution. All great stories from the Iliad to The Shining exhibit this tri-part structure. Clearly it’s a natural, almost organic, approach that speaks to our whole species. With every manuscript I edit I am mindful of the tri-part structure so why do I sometimes feel it’s a bit like paint by numbers? Does life work in three acts?
I’d just had one of those Slice of Life moments and started an email to share it with a friend. It was as I started to compose the narrative that those two questions came top of mind. I began at the beginning.
It all starts when my mouse crapped out just as I’m nearly finished with a manuscript due that day. I can deal with the little wheel freezing, but not with the loss of that critical left click. I rush to the nearest Staples. It’s still early and the parking lot is mostly empty. I have no idea what compelled me to pull nose to nose with the only other vehicle in front of the store, but that’s what I did.
I get out of my car and a sharp flash dazzles me. That’s weird. What in a deserted asphalt lot could sparkle like that? I pause to study the car I’d nosed up to. An old Toyota, faded and none too clean. Non-descript brown paint that hasn’t seen wax anytime this decade. Several dents and dings. The windows are dull with a layer of dust – all except the windshield. This is polished to a high shine. I peer closer. The frantic rush for a new mouse fades.
Every inch of the deep dash is covered in a mash up of paper; tax forms overlap insurance forms, spreadsheets fan out over hand written notes, an article torn from a magazine lays atop the Dear Sir of business correspondence, a shopping list peeks out from under the dog-eared sheets of some report. A fresh to-do list, in lurid purple ink, covers one arm of a carelessly discarded tiara, the rhinestones sparkling merrily in the morning sun. Propped at a furious angle on the slope of the steering wheel lay another tiara as though it had been tossed down on the papers in a fit pique. And there, on the passenger side, sat a third bejeweled diadem.
I step closer. I smile. Then I laugh. I’d parked nose to nose with The Very Busy Princess. Whose car is this? I want to shake hands with the woman (I know it’s a woman) who created this tableau with more narratives than GWTW. I want to say thanks. The day no longer feels so chaotic.
I am the only customer in Staples – she’s not here – and I have that deadline so clutching my new mouse I rush back to find my car alone in the parking lot. The story is over.
Is this a story in three acts? Subconsciously I’d veered that way and I could make a case that yes, there is a beginning a middle and an end. Introduce character: me – check. Present problem: where is reflection coming from – check. Bring about solution: the rhinestones – check. I’ve got three acts but it’s not very compelling. There isn’t a resolution – a payoff maybe, because the Busy Princess car made me happy. Then I realized that while the three Act Structure is essential to good story telling it isn’t a useful approach to creating a story.
Thinking about the incident led to creating scenarios around the car, the message, the artist. Any genre came to mind: Steam Punk, such travelling tableaux are the mark of an underground society and this artist is fleeing the robot guards of the Imperial League of Order. Fantasy: she is a fairy queen who has cast aside her crown and the red tape of court to pursue her hockey star lover – but will she accept immortality? Thriller: a young girl is kidnapped by a neurotic accountant and leaves his gifts to her in plain sight as a trail of crumbs for her rescuers.
Create any such story and then divide the action into as many parts as you need for a good arc and structure the narrative with a beginning a middle and an end and you’ve got a sound story. The three-act structure isn’t the driver for story creation – in fact it’s counterproductive – but it’s the ideal structure to hang that story on.