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.
With a BA in Anthropology and English I pursued a career in advertising and writing and segued into developmental editing. It was a great choice for me. I love the process of creating and am privileged to be part of that process for so many great voices — voices both seasoned and new.
I’ve worked on nearly 400 books over 20 years, books by noted authors published by New York houses including Penguin, Kensington, Pentacle and Zebra as well as with Indie bestsellers and Amazon dynamos. From Air Force manuals and marketing materials to memoirs, thrillers, sci fi and romance, my services range from copyediting to developmental coaching.
Having worked in advertising and marketing, I am always cognizant of the marketplace in which the author’s work will be seen. I coach for content and style with that knowledge in mind in order to maximize sales and/or educational potential. My objective is to help the author’s material stand out from an ever more crowded and competitive field.