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Plot & Structure

Beyond the Three Acts: Different Structures for Storytelling

Beyond the Three Acts: Different Structures for Storytelling
Written by Andrew Knighton

The three-act structure is one of the most popular tools for storytelling. Different writing guides provide different details, but the fundamentals remain the same – an opening act that introduces the protagonist, the antagonist, and the problem; a middle act in which things become more difficult and complicated; and a final act in which the antagonist is defeated and the problem resolved.

But this is just one approach to telling a satisfying story. Others are available and can help you to create powerful stories.

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Why Try Different Structures?

Given the widespread acceptance of the three-act structure, why would you want to use anything else?

One reason is to create variety. Different structures lead to different styles of stories. This will keep your writing fresh through experimentation. It helps avoid the boredom of repeating the same thing over and over again. It means that you’re learning to write in different ways.

Varying the story will also add to your appeal to readers. Different styles of stories engage different people’s imaginations, and so may attract new readers. Variety also helps to keep your existing readers engaged. Most people are looking for a balance of the familiar and the novel. A different story structure might help you create something novel using existing elements.

Experimenting with story structure helps you to look at the parts of a story in different ways. To take new approaches to your characters’ actions and motivations. To twist the plot around in different ways. As well as adding variety, this will improve your understanding of the fundamentals of storytelling. Approaching the same part of a story in different ways gives you insight into what works in general, providing a baseline to innovate from.

Ultimately, the reason to try different structures is that there are no one-size-fits-all approaches. You might find a story structure that suits you better than what you’ve used before. You might learn why you like the structure you already have. You can be more sure that you’re using the right tools for you.

The Hero’s Journey

The concept of the hero’s journey has its roots in anthropology. Scholars in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries found a pattern of common elements in mythical stories from around the world. They believed that they were revealing the fundamental building blocks of storytelling and myth-making.

The hero’s journey became famous thanks to the book The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, and if you’re looking for a deeper understanding of this model then that’s a good place to start. It was refined for writers by Christopher Vogler in his book The Writers’ Journey. But one of the most important figures in popularising the hero’s journey was George Lucas, who drew heavily on Campbell’s work in creating Star Wars. This drew the attention of a whole generation to The Hero With a Thousand Faces.

The hero’s journey has a couple of big advantages for a writer.

One is the wealth of detail it provides in structuring a story. At its simplest level, the hero’s journey consists of three phases, similar to the three-act structure. But Campbell and those who have adapted his work have added many layers of detail within this. Campbell’s version contains a total of seventeen distinct stages, Vogler’s twelve, and in each case there is a detailed explanation of what goes into each stage. It’s a structure that gives you plenty to work with.

The other advantage of the hero’s journey is that it roots story structure in mythology, particularly western mythology. Following it can create a feeling of resonance and familiarity in the reader, even evoking the emotions associated with ancient myths. This gives it an extra level of power and appeal to an audience by tapping into story tropes that are, if not universal, then at least very recognizable.

So how does the hero’s journey work?

It begins in the ordinary world. Some event disrupts normal life, calling the hero to adventure. Perhaps she is given the opportunity to go on a great journey. Perhaps her home is threatened and someone needs to take up the fight to defend it. She initially refuses the call, creating a sense of tension in this first act of the story.

Once the hero has accepted the call to adventure, she finds a source of support – a mentor or some form of supernatural aid. This provides reassurance and support. Boosted by this aid, the hero crosses the first threshold, where she leaves the safety of the mundane world behind, committing to the adventure and heading into the unknown. She sets out on the quest, boards the spaceship to the stars, starts the new job, or whatever will carry her into something new. She enters the belly of the whale, a point which Campbell associates with womb-like imagery symbolizing rebirth.

Now comes the middle act and the thrust of the adventure. The hero faces a series of trials and temptations, encounters a powerful goddess figure, and eventually achieves a new level of understanding that she could not have gained while in the ordinary world. Armed with this knowledge, she achieves the goal she set out on the journey to achieve, or some great boon related to it.

Having fulfilled her goal, the hero often resists returning to the mundane world. But she eventually returns, bringing her newfound insight and any material benefits gained along the way, to the advantage of herself and her community. She crosses the threshold of return, but comes back a different person, freed to live thanks to facing the perils of death.

This is only the briefest telling of one version of the hero’s journey. Detailed versions such as Campbell’s provide so much detail that it would be possible to plot almost every moment in a story based on this.

Seven-Point Story Structure

Popularised by Dan Wells through a series of videos and the Writing Excuses podcast, the seven point story structure is less detailed than the hero’s journey. It’s an approach specifically designed for modern writers.

Seven-point structure focuses on the highs and lows of a story. It picks out the most important points and focuses the writer’s attention on them, ordering them in a way that ensures rises and falls in the tension of a story. It also leads the writer to plan their story in a non-chronological order, to ensure that the parts connect together in a logical and satisfying way.

Plotting with the seven-point structure starts at the end of the story. Work out what you want the end state to be.

Then move from there to define the beginning of the story. This should present a very different situation from the end. Harry Potter ends up a confident, happy Hogwarts student, but he starts out living miserably under the stairs. Elizabeth Bennet ends up happily married and open to others’ perspectives on the world, but she starts out proud and cynical about marriage.

The next point to define is the midpoint. This is when the hero must make an important choice to move forward near the middle of the book. He shifts from reacting to what is happening around him to acting proactively to change his world. This decision should lead from the starting state to the end state.

Having defined the midpoint, look at the turns, two critical moments in the plot. The first comes between the beginning and the midpoint. It is when change arrives, a threat, opportunity, or disruption that introduces the main arc of the story and leads from the start towards the midpoint. The second turn comes between the midpoint and the end. This is when the hero obtains the critical item, information, or understanding that will let him triumph. It’s often the moment when he finds the power in himself.

Lastly, add pinches between the turns and the midpoint. These are the moments when things go badly wrong and everything is in peril, when the hero considers giving up or the enemy seems about to defeat him. The second pinch is the low point of the story, the moment when all seems lost just before the hero finds a way through.

By focusing on these moments, seven-point structure builds a story around key moments, contrasts, and powerful changes within the plot.

Kishōtenketsu: Japanese Four Act Structure

Kishōtenketsu is a Japanese four-act structure that takes a different approach to storytelling, focusing on revelation rather than change.

The first two acts are similar to western three-act structure. A protagonist and a problem are introduced in the first act, though there may not be a dramatic call to action as in western storytelling. In the second act, complications and difficulties arise.

The third act is the big point of departure from western stories. The third act is the revelation of a twist that changes our understanding of what has come before. Like the big reveal in an M. Night Shyamalan movie, it transforms our perception of the world rather than the world itself. This leads into a final act of coming to terms with the twist and dealing with its consequences.

This allows a very different sort of story from our previous structures. The focus is on understanding rather than action. The results have a different tone that may surprise readers.

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What To Use When?

With all these structures and more available, how do you decide which to use when?

The answer is to pick the structure that suits you and your story. The hero’s journey might be good for your epic fantasy adventure, while kishōtenketsu works better for your understated ghost romance story. Experiment with different structures, try them out to see which you enjoy, and don’t be afraid to try different approaches, as the story demands.

Andrew Knighton is a Yorkshire based ghostwriter, responsible for writing many books in other people's names. He's had over fifty stories published in his own name in places such as Daily Science Fiction and Wily Writers. His steampunk adventure series, The Epiphany Club, is out now in all e-book formats, and the first volume, Guns and Guano, is available for free from Amazon or Smashwords. You can find free stories and links to more of his books at andrewknighton.com and follow him on Twitter where he’s @gibbondemon.