The three-act structure: gold standard, or unnecessary burden?
Anyone with even a passing knowledge of plot structure is all too familiar with the three-act theory of plot structure. Where the first act establishes the setting, the characters, and the conflict; the second follows the conflict; and the third resolves the conflict, then allows the dust to settle as plot threads are tied and issues are resolved.
Though I’m in no position to make authoritative claims as to whether the three-act theory is valid as a concept, I can describe my experience with it in my own writing. Specifically, the reasons I don’t use or recommend it, at least not for larger works.
My main issue with the three-act structure is what defines the second. Simply put, it’s too broad. We know the second act is the longest, and the hardest for the characters. Yet, this is only because conflict is the meat of any story. What is a story without conflict? Both the first and third acts exist to serve the almighty second—the first launches it into the air, and the third catches it, lest it crash and burn upon landing. Though the first and third are important, the second is what carries its passengers from one point to the other.
But how many air travelers trek across the globe in only one trip? Does the plane have enough fuel to fly from New York to Beijing? Do the pilots have the mental and physical fortitude needed to guide such a trip safely? How many travelers have the patience for such a long journey?
Such is the problem with the monolithic second act. When we define the second act as the central conflict, with little in the way of variety or change, it can become drawn-out and tiresome, especially if handled poorly.
Generally, when we find our protagonists have reached a point of no return around the start of their journey, the first act has ended, and the second has begun. But I put it to you that longer stories, if they wish to stay vibrant and active throughout, need more than one point of no return that the characters should cross. In other words, they need more than one second act.
This is not a novel concept. The idea of a five-act structure goes back even longer than Shakespeare, who used it well in his own plays, and the three-act structure has been criticized by people with better credentials and knowledge than myself.
Personally, I haven’t found it useful to limit myself to a certain number of acts. I find it easier to have my beginning and my end established first, then plot out the points in between, with the lines connecting them drawn by the characters and setting, letting the points change if I find them incompatible in their current state. I would say my latest novel contains five acts—or, if you prefer analyzing plot structure through a three-act lens, a second act divided into three parts—and I have yet to hear complaints about the flow or structure.
There are rare times when I find it beneficial to go against conventional wisdom in writing. This is one of them. When you’re writing a novel, and find the conflict too drawn-out, or the pacing too slow, consider dividing your second act into parts, or even abandoning the three-act paradigm altogether. It helped me. It might help you, too.
Thanks for listening,
p.s. check out my website at https://igorvalec.com