How Structure Makes Compelling Stories
Using Structure to Build Compelling Stories
"A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end."
“I took a master class with Billy Wilder once and he said that in the first act of a story you put your character up in a tree and the second act you set the tree on fire and then in the third you get him down.”
Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back Producer Gary Kurtz, LA Times interview
How do compelling stories start? What makes a story compelling?
There are lots of different ways to make your story boring. Starting with description or exposition instead of action are two obvious ones. Action that's unconnected to emotion is another that's less obvious. The initial goal is to engage the readers, to make them care about the events unfolding on the page. Action is critical to doing that, but it's just one item in the author's bag of tricks.
Hitchcock famously said that the audience cares about the characters, while the plot is there to give the characters something to care about. A fundamental purpose of the opening is to make the readers care about the characters, to bring them to life in the readers' imaginations. That means stimulating those imaginations, so the readers become partners in imagining the fictional world.
In the opening, the author should achieve several tasks:
> Establish the protagonist as part of a living, coherent fictional world;Obstacles should include flaws in the protagonist. That sets up the character arc--how the protagonist must grow and change in order to achieve goals.
> Reveal the protagonist's goals;
> Show why those goals matter--establish the stakes;
> Show obstacles that block the protagonist from achieving the goals.
Think about Finding Nemo. The story launches with Marlin losing his wife and all her eggs save one. When Nemo finally hatches, he's got limited ability to swim, so Marlin becomes hyper-protective of his offspring. When he's older, Nemo becomes the typical adolescent: resentful of his parent's rules, whiny, and rebellious. They have conflicting goals, and that's the main obstacle each must overcome. Their loving relationship as parent-child is at risk, which establishes the stakes. Even Nemo's name--"no one" in Latin--illustrates the basic conflict. The movie is about finding an identity for Nemo that reconciles the conflict.
It's essential that your protagonist be a believable human being--someone readers will identify with. He might be annoying and over-protective, but he's acting out of love. Well-rounded characters have foibles and flaws, but exhibit an underlying humanity that makes readers care what happens to them. As Finding Nemo shows, even fish can exhibit values that humans identify with.
Compelling stories start with basic building blocks:
Goals;Tension comes from the conflict between goals and obstacles. The stakes tell the readers why the goals matter. Plot consists of increasing tension by throwing ever-more challenging obstacles at the protagonist and by raising the stakes.
Of course, there's more to plot than that. You have to assemble these basic elements in a coherent way. Tom Clancy said that fiction is different from reality because fiction has to make sense. Adding structure to your story is one way to add this coherence that also helps to reinforce goals, stakes, and obstacles.
Humans have had thousands of years to discover techniques for building compelling stories. There are many possible structures to apply to fiction. Despite what you might read, no single approach is appropriate for all authors nor all novels.
This essay is about the "three act" structure, which has roots going all the way back to Aristotle. It is simple, easy to apply, and sufficiently flexible that it subsumes many other more complex approaches. The structure is more than just beginning-middle-end. Each part has elements that build compelling narrative.
Three act structure
The first act establishes the main characters, their relationships, and the baseline world in which they live. We learn the fundamentals about the protagonist. In particular, Act I establishes goals, weaknesses, strengths, stakes, and obstacles. The first act is the foundation for the protagonist's character arc.
The first act usually ends with a disaster--a precipitating incident that forces the protagonist to make a decision. There can and should be conflict prior to this disaster. But what distinguishes disaster from mere conflict is that it forces the protagonist to depart from the normal world and venture into a new reality, one that risks everything. Some people will place this at the start of Act II and call it the complication. Whether it's at the end of Act I or the start of Act II is irrelevant, of course. It's the first turning point in the story.
In some ways, it's correct to think of Act I as being "exposition." It's a mistake, however, to think this relieves the author of the requirement to show rather than tell.
Consider Finding Nemo. We see, through the words and deeds of the fish, swimming in the comfortable reality of their reef, the over-protective father, Marlin, and the immature Nemo. The opening scenes are full of drama and conflict between these two, revealing the strengths and weaknesses of both characters. The precipitating incident happens, of course, when the scuba divers kidnap Nemo.
This is the most important Act, where most of the drama occurs. Following the precipitating event, the protagonist faces an ever-expanding series of obstacles. Successes turn to failures. The protagonist gains allies in his or her quest to achieve the goals. The stakes go up, too.
Often there is a disaster at the middle of Act II, a major setback that unsettles the protagonist's world-view and forces him to rethink the world. This re-thinking will lead to further obstacles and tension, and often involves an error by the protagonist that comes back to haunt him.
At the end of Act II, there's another disaster that appears to be a defeat. The protagonist's plans have failed and all is lost. This tests the mettle of the protagonist: survive and continue, or give up. Once again, the disaster compels a decision. Of course, the decision is to continue, since otherwise there's no story. That inevitably leads to more obstacles, increases stakes, and thus tension, setting up the climax.
In Finding Nemo, the story bifurcates into two, inter-related, three act plays. In one, we have Marlin and Dory, his new ally, surmounting an ever-increasing set of obstacles in their search for Nemo. In the other, Nemo acquires allies in the Tank Gang in the Dentist's office, where he encounters similar obstacles. In both, the stakes increase along with the obstacles. The middle disaster for Nemo is after his failure to jam the tanks's filter, while for Marlin it's near-death in the jellyfish encounter. The final disaster occurs at the false climax when Nemo plays dead and Marlin thinks he really is dead. Act II then ends in hopelessness, as all appears lost.
This is where the subplots come together and are resolved. The climax takes place, the protagonist overcomes the obstacles, and achieves the goals. The character arcs resolve as well--the characters have changed in ways necessary to achieve their goals. At the end, they return to the baseline world, bringing their hard-fought wisdom with them.
Perceptive readers will recognize the fundamental elements of the hero's journey, brilliantly described in Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces. This is the fundamental character arc of Darth Vader in the nine Star Wars movies, or of Luke Skywalker in episodes IV-VI. A proper hero's journey has many more detailed features, but in broad outline it's a three act play. Like I said, this structure is everywhere.
In Finding Nemo, the climax occurs when Nemo saves Dory from the fishing net. Nemo shows maturity through leadership, courage, and self-sacrifice. Marlin lets Nemo be his own fish instead of being over-protective. Both have closed their character arcs. At the end, they are back together again, having brought their hard-won lessons back to the reef.
Once you look, the basic structure is everywhere. Chekhov, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Fitzgerald all have major works using this format. Stephen J. Cannel goes so far to state that, "Every great movie, book or play that has stood the test of time has a solid Three-Act structure." (http://www.writerswrite.com/screenwriting/lecture4.htm)
Notice that there are variations of the structure, as well. The elements might not always be present, for example, but the beginning-middle-end structure, the precipitating event, and the all-is-lost disaster at the end of Act II always are. For example, in Eric Segal's Love Story and in Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, the protagonist fails to achieve his goals. In the Hemingway story, no allies appear to help Santiago in his battle with the marlin, nor later with the sharks. However, in both stories, the protagonist returns to the baseline world changed and wiser for their quest.
To solidify these ideas, let's consider two more examples from popular culture.
North by Northwest
In Act I, we meet Roger Thornhill in his baseline world. He's a many-times married, high-pressure, New York advertising executive--someone who creates reality. But thugs mistake him for a spy named George Kaplan and kidnap him. We meet his lawyer, his mother, his business associates, and his staff assistant in the opening sequences, all establishing him as a person of power in the baseline world. The act ends when disaster strikes: the thugs frame him for a murder at the United Nations. He must decide to turn himself in or run. He runs.
Act II places him on a train, symbolically leaving the baseline world for the world of the quest. His goal is to clear his name and return to his position of power. He acquires an ally and lover, Eve Kendall. He meets and overcomes several obstacles, each worse than the last, and each more directly threatening to his life. A mid-act disaster occurs when he discovers his erstwhile ally and lover is in thrall with the thugs, led by the urbane Phillip Van Damm (a perfect name for a villain). As with the first disaster, he must decide what to do about it, and he determines to confront her. This just leads to another obstacle to overcome.
The final disaster occurs when Thornhill learns that he's been playing a role in a government-created fantasy. Kendall is really a double agent who has risked her life for him and for her country. He's confronted with a decision: whether or not risk his own life to help her. He's been a bit of a cad up until now--pushy, flip, even stealing cabs from "normal" people.He regrets his earlier confrontation, which placed her in danger. Now he has to decide to risk personal safety to help someone he loves. The sacrifice destroys his personal power and desire to build a life with her, so his plans and desires are now hopeless.
The other obstacles he's faced since the first disaster don't force a decision. It's the hallmark of a disaster is that he must decide what to do next. Of course, he decides to help. Otherwise there's no story.
Act III shows Thornhill's faked death, the rescue of Kendall at Van Damm's mansion, and the ultimate climax on Mount Rushmore. The ending segues to Thornhill and Kendall on the train, married, heading east and back to the baseline world. The final shot is the train entering a tunnel, with the obvious sexual innuendo and the implication that this time Thornhill's marriage will last.
One of the interesting features of this plot is the degree to which goals and stakes are ephemeral, even incredible. What the spies are after is "some documents," the perfect Hitchcock Maguffin. The romance between Thornhill and Kendall is carried on the shoulders of the actors, the costumers, the cinematographer, and the score and certainly not by the script. What is clear is that Hitchcock used all the tricks he knew to make the audience care about Thornhill, Kendall, and their relationship. Excuse me--he used techniques, not tricks. A technique is a trick you can use more than once, and Hitchcock had refined these techniques through dozens of movies.
In any case, the three act structure is fully on display.
The Wizard of Oz
There are many differences between the book and the movie. Some are trivial--Dorothy wears silver shoes in the book, for example. Others are more fundamental--in the book, Oz is a real place, while in the movie it's Dorothy's dream. Some changes are due to time considerations--the back stories to the Scarecrow and the Tin Man are absent from the movie, for example. Others personalize Dorothy's travails--the Wicked Witch of the West is a relatively minor character in the book, appearing in only three chapters. In at least one case, the movie version connects the plot to Dorothy's character arc. Whether this is an improvement or not I'll leave to purists to argue.
Despite the differences, almost all the elements of the three act structure are the same in both the book and the movie. I'll try to note the differences in the outline below.
In Act I, we meet Dorothy at home with her family, in Kansas. This establishes her in the baseline world. Probably the most significant difference between the book and the movie, at least from a plotting perspective, is that in the book Dorothy is pretty much content with the flat, gray baseline world. In the movie, Dorothy longs for something better, something "over the rainbow." This establishes her goal. Another difference is that in movie the mean-spirited Miss Gulch threatens to have Toto put to sleep. There is no such character and hence no similar threat in the book. This threat establishes stakes for Dorothy's desire.
Of course, the precipitating incident is the tornado, which whisks Dorothy and Toto off to Oz. In the movie but not the book, she observes that they are "not in Kansas anymore." This line is so memorable precisely because it marks the transition from the baseline to the new world of danger. Of course, the movie also transitions from sepia tones to Technicolor at the same time. As a personal aside, I grew up watching the movie on a black-and-white television. The first time I saw it in color, I was over thirty and watching with my daughter. I was mesmerized by this transition.
In Act II, Dorothy acquires a new goal--to go home. Of course, this is a reversal of the goal established in Act I in the movie. She actually has gone "over the rainbow," and it's a scary place. This reversal of goals, instead of adding cognitive dissonance, increases the dramatic tension. The action is fast enough--especially in the movie--that the audience doesn't have time to see the contradiction. Dorothy's character arc is now firmly connected to the plot: she has to realize "there's no place like home" in order to escape the dangers of Oz. She will have to give up--or least modify--her desire to leave Kansas in order to save herself.
In Act II, Dorothy and her new allies encounter many obstacles. Their plan is a simple one: make it to the Emerald City where the Wizard will send her back to Kansas. There are differences in details between the book and the movie regarding the specifics of the challenges in Act II, but these are not especially relevant to the basic plot structure.
There's a crisis/false victory in Act II of the movie in the confrontation with the Wicked Witch of the West. When Dorothy splashes her with water and thus destroys her, the main obstacle to the plan's success vanishes. The way is now clear to enter the Emerald City and seek the Wizard's help. This turning point in the book is slightly different--see below.
The disaster at the end of Act II comes when the veil falls from the Wizard and Dorothy learns he's a fake. She's realized the plan that's been driving events in Act II, and it's an utter failure. This, of course, sets up Act III.
In Act III, the Wizard agrees to return Dorothy to Kansas in his balloon. But as he's leaving, Toto runs away and Dorothy chases after, thus missing the balloon ride. Glenda appears, tells Dorothy she's always had the power to return home. Dorothy clicks her heels, and flashes back to Kansas, changed by her experiences. She now appreciates home and family as never before.
The ending in the book is somewhat different. The Act II-ending disaster occurs when Dorothy misses the balloon. She has further adventures to reach Glenda, where she at last learns to click her heels. The basic three-act structure is still there, but the final turning points are slightly different.
In some ways, the movie plot introduces some inconsistencies not present in the novel. Most notably, in the movie, the first person Dorothy meets is Glenda, who tells her to go to the Wizard for help. Why would Glenda do that if Dorothy had the power all along to go home just by clicking her heels? The movie also leaves out back story and details that a novelist has room to add. The nature of the Golden Cap and its hold on the flying monkeys, or the role of the Queen of the Field Mice at the poppy field are both absent from the movie.
Because a screenplay is generally less than 120 pages--each page of script translates to roughly one minute on screen--the screenwriter has more constraints than the novelist. The novelist can add depth with subplots and minor characters that only splash briefly across the screen in a movie.
One challenge with the three-act structure is that it places most of the dramatic action in Act II but doesn't provide much structure beyond "rising action" for this critical part of the story. For this reason, despite all the action, second acts can sometimes drag. There are various ways to avoid this, such as the mid-act crisis, or a false victory, or some other twist like an unexpected betrayal. The "middle muddle" is a well-established difficulty many authors face. Working around it is a topic for another essay.
Compelling stories don't just happen. Authors build them, in the same way architects construct things. There are the basic building blocks--characters, goals, obstacles, and stakes. But stories, like buildings, will fall apart without structure and planning.
Should every story use the three act structure? Of course not. Should every author know about it? I'd say the answer to that is yes. An architect can't be successful without knowing how materials like bricks, steel, concrete and glass work together. Architects as diverse Louis Kahn, I.M. Pei, and Frank Ghery all work with structural basics to produce marvelously diverse buildings. The same is true for authors.
Compelling stories come from compelling structure. Pay attention to structure, whether it's the three act play or something else, and your stories will be stronger and more memorable.
Acknowledgement: I am indebted to members of the "Pro-Novelist's Group Message Forum" who provided many suggestions that made this essay better. Any errors or failings, of course, remain my own.
Read more essays on writing by Max at
"Thoughts on Writing"