Writing Fundamentals Part 3

Here is the final part of my Comic Con writing seminar recap.

Three acts, what are they?

The structure that best serves the average story is the so called “three act structure”. What is that? The simplest definition is a beginning, middle and end.

The first act introduces the main characters, the scenario and gets the ball rolling.

The second act is what they call the rising conflicts stage. What happens in the second act is that the hero tries to get what they want (or prevent the loss of something they have) and every attempt they make is thwarted at each turn. The further into the story, the harder it gets for them. Of course, this is a simplification because many stories are not about obvious struggles. Some of them are more subtle. But this is essentially what happens in the second act. Lots of conflict and struggle.

The third act is the resolution. It tends to be the shortest act. It is where everything builds to a head. Where the hero and villain clash in their final battle and one comes out the winner and the other is defeated. If it were a comedy or romance, the climax could be a different kind of resolution, but it is symbolically the same.

Let’s break it down further.

Act One: Set up, Inciting Incident

The first act usually starts off with the protagonist at some stage of their life, in it’s fairly normal state. They are going along, doing their thing. We are introduced to the people around them that play a part in the story and the premise is introduced here.

For example, let’s take the first Spiderman movie. Peter Parker is a geeky high school student who wants the girls but they ignore him. He’s picked on by bullies. He lives with his loving aunt and uncle in the suburbs. He is interested in science. He longs for his neighbor, Mary Jane who doesn’t even notice he’s there.

So we’ve established who our hero is at the start of the story. We established he wants a girl out of his league. Peter would like more respect. Peter wants to be taken seriously. But at least he has people who care about him in his life. His interest in science plays an important role later. So it’s established here for a good reason.

His best friend is introduced, Harry Osborn is the son of a rich industrialist Norman Osborne who becomes our villain, the Green Goblin. At this point, Parker is not a threat to Norman. They seem to get along fine. But now we get to the point where the first act ends. What they call the Inciting incident.

The inciting incident is an event that throws everything out of whack. It is a surprising turn in the story that sets things in motion. In the film, Peter Parker is bit by a radio active spider. He gets superpowers. His superpowers have him decide to get famous by going to a wrestling match. He has his Uncle Ben give him a ride. At the match, a criminal steals the prize money and Parker lets him go because he’s mad at the event organizer. But that criminal ends up killing Peter’s Uncle. Now Parker’s life is in turmoil. The guilt and rage he experiences sets him on the course to become Spiderman. And in becoming Spiderman, he is in direct conflict with Normal Osborne who wants a certain kind of glory of his own.

The inciting incident always ends the first act and sets the story in motion. The hero and villain become in opposition at this point. Generally, this should happen no more than a quarter of the way into a story. You need to have your main characters introduced, the ground rules set and the story set in motion.

If we were talking about the first issue of a comic book series, unless that was a self contained story, that issue would be part of an over all story broken up by however many issues. But you should have a kind of act structure even in that case. Acts are like mini-stories in a sense. They have a beginning, middle and climax which is the inciting incident.

Act Two: Conflict, Turning Point

This is the meat of your story. Here is where your hero is tested again and again as he/she tries for that brass ring only to be thwarted time and time again. The antagonist seems to always be one step ahead or have the upper hand. The hero seems to make progress only to be in more danger the closer he/she gets to their goal. Now, second acts are played out lots of ways. Danger may not be literal, as in the case of the thriller. In a Romance story, for example, the heroine might encounter one frustrating thing after another about the man she couldn’t stand in the beginning of the story only to fall in love with him in the end. Here we have a case of someone wanting love and not really knowing it until it finds them. In a classic heroic struggle like the Spiderman movie we mentioned, Peter Parker discovers who the Green Goblin is, but the matter is complicated by the fact he’s his best friend’s dad and Parker doesn’t want Osborne to suspect he’s Spiderman. But eventually the wheels come off the cart. The turning point of the story is the end of the Second act. It throws the characters together into the final conflict of the story. It’s a do or die moment. Turning points happen when all other options have been exhausted and the final conflict will decide who wins of dies, as it were.

In a Romance story, maybe the guy is the antagonist but he loses by coming under the heroine’s romantic spell and falls in love. In an action story, the hero defeats the villain utterly. The turning point isn’t the climax. That goes in the third act. The turning point is the event that propels things toward the climax. In the case of the Spiderman movie, the Green Goblin (Osborn) has captured Mary Jane, Peter Parker’s love interest, and is going to kill her unless he fights him on the Brooklyn Bridge. This final battle will decide who walks away. Either a madman can continue to destroy innocent lives or Spiderman saves his girlfriend and the city. The choice Parker makes to take on the Goblin in this last battle is the turning point.

Act Three: Climax, Resolution

The climax of the story is where everything that happened before was building up to this. How powerful your climax is depends on how well you constructed the events leading to this point. Remember what I said about the story being an argument. If your “debate” was impassioned and had lots of great give and take, the climax will feel strong. If it was a boring conversation with the audience, your climax will be dull. Think of the climax in the sexual sense. You either had great sex leading to this point or not. If not, why?

This is your story. You are its creator. You have the power to make worlds, and people and things happen. It’s up to you to make this come about in an exciting way.

The climax is call that for a simple reason: like a climax, when it’s over you just want to wind it down. When the final conflict happens you want to tied up the story quickly. Because at that point, people start getting ready to leave the theater, as it were. You can make the final moments interesting, but you don’t want to drag them out. Your readers should have been put through an emotional wringer and you want to leave them with a sense of closure here.

The ending is 60% or more important than the rest of the story

The ending of a story is the most important part of it. The reason is simple. This is what people will remember the most if the story worked.

Everything in your story leads to that ending. And if the ending is not memorable or satisfying, people will come away thinking your story was weak. Think of all the good movies or books you read that were entertaining but the ending let you down. People do not recommend stories with bad endings. They are dismissed as second rate, if that.

You can write a very entertaining yarn but if the pay off is weak, the story will feel like a cheat. And people do not like to be cheated or have their time wasted.

You aren’t only asking for people’s money when you write a story, you are asking for their time and trust. You owe it to them to give them their money’s worth. Otherwise, why should they trust you again?

This series was based on a one hour workshop I gave at the 2010 San Diego Comic Con. I spoke for 45 minutes then answered questions. Like the class, I was only skimming over some important points. I will go into more detail in my book which I am in the process of finishing now. Check my essays for more excerpts from my writing lessons.

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One Comment

  1. I attended your writing panel at SDCCI and I wanted to say “thank you” for posting it here (I found it very comprehensive and educational). During the workshop, you mentioned listing some of the writing books you found helpful. I hope that you can mention those books when you have a moment.

    Thanks again!

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