How important is the Three-Act Structure?
If you have been following my journey on Twitter today you will know that I decided to compare how closely (or not) my first draft is to the classic Three-Act Story Structure.
Whilst there is no strict rule that dictates that one must adhere to this structure, as a first-time author who is very much learning the ropes, I wondered if it makes sense to keep with long-established methods. My goal is to write a book that will stand up reasonably well as a piece of commercial fiction. Using tools and approaches that are used regularly by successful authors seems darn sensible.
I read a detailed overview of the Three-Act Structure on the Writer’s Edit web site here. It made sense, especially with the Hunger Games story flow as an example. I decided to take my current manuscript apart and try to see how my chapter content focus and flow matched up. I cut and pasted the chapter by chapter, block by block explanation from the Writer’s Edit article and then pasted an overview of each of my chapters alongside that to compare.
My initial conclusion was that my story structure diverted quite significantly from the ‘classic’ structure. Was this a problem, I wondered? My ‘inciting incident happens in Chapter 1, for instance. Actually, it has already happened and is being retrospectively recalled by a key protagonist. That deviates hugely from the Three-Act Structure, which tells us that we should introduce the ‘hero’ and their world first. I was worried. Was my entire story in need of a complete re-engineering?
Putting that aside, the process opened up a few things to me that had not been apparent.
Firstly, I had not one but three stories that are all intertwined. I had always described the story as a ‘bunch of interconnected events’ but by going through this process, I was immediately able to see three core threads. That realisation now allows me to really hone and perfect each. I can really focus on the characters that are involved, their driving-forces and their actions in a way that I could not have done (or, at least, was not doing) before.
Secondly, and more significantly, I realised that the character I had described as my key protagonist/hero, was actually a little less important to the overall story, Instead, it is his (eventual) love interest that is actually the core character, and heroine of the story.
All in all, this was a clear case of not being able to see the woods for the trees and I am glad that I did the exercise. I have re-ordered my chapter sequencing, merged some chapters and also tightened several key plot points in the process. I now feel that I have an extremely strong story outline which will serve me well in completing the full first draft.
I have now found articles that are as compelling in their assertion that one should not stick to a strict Three-Act Structure at all. My conclusion is that whilst drawing upon accepted conventions might seem to maximise the success of my project, ultimately it is the story, the characters in it and my ability to bring these to life that matters most. That is all down to me not some magic formula.
That will be all down to me, not some ‘magic formula’ for story structure.