Back in July, Film Crit Hulk posted this discourse on the utter uselessness of three-act structure. In case you’re not already familiar with three-act structure, it’s an approach often recommended as a key tool for writing, especially with screenplays.
The version of three-act structure Hulk takes apart in his post (“setup, rising action, resolution”) is indeed pretty useless–but it’s not useless because three-act structure is trash: it’s useless because it’s been oversimplified to the point of being hopelessly vague.
Three-act structure certainly isn’t something a successful writer needs to follow, but it can be a hugely useful tool if used properly.
In effective three-act structure (says me), the first act constitutes pitting the character against the conflict. Generally speaking, the incident that defines the transition from Act I to Act II is the protagonist committing to taking on the central problem; before that there’s resistance, avoidance, lack of understanding, etc. Simultaneously, you introduce the reader/viewer to the protagonist and the protagonist’s world. Referring to it as “setup” is trouble, because that sounds like you’re supposed to dump a bunch of background information or move characters uninterestingly into position.
Act II starts with the protagonist doing something to join the action, which usually means actively striving to make the situation better. Act II comprises repeated attempts by the protagonist to resolve the central story problem, usually resulting in disasters that up the stakes (hence “rising action,” though “rising action” makes it sound like it’s supposed to be some kind of an upward slope rather than a cycle that gets bigger each time through). I agree with Hulk that the movie Green Lantern sucks on this count, as Hal in the movie is reactive to circumstances instead of proactively trying to do something. It’s much more interesting to watch a character push to try to accomplish something–even (or perhaps especially) if that something is ill-considered–than it is to watch the character get hit with a bunch of plot developments and not do anything meaningful about them.
Act II ends with the introduction of the final gambit: this is where the protagonist commits to an all-or-nothing bid to make the thing happen. Thus Act III is the character trying to make that last plan work and probably having to adjust or reframe right in the middle of it (since if everything works as planned, it’s kinda boring).
Hulk points out that Shakespeare wrote in five acts, but Shakespeare’s stories can also be considered in the light of real three act structure. The turning point between the first and second acts is where Romeo leaps the orchard fence prior to the balcony scene (Act II, scene 1), after which the two lovers commit to each other despite their families’ enmities. They struggle to be together, marry, have their moment of love, and Romeo has his run-in with Tybalt throughout the second act.
Act III is the desperate gambit, Juliet’s plan to fake her death and how that pans out (Act IV, scene 1). Note that Shakespeare puts act breaks in both these places.
If you’re concerned that three-act structure is formulaic, I’d suggest that you can ease your mind. Three-act structure is a set of ideas about tension and satisfaction that suggest a way to structure a story. You can’t simply plug in details to get a good story: good writing always takes craft and artistry, regardless of whether it’s on a framework.
Not every good story fits three-act structure. However, it’s a very widespread and successful approach to story writing if properly understood. It has certainly been useful to me!
By the way, I later followed up this post with an additional one: Three-Act Structure: Answers to All Your Questions.