Browsing the archives for the action tag.
Subscribe via RSS or e-mail      

Three Act Structure: Essential Framework or Load of Hooey?


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.

Act I
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
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).

Five acts?
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.


Knowing It Isn’t the Same as Doing It


Here’s an error I’ve made a lot over the years: thinking that just because I know how to deal with something, I have that thing taken care of.

For instance, I know how to use idea repair to deal with negative emotions, and I’ve practiced it so much that a lot of the time, I catch broken ideas as they’re emerging and nip them in the bud. But when I don’t do that, it becomes necessary to take further steps: I would need to sit down and very deliberately go through the process, following the steps:

  1. What am I telling myself?
  2. Are there broken ideas in that?
  3. What kinds of broken ideas are they?
  4. How do I restate them, repaired?

And do I do that? Do I go through all those steps? Sometimes, absolutely. Other times, if I’m not paying attention, I might brush it off, saying to myself “Well, I know a lot about this kind of thing, so I can surely handle it.”

Uh … I can? Without actually doing anything about it? Not really.

So that’s the problem. Sometimes it feels like knowing how to deal with something makes it unnecessary to do the grunt work to actually deal with it–and that just ain’t so. Ironically, as a good illustration, knowing this (see “Knowing Isn’t Enough: The 4 Steps Between Knowledge and Action“) hasn’t necessarily kept me focusing on the steps I need to take for the knowledge to work rather than just relying on having the knowledge.

So what will I do differently going forward? I’ll put more attention on cultivating awareness of how well I’m following through on what I know. Interestingly, while just having knowledge doesn’t necessarily solve any problems, awareness–being mindful, that is–sometimes does automatically solve problems. If we are aware of our goals, have the knowledge to pursue them, and notice when it’s time to put that knowledge into action, we often take that action, barring other kinds of obstacles or hang-ups. So just knowing how to use idea repair won’t help me, but being aware of when it’s time to put it into use and of the necessity to take the specific steps will get me using it. (For instance, see “A Very Clear Example of the Power of Awareness.”)

For the next little while, the slogan I’ll focus on (seriously: I just taped it to the wall and am rehearsing it in my head) will be “Are you taking the steps?

Photo by Joe Gatling

No Comments

Which Comes First: Motivation or Action?

Strategies and goals

The only seemingly logical way to think about self-motivation is that it’s something we need to have to be able to act the way we desire, yet the two can really come in either order. The exciting thing about this (at least if, like me, you get excited about ideas that can give you a leg up on improving your life) is the realization that it’s sometimes possible to do the right thing, even if it’s difficult, without being motivated first. The accomplishment then often produces a sense of satisfaction or well-being that creates motivation for doing more going forward.

Action before motivation
Here are some examples of ways to act before being motivated:

  • Focus on the moment-to-moment steps without thinking too much about the overall intent. For instance, if you want to go out running but are having trouble getting motivated, think about changing into your running clothes, tying your shoes, opening the door, etc. rather than starting a conversation with yourself about whether or not you feel like running.
  • Take part in a group where following along means you’re doing something you want to do. Go to a group study party instead of procrastinating that paper you need to research (but don’t let yourself be a distraction to your friends or vice-versa); join a support group; or get the whole family doing chores at once.
  • Make a bridge to what you want to do by tackling easy preliminaries. For instance, you may not like filing but be fine with sorting papers. If so, you can start with the painless task of sorting. When your office is full of piles of carefully-sorted papers, filing becomes both easier and kind of necessary. (Better yet, adopt a system that lets you keep control of your paperwork all the time. I’d particularly recommend the one described in Dave Allen’s Getting Things Done.)

Motivation before action
As useful as the “action before motivation” approach can be, motivation before action also works well, and is sometimes the a more useful way to go. The key with this is to focus at first not on the task you want to accomplish, but on the much simpler task of getting yourself motivated. Here are some articles that can help provide that initial motivational boost:

Photo by kaneda99

1 Comment

Learn It Again, Sam

The human mind

If you’ve read many articles on this site, you’ve probably noticed that every once in a while I come back to talk about the same subject from a different perspective. There are a few reasons for this, and they’re the same reasons that learning the same thing more than once can be valuable in almost any situation where you really want it to sink it.

First, effective learning usually requires repetition over time, as I discuss in Improving Motivation Through Better Memory and Learning, delving briefly into points brought up by neuropsychologist John Medina in his book Brain Rules.

Second, getting a new look at something heard before offers a new perspective to facilitate understanding it.

Third, that same new perspective (as well as the new situation in which you’re learning) makes it possible to develop more and different neural connections to that idea, increasing mental mastery of it.

Fourth, revisiting a useful piece of knowledge creates a reminder that the knowledge is available and increases the chance that we’ll use it. And as also discussed in my learning article mentioned above, using knowledge is one of the most effective ways to fix it in memory.

That extra opportunity to use the idea is particularly important because knowledge alone is not enough to reap us the benefits of an idea, even an idea about our own behavior. It’s easy to pick up a new piece of knowledge and imagine that it will be life-changing, only to have it fade away without ever having made an impact. The impact, of course, comes only from actively using the idea–for learning purposes, the more often the better.

Photo by khowaga1

No Comments

Tools for Feeling Better, Part II

Handling negative emotions


In a recent article, I began listing some of the most useful ways I know to get back on track when feeling bad, including idea repair, mindfulness, meditation, understanding schemas, and emotional antidotes. Today’s article forges ahead with 4 more tools for feeling happier and improving mood.

Flow: “Flow” is psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmilhalyi’s term for a state in which a person is concentrating intently, performing at their highest level of ability, and completely swept up in what they’re doing. It’s a very enjoyable and productive mode of being, and successfully bulldozes bad moods. My article “Flow: What It Feels Like to Be Perfectly Motivated” describes flow, and “Some Steps for Getting into a State of Flow” provides techniques for achieving it.

Exercise: Exercise often gets a bad rap as being tedious, unpleasant, and a disappointing necessity for people trying to lose weight or obsessed with fitness. The truth is that exercise is not only a way to improve fitness but also a powerful means of improving mood: read “Nothing to Do With Weight Loss: 17 Ways Exercise Promotes Willpower and Motivation” to find out more.

Just starting: A person in a bad mood with a task in front of them that could improve things often won’t do that task because when they imagine doing it, they don’t imagine feeling happier. A large part of the reason for this is something called “mood congruity,” a tendency our brains have to assume that we will always feel more or less as we do now. When we’re happy it’s hard to imagine really feeling bad, and vice-versa. Just getting started on something that could improve mood by making progress on a goal, getting into a social situation, moving around, creating a change of scene, etc. can push us over into a place where feeling better begins to seem not so distant. If you’ve ever started doing something you didn’t think you would enjoy and began to have a lot of fun, you’ve experienced the power of just starting (despite not feeling inclined to at first).

Writing or Talking it Out: Writing out thoughts, concerns, possible solutions, and possible results can go a long way toward clearing the mind and providing reasons to feel better. An intensive process of logging the details of each choice you make, Decision Logging, can provide a lot of insight into what’s going on in a person’s mind as well as immediate opportunities for rethinking things. Writing down progress, self-evaluation, and plans for the future creates a feedback loop. Free writing or keeping a journal can provide an outlet for pent-up emotions while creating clarity. Or instead of writing about what’s going on with you or how you feel, you could connect with a sympathetic and supportive friend, family member, romantic partner, or therapist and talk things through.

For more tools, see the other articles in this series: Part I and Part III.

Photo by batega

No Comments

Knowing Isn’t Enough: The 4 Steps Between Knowledge and Action

Strategies and goals

crossingKelly McGonigal recently Tweeted about a British Psychological Society post in which psychologists talk about things they still don’t understand about themselves. It’s really interesting reading, but the particular thing that I connected with was University of Texas psychologist David Buss saying “One nagging thing that I still don’t understand about myself is why I often succumb to well-documented psychological biases, even though I’m acutely aware of these biases … One would think that explicit knowledge of these well-documented psychological biases and years of experience with them would allow a person to cognitively override the biases. But they don’t.”

I know why Buss sometimes fails to act according to things he knows perfectly well, and yet I do the same thing myself, for instance a couple of weeks ago when I had a serious communication breakdown that I later saw wouldn’t have been a problem if I’d  used all of the communication skills I’d been learning for years (see Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High or Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life). Actually, that’s the whole point of this post: just knowing something about how our minds work is not the same thing as using that knowledge.

So what’s the gap between knowing and doing? There are actually four gaps. Lucky for us, none of them is very wide.

1. Noticing opportunities to use the knowledge
The first step is a kind of mindfulness: in order to use, say, a communication skill, I need to be thinking about my communication as I’m doing it so that I can notice, “Hey, here’s a great opportunity to summarize my friend’s concerns!” Mindfulness can be improved with tools like meditation, feedback loops, and decision logging.

2. Understanding how to apply the knowledge
It’s good for me to know that I should try to summarize a person’s concerns back to them, but I need to know more than that abstract idea: I need to know how I go about it, perhaps having a step-by-step method I can use to apply the information I have, or some test I can use on my intended behavior to see if it would fit the information.

3. Surrendering objections
By definition habits are hard to change, and if you’re trying to act a different way, you’re trying to change a habit. Changing habits usually means giving something up, for example pride, less-than-ideal strategies you’ve been using for years, or defensiveness. In my case, if I want to make sure the person I’m talking to knows they’ve been heard and understood, I have to give up the impulse to do a critique of what they just said and instead be willing to understand first, react second. People are much more comfortable hearing someone else’s ideas when they know for sure that their own ideas have already made it across.

4. Making the effort
Putting a piece of knowledge into play requires conscious effort: there’s usually nothing automatic about it. Effort means a decision to devote at least a little bit of time and attention at the right moments to using the knowledge.

In an article on learning and the brain, I talk about how acting on knowledge helps us learn it better. For this article or any piece of knowledge you gain that might be useful, it can make all the difference to use it as soon as possible, several times, both in order to get used to the specific skill and to fix it in your brain. If we don’t go out of our way to bridge the four gaps between information and action–noticing opportunities, understanding how, surrendering objections, and making the effort–then the knowledge isn’t any more useful in our heads than it is left on the page, unread.

Photo by magnusfranklin


%d bloggers like this: