Browsing the archives for the tension tag.
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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.


Overcoming Temptation: Begin by Relaxing

States of mind

The image we get of temptation is of something that’s itching for a fight. We tend to talk about temptation as something that we have to resist or give in to, if we don’t steer clear of it in the first place. How accurate is this? Is struggling with temptation the best way to get past it?

In a post a while back, I described successful willpower as thinking more about the right things and less about the wrong things. One inevitable side effect of fighting something is that we think about it more. The more we fight temptation head on, the more we’re giving our attention to it. In other words, locking horns with temptation makes the temptation more powerful. That doesn’t mean we can never win out in this way, but it does mean that fighting isn’t always going to be the most efficient or successful process. (I say more about the problem of resisting in the article “Resistance Really Is Useless: Why Willpower Isn’t About Fighting Ourselves.”)

One of the alternatives is to focus your attention elsewhere. You see a doughnut; the doughnut calls to you; and you respond by grabbing a novel that you’ve been reading. Within a few minutes, your head is deep in the book, and the doughnut has retreated.

But there’s also a simpler and more educational option, which is to relax and observe. When we’re tempted by things that we’re aware wouldn’t be in our best interests, we can consciously take a deep breath, reorient, and begin to examine our own thoughts and emotions. Why did the thing seem so tempting? Is there something else causing anxiety or sadness or frustration, something that encouraged acting out? Is there a particular broken idea playing in a mental loop?

By consciously relaxing and letting the tension go–whether by using meditation techniques, visualizing a peaceful place, counting to ten, talking ourselves down, or any other simple relaxation method–the urgency and sharpness of the temptation immediately lessen. In this environment it’s much easier to talk simple sense to ourselves and move on without having to avoid or battle temptation. Instead, we let temptation float up and drift away like letting go of a balloon.

Like yesterday’s tip about putting an undesired behavior off for a little while, this approach isn’t radical, difficult, or necessarily life-changing all alone–but it does show temptation in an entirely different light, as a state that we can get ourselves worked up into instead of something external that moves in and threatens us. As we recognize the amount of influence we have over our own states of mind, we begin to find more tools for changing our minds and more options for being the people we choose to be.

Photo by against the tide

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