The Structured Acts of the Apostles, by Ben Jeapes
If ever you’re watching a hokey standard issue movie romantic comedy (this is of course a purely theoretical exercise …), and you get to the inevitable scene where boy and girl have a tearful break-up, look at your watch. You now know you are exactly two thirds of the way through and can therefore predict to the minute when the movie will end.
This is because movies like this rigidly follow a three-act structure. Act 1: the heroes indicate dissatisfaction with an established status quo and take action to rectify it; the story could end there with their situation slightly improved, or at least the end being in sight. But then, Act 2: it all goes horribly wrong and they reach their lowest point, worse off than when they began. Finally, Act 3: they rally and fight back, and things end even better than before.
The three-act structure is not the only one available; others may apply. This page on Screencraft.org has a pretty useful summary of other choices used in movies, with examples that you may have seen, though the same ideas can apply to written stories. The point is that a story must have a structure, in some recognisable form. Whatever structure the storyteller uses, it can be done well, or it can be done badly, but it must be done somehow. This is where so many would-be writers come unstuck. Many people think (rightly) that they have an interesting story to tell, and so they sit down and start to write. Then they get bogged down, because any story has to be more than just straight reportage of facts. There must be a sense of purpose that carries you from cover to cover. Scenes must be linked to draw the reader inwards and onwards. Readers don’t read as a favour to writers; writers write as a favour to the readers.
This basic fact of writing can be hard to swallow: your story is so personally yours that you wonder how anyone else can fail to grasp the wonder of it. Or, you may feel that you can’t alter the flow of the story, hide facts or elide scenes because it happened this way, dammit!
Well, be guided by the best. Even though we must remember that the Biblical writers were writing in a very different culture, they knew or sensed that they couldn’t just list chronological facts. A sense of purpose shines through the Gospels, with the authors occasionally even pointing out the links for us (e.g. Luke 9.51), just in case we don’t get it. The Book of Acts, which could so easily have just been a rather dull diary by Luke, is a work of art with its multiple intertwining storylines that all turn out to be going in the same direction: the establishment of the church amongst gentiles.
So, if it’s okay for God-breathed scripture, it’s probably okay for your current work in progress too ...
Great piece! Always helpful to keep aware of structure and where the story's going!ReplyDelete
Good point, Ben, but notoriously hard to realise, as you point out.ReplyDelete
I think structure is one of the hardest things to get right. Fascinating post. Thank you.ReplyDelete
This is brilliant. And I have a crazy idea of wanting to write a screenplay.ReplyDelete
Go for it!Delete
The three act structure! Once you know about it, you see it everywhere. Good advice, Ben. A story can't just be linear. Well it can, but no one will read it!ReplyDelete