The Ubiquitous Three Acts: A Marriage of Chaos and Construct

So in our previous two discussions (here and here) we have seen that form is an immensely complex and fluid concept, but at its core may simply be a multifaceted way of telling the same story over and over again.

A scan of popular and historical forms reveals certain trends in the way we construct narratives, not only within discrete societal frameworks and but across all cultures and eras. But is that the whole story of story?

Of course not.

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Deconstructionism

Following on from Frye’s and Campbell’s notions of literary structure based on cyclical mythic forms we see the inevitable counter-movement developing in the French philosophers of the 60s and 70s. Jacques Derrida is often attributed as the instigator of Deconstructionism, which started out as a philosophical and literary exercise and went on to influence many forms of art and social sciences.

Derrida delivered a lecture at Johns Hopkins University in 1966 entitled Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences which is often cited as spreading post-structuralist thinking outside of France. He elaborated on those central ideas in his seminal work Of Grammatology in 1967.

Thus Post-Structuralism evolved out of deconstructionist thinking to become the umbrella term for it and other associated theories. Michel Foucault is often referred to as a central post-structuralist, though he himself denied the classification.

Unsurprisingly, deconstructionism evolved into metaphysics and existential philosophies, which themselves emphasise the great unknowability of life, and therefore art.

In a nutshell:

  • People are too infinitely variable to subscribe to any central notion of how a text is received or how the central message is conveyed.
  • The interpretation of a text is influenced by far more than simply the content and form of the text.
  • The message and meaning of a text can be undermined by or run counter-intuitive to the author’s intended ideas shaped by content, form and structure.
  • Pursuing meaning in a text ultimately exposes its contradictions and internal oppositions.
  • Texts and stories are irreducibly complex and unstable.
  • By definition, no text’s meaning can ever be completely known.
  • Fundamentally, humans are too unstable to ever be studied or understood in a complete way, and as it is never possible to escape the structures we find ourselves in, it is therefore not possible to examine them from an external perspective.

In summary, Derrida’s theories propose that the labyrinth can never be fully known because humans are infinitely variable, and as long as we are inside the labyrinth itself we will never be able to critically examine it from an external perspective.

On the surface it may seem that deconstructionism contradicts structuralist thinking, but in reality these two schools of thought form two opposite perspectives from which to view textual meaning and human interpretation. Indeed it quickly becomes clear that both concepts bring to the table essential ways of examining art. So we come to see that while the labyrinth is thoroughly known, it is also thoroughly unknowable.

The three-act journey

Post-structuralism, while immensely fun, does not help us much in our thoughts about form and narrative structure. And through the 80s and 90s, when movie blockbusters became a central part of social culture and the telling of global stories spread far beyond literary texts, we see the emergence of a trend in story-telling based on the twin successes of cultural popularity and audience understanding: the good ol’ three-act structure.

Most people are familiar with the notion of beginning, middle and end. There is a set-up, a development and a conclusion. This notion is basic, if not universal. Why? Well, it seems at its most fundamental to parallel life itself, and that’s a philosophical question for another day. It is so inescapable that you will find even the most non-linear and abstract of narratives will inevitably follow this three-act formation in some way.

This is where applications of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth become incredibly useful in defining structure. Essentially, the three-act structure is approximately twenty-five percent set-up (Act 1), fifty percent development (Act 2) and a final twenty-five percent of climax and resolution. Of course these ratios can be stretched and modified, but this division forms a stable basis for a well-structured story. The second act is then often broken into two halves, the first establishing the decline of the hero’s former state and the second accelerating the transformation by increasing risk and upping conflict, building into the inevitable climax. The resultant four quarters are broken up by three turning points, which often work as a palindrome in terms of character agency, with the second turning point (the mid-point) serving as a reversal of the first turning point decision, and so on.

When compared with the cyclical graphs of the monomyth, it becomes very clear how the two are intrinsically similar. And this basic idea has been elaborated upon by some of the greatest modernthinkers about story structure and narrative design, from professors such as Michael Hauge, to writers like Blake Snyder, to entire theories of work such as Dramatica, and so on and so forth.

Now of course such a broad-stroke approach brings forth a barrage of anti-conformist dialogue about how three-act structures are a construct of society and an over-simplification of truly ‘good’ writing, or further evidence of the film industry dumbing-down what once was a great art form. These arguments may be partially true, but there is little point in being reactionary simply for the sake of it, especially when both sides of the argument may in fact be equally correct.

Interestingly, the three-act concept can itself be interpreted through both the lens of structuralism and deconstructionism. The hero’s journey can be applied to almost any narrative, no matter how abstract or anti-heroic the story may appear at first. Leopold Bloom in Ulysses, Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men: while these characters may at first seem to be the antithesis of self-sacrifice and maturity, even they subscribe, somewhat convexly, to the hero’s journey in a world-specific interpretation of initiation and renewal. Denial of call and movement away from ‘heroism’ can be interpreted themselves as acts of transformation, even salvation of an idea or concept, however hideous and antiheroic that idea may be.

Similarly even narratives that at first seem to thwart the three-act structure because of overly complex or meta subject matter, non-linear chronology or pastiche style exposition can still be defined in a three-act manner, right from Hamlet to Catch-22 to Pulp Fiction. Even other act delineations, such as the two-act, four-act, five-, six- and seven-act formulations can all be interpreted as a play on the basic three-act trajectory.

This all leads us to consider the old chicken and egg conundrum. Do we see three-acts because we want to or because they really are the basis of all well-told stories? Is it simply a futile exercise in applying structure to a vast chaos of widely different interpretations, or is it actually the foundation of the way we perceive, live and retell our stories?

Again, these questions are both fun and important to consider, and again it all comes down to how we can apply these theories to make our stories better, both for critics and audiences alike.

For my part, the three-act structure applied post-composition has been incredibly valuable in helping me to see why certain elements don’t work and how to effectively shift them structurally to make room for a greater development of character or story. It doesn’t mean that I have reworked my entire novel in order to fit a shallow, culture-specific mold, but instead that I have learned to examine my narrative through an age-old framework and use these fundamental ideas of story-telling, both ancient and modern, to help me tell my story in the most effective way.

Yes, sometimes it’s as much fun to break the rules as it is to follow them. But even then, the ‘rules’ are still rules, right?

Or are they?

Therein lies the great mystery at the heart of all artistic endeavour.

 

 

Elise Janes

 

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3 thoughts on “The Ubiquitous Three Acts: A Marriage of Chaos and Construct

  1. Another great article, thanks Elise…

    (PS – noticed a tiny typo, in passing: Joseph [Campbell’s] monomyth… as per, your great article below! 🙂 …also `Dramatica’ (though I like your spelling of it better).
    Also I recently made up a new word, for writing: narratolosophizing. Am still waiting for it to catch on though… 🙂

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      • Yeah; sometimes, (maybe, if I’m thinking faster than I can type, which I do, a lot) I accidentally mix up `Joseph Campbell’ (he of the monomyth 1959) and `DT Campbell’ (he of Popper’s Evolutionary Epistemology 1974) – or else I mix up Joseph Carroll (of Evocriticism fame) and Joseph Campbell. I personally think some of these folks should change their names, to make it all easier for me. Because, frankly, it’s all about me.

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