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

 

Whose voice is whose?

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, "Voice Array, Subsculpture 13", 2011. "Recorders", Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2011. Photo by: Antimodular Research

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, “Voice Array, Subsculpture 13”, 2011. “Recorders”, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2011. Photo by: Antimodular Research

Writers have a platform. A platform is a voice. Voice is influence.

Whether your audience is one or one million, what you say (and the way you say it) has lasting impact, not only in the minds of those who consume it firsthand but also as a fleck on the wider canvas of cultural commentary.

We live in an age immensely conscious of voice, arguably more so than any era that has come before. This is the time of struggle for equality; of wrestling out the vast complexities of privilege and poverty, the established and the transient, the dominating and the dominated.

As such the concept of voice is under greater debate now than ever before. This creates a vast shifting tension between points of difference, as we dig deeper to unveil the true core of the conundrum of inequality.

What is privilege? What does it mean to be represented, faithfully or otherwise? Who has the right to tell what stories and how? These are questions shaping the way we engage with narrative of all kinds, moulding the way writers write and readers read.

At the National Writers’ Conference in Melbourne last year, two authors sat on a panel titled “Voices on a Page”, both young; one female, one male. One Arab-Australian the other Anglo-Australian. One spoke about dialogue and the other about rights. Even with only two artists weighing in on the topic, various and completely alternate interpretations of ‘voice’ were explored.

The discussion about privilege took precedent, eliciting the strongest emotional reactions from the panelists and the audience. It became clear that one writer was writing with the mission to proclaim identity and while the other wrote to explore it. Questions of narrative ‘rights’ and responsibilities became heated, not just between the panelists but between audience members as well. There was a point where I glanced around to make sure an exit was nearby, in case things got out of hand.

Now, riot-inducing panel sessions are not something we expect from writing conferences these days (though maybe we should) as people tend to steer clear of these raw issues for lack of a concrete grasp of their own thoughts. Because when we burrow down through the politically correct lingo and vitriol, we must ask ourselves, and each other, what we really mean by terms like ‘privilege’, ‘rights’ and ‘identity’. After all, whose voice is whose?

One author went as far as to say we are not entitled to write from any voice except our own, that when we try to interpret the world of others, we undermine their authenticity.

Do you agree?

The other emphasised the scope available to writers in observing and understanding other worlds and other voices, in interpreting them through the multifaceted lens of society and in doing so exploring alternate perceptions.

Again it comes down to this concept of representation, a topic I explored in greater depth in this article about Patricia Arquette’s now-infamous Oscar speech.

While I agree that representation should be wider spread, I believe this is a fundamentally complex issue that is only just now beginning to unfold and take shape. If we are not open to other perspectives on our own voice I fear we miss a significant aspect of what it means to be part of a diverse community, finding our own identity within the wider collage of lives and voices that make up our society.

Writing, in its essence, is art. Art is not only life, it is the lens that enables us to see ourselves from angles we can’t reach on our own.

Could Vladimir Nabokov write from Humbert Humbert’s eyes without being a pedophile? Could Leo Tolstoy write Anna Karenina’s without being a rich society girl? Could J. K. Rowling write the voice of Harry Potter without being a 13 year old boy? Could George Martin write Cersei Lannister without being a female, a mother and an incestuous sibling?

When artists toil over ‘voice’ and ‘narrative rights’, are they only referring to gender, race and class? Or should we accept that the discussion simply isn’t that straightforward, and that privilege and voice come in all shades of grey?

We need to maintain an open mind when it comes to deciding, as a global artistic body, what we can and can’t do. Without a solid definition of this slippery concept, we cannot, in all honesty, accuse one another pell-mell of discrimination and inauthenticity.

I agree that there is no black and white solution. What some people call archetype, others will call stereotype. What some people call privilege, others will call restriction. What some people deem authentic, others will denigrate as derivative.

So where is the middle ground?

In the end, as I’ve said before, good writing is good writing. A good writer will not take on a voice that they are unable to faithfully render, or at least render in a fresh and valid perspective. There must be a cohesive balance between creativity, observation, and respect. Yes, we need greater diversity in our narrative casts, but not by means of forced contrivance. Yes, we need to find representation for a wider span of voice, but not at the expense of stripping others of their right to creative expression.

In Robert McKee’s brilliant discourse on Story, he discusses exactly this universal application of characterisation, and the responsibility story-tellers have to render authentic human experiences.

“Deep within these characters and their conflicts we discover our own humanity…to enter a new, fascinating world, to inhabit vicariously another human being who at first seems so unlike us and yet at heart is like us, to live in a fictional reality that illuminates our daily reality. We do not wish to escape life but to find life, to use our minds in fresh, experimental ways, to flex our emotions, to enjoy, to learn, to add depth to our days.”

Exploring voice is one of the primary reasons humans read and write, and engage in the act of telling stories. Voice should not be a restrictive category; it should enable authors to explore the nuance of worlds that are both far and near to our own, to mine the complexities of life and in doing so find the answers to how our own life should be lived.

McKee goes on to articulate this.

“Story is not only our most prolific art form but rivals all activities – work, play, eating, exercise – for our waking hours. We tell and take in stories as much as we sleep – and even then we dream. Why? Why is so much of our life spent inside stories? Because as critic Kenneth Burke tells us, stories are equipment for living.

Day after day we seek an answer to the ageless question Aristotle posed in Ethics: How should a human being lead his life?”

As authors, let’s not use voice as a way to marginalise, but instead to open up, to ourselves and others, the incredibly vast spectrums of human experience. Let’s commit to authentic and deliberate renderings, to considered and thoughtful approaches, and provide the world with the profound and delicate emotional experiences that come from stepping into another mind.

Your voice is valid. Use it.

 

Elise Janes