Practical fiction writing: Plotting with the 3 (or 5) act structure | Sylvia Bishop | Skillshare

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Practical fiction writing: Plotting with the 3 (or 5) act structure

teacher avatar Sylvia Bishop, Author

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
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Watch this class and thousands more

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      Context: Why think in three acts?


    • 3.



    • 4.

      Act 1


    • 5.

      Act 2


    • 6.

      Act 3


    • 7.

      Breaking the structure


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About This Class

There are a baffling array of plotting books out there, treating some form of the 3 or 5 act structure. In this course I outline the features all 3-or-5-act variants have in common, and you will outline a plot with these key story features.

Throughout, I emphasise the problems in storytelling that these structural features are intended to resolve. This will help you to recognise for yourself when structure is helping you, and when it is holding you back - and use it, break it or discard it intelligently.

Meet Your Teacher

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Sylvia Bishop



Hi! I'm Sylvia. I write junior fiction for a living, and I've been published in 17 countries by major publishing houses. All that writing is lovely, but I do also like to talk to other humans sometimes, so I teach too.

My aim is always to teach practical, enjoyable tools, that are hopefully a little different to the things you might have already seen in how-too books - just to keep things fresh. I hope you'll join me!

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1. Intro: Hi, I'm Sylvia Bishop. And in this class, I'll be introducing you to plotting a story using the three Act or five act structure. So there are a lot of books on structure seriously a lot and most addressed in some form, the story arc known as the three Act or five act structure. It can feel pretty confusing as they all offer slightly different versions, especially around the middle. But they have certain key points in common that are really useful to have at your fingertips as a fiction writer. So in this course, we'll be learning what those are. In the first class, I'll look at where these ideas come from. They aren't universal laws, but they also aren't just cookie cutter cheat sheets that somebody made up one day. They are accumulated wisdom designed to solve specific problems. And in this class, I want to emphasize what those problems are so that you're empowered to use these structures well and to come up with different solutions if that is more appropriate to your work. So then in the second class, I'll give an overview of the structure. The five x structure maps onto the three so they can be discussed together. And this is your introductory roadmap to what everyone is on about. Then we'll look in more detail at each section of the structure and each section's challenges. And in a final class, I'll give some thoughts on breaking the structure, why you might want to and how to think about it. For your class project, you'll be outlining a plot of your own. So for this, you'll need a one line idea. I want to write about a girl being bullied. I want to write about a soldier at war. If you don't have one, but you want to just practice the plotting, go to your bookshelf. Give me the top one line summaries of the books there and pick out one that appeals to you. So obviously, a summary with M plot, something like it's a regency love story or it's biologists in space. Is a setup. And that's what you'll be using as a jumping off point for your plotting. Then you're ready to go. I'll see you there. 2. Context: Why think in three acts?: Okay. So first, before we begin, let's address this idea of there being a structure for stories. Storytelling isn't physics. There aren't laws out there waiting to be discovered. And for some people, the idea of doing things to a structure feels almost sacrilegious. The three x structure has been derived from looking at stories that have already been told. It's not really the enemy of the storytelling instinct. It's an attempt to codify it to work out what the people who are good at storytelling already know. Some books have recently argued that there is a relationship between the three x structure and the evolution of our brains that make this storytelling structure feel right on some deep level. I'm skeptical, but I'm not an evolutionary scientist, so I'll stay in my lane. If you want to read more on this, these titles are in your resource. But regardless of whether you think this is the evolutionarily determined right way to tell stories or just a right way to tell stories. It is a very good way to tell stories. More specifically, I think what the three act structure does is solve two problems, answer two questions that every storyteller needs to answer. And these are questions that your reader will have. Why should I care what happens next? And so what? At the end, they might ask what? What was the point of reading that story? I'm going to keep emphasizing those two questions. Sometimes there might be a better answer within your story to those questions. If that is the case, use that answer, break the structure. The structure serves the questions, always. Okay, so now a little bit of history because that's going to bring up an important point, which is that this did not begin with novels. So Aristotle is widely credited with the first expression of a three act structure in poetics, and he was looking, of course, at Greek tragedies. Now, for the purposes of our short course, we can fast forward a few centuries. Eugene Scribe developed the concept of a well made play in five acts in 18 25. This got used in such boilerplate fashion so often and so badly that it eventually became a derogatory term. Now, the five acts were driven in part by necessity, and set changes, audience comfort, even trimming the candles meant that there had to be breaks. This gradually gave way to a three ax structure as theatrical technology evolved. But the five Act maps onto the three Act. It's just got further subdivisions. So that's why from a novelist structural point of view, I think we can look at them as much the same thing. Then came the formulation of the a structure that is often cited as a first version of our modern take. It was formulated by Freytag in 18 63, and it's sometimes called Freytag's Pyramid. Crucially, he brought in the idea of a mid point more on that later. Like Aristotle, Fretag was looking at Greek tragedies, and he was also looking at Shakespearean tragedies. So notice all of this is about theater. John Gardner's art of fiction is credited with making the linked novel writing much later in 1983. He writes, the fact that Aristotle was talking about tragedy need not delay us. If he'd known about novels, he'd have said much the same. Okay, hold on to that thought. Meanwhile, A little before Gardner, 1949, Joseph Campbell writes his famous comparative work on mythology, the hero with 1,000 faces, which outlines what you might have heard of as the hero's journey. This maps onto our old friend, the three act structure. This version of the structure really took off for writers in the screenwriting world. First, because George Lucas used it as a story structure for Star Wars, and then a guy called Vogeler put it into a helpful book in 2007. And the rest is cinematic history and increasingly literary history. Many of the most popular books on plotting used by novel writers are written by screenwriters, sometimes explicitly adapted as in Save the CT writes a novel, but not always. Now, I think it is basically true that we can take these ideas from drama and cinema and myth and apply them to writing novels, because the central concern is storytelling. You might want your novel to do something other than tell a story. I will look at that a little bit in the last class. But I'm going to assume for this course that we are aiming to tell a story. And in that case, I think borrowing theory from these areas makes total sense. I do have one caveat. An audience for a play or a film are sitting through it in one setting. And that means that they need their payoffs in terms of excitement and resolution to come within a certain time frame, or else they're going to start getting physically uncomfortable. And I think that's where a lot of this idea about when the different structural beats have to happen comes from. I'm not a fan of doing that for novels. I think each novel has its own pace and shape. Your audience are going to put their book down when they're busy and come back to it. And honestly, I think the reason they come back to it has more to do with so what than with what happens next. That's my personal take. If you would like some sense of where the beats should fall. Save the mentioned earlier, save the CT writes a novel does give you sort of novel percentages that you should be aiming for. And those are a helpful guideline if you want to orient yourself. But it's this difference between drama and novels that means I'm not going to focus on that in this course. Again, it's in your resource, if you want to look it up. One final, very important point. The three x structure is an outline for one story one story arc. Your novel may contain more than one story arc. This doesn't mean this ceases to apply. It means you have to be even more diligent about knowing what the beats of each story are so that you can make sure that your chapters are covering them. I tend to have them next to each other in a spreadsheet next to my chapter list so that I can see when I'm doing what. The result is something so richly textured that your audience is not going to be sitting there seeing your scaffolding. They're just going to be enjoying the whole novel. So bear that in mind, what we're discussing in this course is how to plu one story, not a whole novel. And that story might just be a thread within your overall tapestry. So to recap, the three or five act structure is an attempt to codify what works. Based on stories that have already been written. Why it works is up for debate. This means it addresses your readers two key questions. Why should I care what happens next? And so what? Where you find an alternative solution to these questions, you should feel free to use them. Structure is only ever in their service. The structure is orgidly derived from work on theater, sacred myth and films. So this is relevant to novels, but it does mean we can be less rigid about the time frame, and one level may contain multiple stories, each of which have their own three act structure. Okay, so in the next classes, I will walk you through that structure. We'll begin with an overview, and then we will dive into each section in detail. We'll talk a little more about why you might want to break it at the very end. See you there. 3. Overview: Hi, welcome back. So I want to begin by reminding you of our two key questions for your reader. Why should I care what happens next? And so what? To make sense of the structure I'm about to show you and why it's not just an arbitrary set of instructions, I want to headline the answers to these two questions. So why should I care what happens next? The key to this is I want to know the answer to a central dramatic question. So in act one, we set up a dramatic question like, will the hero live? In Act two, the aim of the game is ramping up the tension around that question. And that's a real art that we'll discuss in that class. And then in act three, you give us the resolution. What stops to your reader saying so what at the end. In short, stories show change. So the key to this question is the underlying change in your story. If at the end of your story, your main character is back where they started. They've overcome all this adversity just to get back to square one. There's generally a feeling of so what. It's just a round trip, and we haven't got anywhere. It hasn't been a journey. For some writers on structure, The change has to be an internal character change. This is the point of hero's journey kind of structures. So your hero is going after something external that they want, but internally, they learn a lesson. Look, this is one really effective option. I don't personally believe it's essential. I think you could have anything that feels fundamentally human. Maybe two characters who weren't working together at the beginning are a team by the end, and it's a transition from loneliness to friendship or maybe it's a transition from not really having a home to at the end, having somewhere to call home. I'll talk more about walk sort of think can go in that slot later. But it's worth noting that for a lot of writers on structure, the focus is really on internal character change, and that is always a very strong option. Okay. So with that in mind, let's begin. Here's a quick preview of your whole journey. So, roughly speaking, we spend act one in the status quo world, the way things are for our hero at the beginning. By the end of act one, we've got a dramatic question. They spend act two trying to overcome problems to reach the outcome they want. We resolve this struggle in act three, but we are not quite back in the status quo world. We've achieved the new world, the change that answers the question, so what. Now let's zoom in to act one, here's a preview, ordinary world. Inciting incident, reluctance or preparation, act one game changer. So our first step is to spend some time in the ordinary world, the characters life as it is at the start of the story. You'll want to showcase here the aspect that is going to change, show us what they lack in their lives. You'll also want to take this opportunity to get us invested in the character. Part of answering the question, why should I care what happens next is making me care about the character, and we'll look at that in our class on Act one. Okay? Then something happens that shakes up our hero's life. Now, this is a baffling array of names. Inciting Incident, catalyst call to adventure, ignition point, awakening. We're going to use inciting incident because I like it. So in five x structure terms, that's the end of act one. The next bit is act. But for our three x structure, this is all coming under act one. So there's now a section, which is again, described in lots of different ways, grappling with incident, the debate, refusing the call and meeting a mentor in the hero's journey, doubt and overcoming reluctance. In other words, this is a section where your character doesn't immediately respond to the inciting incident. Maybe they're fired from their job, and their first reaction is to spend a while trying to get it back before they set off on their new adventure, or maybe they know there's a threat from space, but they're not immediately up for going out to fight it. In other words, they are reluctant. Sometimes there's a preparation phase. Instead of a reluctance phase. Think Harry Potter going off to buy things ready for Hogwats or any kind of classic training montage. So where does this section exist? I think it's doing more of the work that the ordinary world did. We might be further showcasing what needs to change. So particularly if you're looking at internal character change, this is a chance to show them responding to things the old way and not working out. Um, it's also more time to get us invested in your character to set up any information that you need. So bear all of that in mind with this section. Ask yourself what it's doing for your story and use it intelligently. I don't think it makes sense to prescribe a length here. Some inciting incidents require a pretty immediate response. Use this section to suit your story's needs. Finally, however, you are going to get to your response. And this again, has many names. I'm going to call it the Act game changer. Whatever you decide to do here, your hero should be responding to the inciting incident themselves. They should have agency, make a decision. The story doesn't begin when the killer issues a threat. The story begins when the hero decides to respond by tracking him down. I'll talk more about that in the next class. I call it the game changer for a reason. It should not be possible for your hero to go back to the way things were at this point. If as soon as it going gets raft, they can just say, Oh, never mind, I won't do it after all. There's not really anything at stake. So this is a step into a new world. Often characters physically leave at this point, but if they don't, they are stepping forward into something irreversible. Okay, from this point, from either the inciting incident or the act one game changer or both, we should be very clear on the dramatic question at the center of the story, the scaffolding for the answer to why should I want to know what happens next? We've also ceded the need for the central change, which will answer so what. And that's act one or act one and two for five act thinkers. Now on to act two or act three and four, in five act parlance. So here's a preview attempts, midpoint attempts and an act two game changer, which will be either despair and change or yes, no, but. Okay, so all writers on structure agree that basically, our hero tries to win for a bit. This is referred to variously as first and second attempts, fun and games, tests, allies and enemies, experimenting with knowledge, the dream stage and frustration stage. I'm just going to call it attempts. Some authors do try and pin down the most satisfying sequence of success and failure. We'll come onto that in act too. I think the important thing for me is to understand that here you are maintaining your answer to the question. Why should I care what happens next? The attempts will lead us to a midpoint. Again, there are slightly divergent ideas on this. For some thinkers, it's a complication where the heroes task gets a lot harder. For S it gives key knowledge that changes things importantly. For S it's a strong challenge to the characters attempt to change. All of these have in common that it's a point where the tension ramps up. It's like a level up of the problem at the midpoint. There will then be more attempts to deal with this midpoint complication before we reach our at two game changer. Now, thoughts diverge again. Sorry. I think the different presentations of this moment can be grouped under two main headings. Despair and change. Bring your character to the ultimate low point. This section gets cheerfully called Dark Night of the soul, ordeal and death, the nightmare stage. Basically, this is when things are as bad as they are going to get. Crucially, that can only be reversed by the key story change. For example, the characters internal change. Different presentations of the structure differ on whether they present at two as ending on the low point and act three beginning on the change or whether they put the change at the end of a two. That doesn't matter. You get this pair despair reversed by your central story change. There's another option that does similar work and you'll see why. Answer the dramatic question, but with a butt. So you could answer the dramatic question here by introduce unexpected consequences. So she got a guy, but she realized that was a horrible idea, and she has to extricate herself from him. Or she rescued her daughter, but realized that the real plot going on was something much worse. So then what we have is a change of desire, a change of aim on the part of our protagonist, and we'll spend that three dealing with the butt. So you can have despair and change or yes, no, but. Either way, it's the Act two game changer. And what they have in common is that they are provoking the central change. So in Act three, we see the changed attempts, a final push to reach a good resolution, but affected by the act to change. And then we get our resolution, a, a final victory or a tragedy. It settles how things are going to be from now on, with respect to the dramatic question and the change. So from now on, I'll be talking about victories, but don't forget that the tragedy version is always there for you. Originated in tragedy. Just answer the dramatic question in the negative and fail to change, and you have the tragic version. You might then one to CODA that showcases this final state of affairs. You know, that's optional, depending on how well it suits your story. So here's a recap. Don't worry, you will be familiar with this by the end. Act one or one and two. Ordinary world, inciting incident, reluctance or preparation and the act one game changer. At two or two and three, attempts, midpoint, more attempts and an act two game changer, which can be despair and change or yes no, but. Then at three change attempts, resolution encoder. All of this is in your downloadable resource. Okay. So in the next class, we'll zoom into Act one, and that's when I'll set the first part of your course project to write out your Act one plot. For now, you might want to go over this structure and take a look at your one liner and jot down any ideas you already have. Maybe you're already pretty clear what the dramatic question is likely to be or what the central change is likely to be. So start making notes of what comes up for you and I'll see you next time to pin down that first act. See you there. Okay. 4. Act 1: Welcome back. In this class, we'll be thinking about Act one. So we saw that this involves setting up the ordinary world with its flow that will change or and tragedy fail to change, shaking that world with an inciting incident, optional reluctance or preparation, a game changing decision by our protagonist that launches us irrevocably into Act two, so our Act one game changer. Simple enough, but clearly not all act ones are created equal. Consider. Ann is a woman in her 20s working in a bank. She isn't eating enough vitamins. She contracts an illness that will cause her to lose her hair. She does nothing about it. Her friends convince her that she must. She sees a doctor and agrees to begin a course of drugs and may restore her hair. If they fail, she may also develop skin issues. But once she has died the course, she cannot reverse this. Now, this meets all my criteria, but I imagine most of you aren't grasping to read on. Not because we aren't nice human beings who would in real life, hope everything goes really well for this woman under her hair. But somehow this isn't the stuff of story yet. So in this class, we're going to be looking at what makes us care about a hero, a dramatic question, and the central change. Okay, so first, the dramatic question. I think there are two basic ways to go with this, and our first is to tap a fundamental human need. Maslow's hierarchy of needs is very famous. It's a perfectly good place to start for thinking about fundamental needs. If the dramatic question centers on your character's ability to have their physiological or safety needs met, we are in a high drama situation. Typical here is the thriller. Belonging ness and love needs are, of course, central to the most popular genre of all time, the romance, but they can also be explored in other ways, and esteem and self actualization, take more skill in psychological portraits to pull off. But if we are successfully drawn into sympathy with the character, we can absolutely root for these. You also want to bear this in mind for the central change. Whatever the change is a rule of thumb, it should either be a fundamental need or something that enables a character to secure their fundamental need. I think this is kind of the fascination with internal character change. People tend to get better at securing their love and belonging as a result, and that's something we're so keen to learn about as humans that there's a kind of inherent appeal. And that's why the woman with her vitamins didn't really work? None of us are going to tear up at the end when she suddenly gets her five a day. You may have other fundamental needs in mind, but whatever you choose, I think that for central change, a fundamental need is pretty non negotiable. So the dramatic question, again, however, I think there is another key option, promise a really cool ride. This is heavily at work in lots of fantasy and sci fi and other kinds of adventure. I don't really care if the dramatic question is, will we defeat the space army or will we rescue this person from the planet, or will we be the first person to land on this other planet. I care that you are promising me a ride through space. That's why I'm reading. So a lot of quest stories are operating on not particularly sympathetic esteem needs, but we come along for the ride because we think it's going to be cool. Your dramatic question should be a fundamental need or promise a cool journey or both. The central change should always be a fundamental need or help the hero to secure a fundamental need. All right. What about caring about the hero? Okay. First thing, this is not really about your hero being nice. You can have a wide range of liability. I would advise that if they're a St., you make one thing about them a little bit of, so they're not annoying. And likewise, if they're an anti hero, if you can give us something to root for, like, see them love their dog. But basically, I think liability of your hero is neither here nor there. What do I think matters? For hooking up our sympathy, I want to see character agency and motivation. So agency, it's boring to watch characters just be bounced around by life events and just reacting because they can't help it. I don't know why. It just is. I want to see a sparky kid who's trying to make something of themselves. And then because they're invested, I will invest in them. I think that's sort of the secret to the advice that we should kick off into act with a decision by our hero because it takes that out the way right up top. And it's one of the reasons Vitamin lady was kind of mare. Like, her big action was to finally go to the doctor and then do what she was told. If she'd done something a bit gutsier to try and secure a cure for herself, I might have been cheering a little bit harder. So agency is really helpful. As for motivation, my advice here is to be specific. Your characters motive should be expressle as an if then statement. If x happens, why will happen. We really want X to happen or to not happen because why will that happen. If we look at our needs pyramid again, if you're operating at the bottom end, it's tempting to say, Well, if they are killed, they won't live, but trust me, specificity will help. So sure they're trying to get their survival needs met, but if they die, they'll never get a chance to tell Aunt Josephine the truth that she needs to know. Or if they die, there will be no one left to look after Tom, or if they die, their important research project will never see the light of day. It's about giving a sense that they are a pre existing character with an agenda of their own and not just a puppet being knocked around by danger for the fun of it. So specificity makes those fundamental problems more interesting. In the same way, at the top of the pyramid, specificity is how I get you to care. So vitamin ladies hair didn't seem that important. But of course, hair loss can be devastating. So if you had invested time in showing me how if she loses her hair, It will be the last dw for her and Johnny. Then I might be much more invested in all the vulnerability at stake for her of her hair, and I might cheer when she finally loses her hair anyway and loses Johnny and goes off into a bold, blissful, wide open future. So that specificity can hook us in at the top end of the pyramid. Okay, so time to fill out your own at one. Let's see those elements again alongside the advice we've had. So the ordinary world should be showcasing your need, and this should be either a fundamental need or something impacting their ability to secure a fundamental need. Remember, at this point, they don't realize that need is what they need to solve necessarily. Then the inciting incident comes along and it lays the groundwork for the dramatic question. The dramatic question is going to be either a fundamental need or a promise of a fun ride or both. Then maybe reluctance and preparation. You decide, are you showcasing the need for your central change? Are you ramping up our investment in your hero? Are you giving us some information that we need? Then the Act one game changer. Here, they respond to the inciting incident with an irrevocable decision, and that puts them in a new world. Remember, they should be the agent of their own lives here, and they should have a specific motive expressible as if X, then y. Good luck, I will see you for Act two. 5. Act 2: Welcome back. You should now have an outline for Act one. So we are ready to plan Act two. Here's a reminder of your overview structure. Attempts, midpoint. Attempts Act two game changer. Guys, act two is where people famously give up. It's known as the soggy Middle. Here is where the theory gets a lot less unified as well. It's one thing to know what a beginning and end of a satisfying story looks like. It's a lot more difficult to pin down how to get from one to the other. The attempts in the midpoint basically involve problems. But what kind of problems and in what order. Again, if you want to go through some of the books on your reso sheet, some of them will give you a more specific answer. I want to answer this in the most general terms and look at how you are finding your version of Act two by focusing on the question. Why should I keep reading? Okay. First things first, problems in your story should impact your dramatic question. Remind yourself first what your dramatic question is. Sure, it's very inconvenient to get sick or lose your job, but would it be relevantly bad? Okay. Second, it helps if you narrow down the sort of thing that might go wrong. So first, this can help generate ideas, and second, it can lend a story a sense of coherence. All kinds of problems piling in and going wrong is confusing for your reader and confusing is bad for wanting to continue reading. I mean, sure, getting mumps would impact your ability to get to Jupiter, but it's kind of not the problem I was expecting in a space adventure unless you have signaled mumps and its relevance at the beginning. So I want you to begin by choosing two kinds of thing that can go wrong in this story. Now, more than that for now. So here are two examples, a romance story in which our dramatic question is, C our hero keep her dark secret from her fiance? Her if then motivation is, if I cannot keep my secret, who will not want to marry me. And a space opera in which our dramatic question is, C our hero enter and disable an enemy spacecraft? Her if then motivation is, if she cannot do this, she is facing expulsion from the military force that she belongs to. Okay, so what kind of problems might I assign to the first story? Okay. Let's say her cover up lies lead to misunderstandings and her would be mother in law tries to sabotage the relationship. Notice that both these kind of problems have the potential to impact directly on the dramatic question. Now, obviously, in reality, other things could go wrong. The lovers could argue about something else entirely, but I'm narrowing down the scope of my story. Or, again, what kind of problems might I assign to our second story? I might say, technological problems and violent vengeful aliens. Again, both of these have the capacity to affect the dramatic question, the success of her mission. We've done step one, choose your type of problem. Now we need to choose a series of specific problems that will make up attempts, midpoint, and then attempts again, and they need to stay interesting. The key to this lies in consequences. First, every problem must have consequences. If your hero defeats a monster and then just carries on their way, that was a pointless monster. That's not building a story. That's building an obstacle course. If the monster leaves them critically wounded, making their job a lot harder, or if they take the monster's skin away with them as armor, increasing their chances of success, then that monster has affected the story. So all your problems want to have consequences. EM Forster summed up the importance of causality and consequences beautifully. The king died, and then the Queen died, he tells us, is a series of events. The king died, and then the Queen died of grief is a story. So things happen, and because of that, other things happen. Second, the key to making your attempts feel different to your midpoint, which in turn feel different to the Act game changer is in what kind of consequences they have. So problems in the attempts section should change the course of events. Problems at the midpoint section should change the stakes, and the problem at the Act game changer should bring about the fundamental change that answers to so what, a change in the hero's approach or their aim. So let's go back to my two examples. Remember, our romance hero who can suffer in two ways. Her cover up lies can lead to misunderstandings, or her would be mother in law can try to sabotage her relationship. So let's say the lover almost uncovers her secret, so she comes up with a cover up lie and now has to maintain this pretense. So this will change the course of the story as not a pointless obstacle. We're going to watch he having to maintain this for the next however many scenes. And that will in turn impact how everything turns out. But we haven't changed the stakes yet. She's not really any better or worse off than she was before or take our space opera story and our hero who's liable to tech mishaps. The engine fails, so she hit hikes on another ship and meets a new character. So, again, the story has been substantially moved on, but the stakes haven't really changed. Things might get a little better or a little worse over the course of the attempts, but you're waiting until the midpoint to really tighten the screws on either making the chances of success much slimmer or the consequences of failure much graver. So let's take a look at one of these midpoint problems. So, for our romance hero, then, how can I change the stakes using the two kinds of problem available to me? Well, with the problem type covering up her lie leads to misunderstandings. I've suggested her lover makes a major sacrifice as a result of one of these misunderstandings. So at that point, we've massively increased the consequences of her lying. Or if we take the mother in law sabotages their relationship, the mother in law goes on a trip, which will lead to her finding out the truth. So at this point, our hero has to drop everything to go after her. This has massively diminished the chances of her succeeding. So either of these are a game changer on the stakes, one through the chances of success and one through the consequences of failure. See that again with our space for a hero. Tech failures. Let's say her communication system fails and leaves her isolated from her team. She's now alone. This is something that has massively lowered the chances of her success. All vengeful aliens, she finds out they have someone she cares about in their clutches, so that massively increases the consequences of her failure. Okay. And then finally, the Act two game changer is going to force our fundamental change. So as we saw earlier, this is either a low point that forces a new change in approach from our character, or it's a yes but or a no but to the dramatic question that forces a new desire. Let's take a look at some examples. For our romance hero, here's a low point forcing a change of approach. The lover has left because of one of the misunderstandings, and it seems all is now lost. So she will have to go after them and tell the truth to win them back. So being truthful with them is her fundamental change. And here's a yes, but to the dramatic question. Her secret is buried forever, and the lover proposes a, but she has by now realized she wants someone else and does not want to live a lie. So she must sort out all the bridges she's burned in the process of covering up her secret to get to our true happy ending. For our space opera hero, a low point forcing a change of approach. She is captured. Escape seems impossible. She will have to cooperate with her fellow prisoner, the sworn enemy who caused her to be out of favor with her commanders in the first place. Fundamental story change, or a no but to the dramatic question. She fails to infiltrate the ship successfully. The answer to the dramatic question is no as she is captured on entering, but she realizes her captains are actually the good guys and finds herself switching allegiance for the final climax. Now it's your turn. This is all on your resource sheet, so don't panic. First, choose two types of problem that can happen in this story. Remember, they should be the kind of problems that can impact the dramatic question. Second, list some versions of these problems that would change the course of events, some that would change the stakes and some that could be forcing the central change of your story. Then begin arranging these into a satisfying second act. Here's your general structure again. Honestly, sometimes the exact ordering of attempts and midpoint gets a little blurred, and this is where you need to bring your instincts as a storyteller to the table. Once you're aware that some problems change events only, some change dtakes and some force fundamental change, and you're aware the problem you're trying to answer is maintaining your reader's interest in knowing what happens next. It is over to you to figure out an interesting configuration of these that will keep us on our toes. You want to vary and build the kind of consequences things have. And one standard way is attempts leading up to a midpoint that forces more attempts that lead up to our final change. And it's a great way. But if it's not working for your story, you can mix it up. Of course, always remember the very first point from this class. Every problem must affect the heroes attempts to solve the dramatic question. Always. So give it a go and play around until you have a series of problems and consequences that pleases you. I will see you for Act three to get your hero out of this trouble you have got them into. See you there. 6. Act 3: Hi, welcome back. Congratulations. You've reached the end of Act two. You've brought your hero either to a low point that is going to force change or you've answered their dramatic question with an unexpected but and their whole desire has changed. Now we're ready to take them home in Act three. Reminder that is changed attempts, our final push, which finally takes us to a resolution. And then if it feels right, a CODA might show us things settling into a new ordinary a sense of how things are going to be from now on. Now, structurally in many ways, this is obvious. Audiences can feel at this point that the big change has happened, and we're ready to push through to our ending. Unfortunately, that doesn't make it the easiest section to write. Endings need to be surprising enough that we don't see them coming a mile off, but not so surprising that they feel random. When they happen, there's got to be a satisfying sense that they were had to happen. This is a really difficult balance. Also, because at this point, what will work is so heavily dependent on all the things you've already come up with in Act one and two, it gets much more difficult to give general advice. The solution at this point is going to be so unique to your story. There is some advice I can give my two main bits of advice are practical. Let's start with a couple of basic ground rules for satisfying endings. Okay. Your hero's action should be at the heart of the moment. We've been following this character. Don't suddenly let their mentor or best friend swoop in to save them. Unless, of course, the big thing that they needed to do was learn to step aside. But in that case, that is the key action for the moment. So the key action should belong to your hero at this point. Make sure we understand why they didn't just do this in the first place. Okay? This is an important basic check. If you've done your change right in Act two, it should already be there. So it might be the case that the solution was literally available to your character, but was psychologically impossible for them, in which case, we've watched them go on that internal change. If you've done that right, we'll be cheering for them. If it's not quite there, we'll just be saying this is your moment to check that we really understand why this wasn't an available solution before and is now. Relatedly, avoiding DS machina. So, there shouldn't be anything in the resolution that we don't already know about. This is most obvious in a mystery story where if the detective uses clues that we weren't told about to solve the mystery, we feel cheated. In the same way, an action hero can't suddenly be given a weapon. We didn't know they have However, domestic, realistic, personal, your story is, the same rules apply. Don't pull out the mental equivalent of a gun that nobody mentioned before. We want to have had all the pieces to solve this problem. It's just that we didn't and you have because you're the clever writer. Okay. This brings me to my first practical tip. This is all very well, but how do we go about finding that resolution? It's hard work. This isn't an accident. It needs to be hard work. If it was easy, your reader would have come up with it. So necessarily to avoid an ending your reader will already have thought of, you have to work harder than they will. So my first tip is to list everything that you already have in your story. I mean in minute detail, the abstract things, and the concrete things. Go back over your manuscript, see what you already have. Okay, so we opened with Aunt Jane crying every time Joelin plays, and there's a blue teapot and a three legged cat, and we've learned that Jane tried to drive a bus once but didn't pass the test, and that our hero has just left an umbrella on the tube. I want you to be that specific list everything that is there. Brains automatically try and impose connections between objects. We're going to look at that more in the next class. So the exercise of doing this will encourage your brain to start drawing links between these things and things that you might have forgotten about. Of course, if you spot a perfect solution that uses the bus and the teapot and the three legged cat, but you just need also to have a phobia of ants in there, you can go back and write it in. Nothing is set in stone at this stage. So you can use this principle that if it's in the end, it needs to be in the beginning and just reverse engineer it. Okay, my second practical tip, budget time for your subconscious to work on this and don't use the first solution that you come up with. I often talk about leaving a story to Brew, and I really mean this. Now, this doesn't mean you can just go and have a nap. You have to do the work that keeps reminding your brain that this is the problem you are trying to solve at the moment. So sit down, preferably daily and have a think about it. But what I mean is that it's likely that the solution you end up using will come to you maybe while you're doing something else or maybe on your 20th time of sitting down. Often, your first solution is obvious and your second solution is wildly convoluted. For some reason, the subconscious brain is better at this, and if you give it time, it will present you with more varied options. Keep sitting down every day and doing the work, but don't expect to take your first idea. So for this reason, your final project assignment is not to plot one final version of Act three, but instead, I want you to write that list of everything in your plot so far and then generate at least three possible resolutions. Just sit down and see how many you can crack out in an hour, say. Then come back for the final class. But after this course, give that resolution some time to brew. You might want to start writing Act one. Sometimes the writing process can bring out the specifics that are going to inspire your ending. It doesn't have to be set in stone until you get there. I mean, actually, it doesn't have to be set in stone until you finish editing, but that's a whole other story. So write your list and your three possible resolutions, and then I'll see you back here for some discussion of when we might want to break structure or be ambiguous with structure or throw it out the window entirely. I'll see you there. 7. Breaking the structure: Welcome back. So you've now outlined a complete three act structure plot, although your third act is still open to revision. Within this structure, there is so much room for variety and freshness, especially when you consider that most novels are composed of more than one, and by the time they've all been woven together, your audience can no longer see your scaffolding. However, in this last class, we're going to talk about the possibility of breaking the structure in various ways to give you maximum possible scope because, of course, these are not rules. So we'll look at three possibilities, breaking one part of structure for effect, ambiguous causality, and ignoring everything we've just said and writing something else entirely. So first, breaking our structure for effect. Even before you took this class, you were emotionally, very familiar with the three x structure. Now, whether that's because it's innate in some way, as some people argue, or just because you have spent your life reading and watching it in various forms, you are familiar with it and you can feel when it goes wrong. If the central question was never answered or everything, we really well for the first half of the book, you would feel it done without control, it would just feel really odd. But done on purpose, it could be a deliberate attempt to subvert our expectations and therefore control our response. Some examples. Failing to answer the dramatic question by the end, could be a cliff hanger that's done for very deliberate reasons. Or having causal reasoning break down might be a sort of existentialist, exploration of the human condition and the sense that we're not always in control. Or maybe you have a surface happy ending, but without the permanent change we were craving, and then you get an ambiguous ending, you're being deliberately thought provoking. I'm sure you can think of more. The point is that now you know what each part of the structure is there for, you can break something with explicit intent to mess with us in a very specific way. Okay. Change number two, bringing in ambiguous causality. All right, put two or more things after each other and humans will try to find the causal connection. More than one plotting book gives the example of the words banana vomit. I'm sure you started to come up with a story. I do not want to know what it was. So I've said that in stories events have consequences, and causality is key. And some stories give very clear causality, and we know exactly how each event led to the next. Some are a little more ambiguous. You know, we're left wondering, was the tragedy caused by our hero or was it something else? When she leaves for Paris in that final scene, what really tipped her over the edge? Did we ever really settle why our heroes child stopped talking to them? These kind of feel uncertainties about exactly what in the messiness of existence causes what? Can be built into stories by having chains of events that you can see could be connected, but you're left to make all those connections by yourself. How clear we like causality is a matter of taste. You can't please everybody, but you can play with where you are on this spectrum. Okay. And finally, do something else entirely. Let's talk about why. If the story art works, why mess with it. Well, firstly, it's something I won't go into too much here. What if you want your novel to do something else besides telling a story? A novel is just a printed piece of fiction. It doesn't have to be like a play. Maybe you want to experiment with what that form can be for. I won't go into that too much here because this class focuses on storytelling. But another possibility is that you might want to experiment with how else we can answer these questions, these two fundamental questions and tell stories at work. On the grounds that if we don't experiment, we will never find other ways. So there's a French collective called the lipo who took this up in a fascinating way, and they imposed constraints on themselves that made it really difficult to do anything other than obey the constraint. So, for example, George Prec wrote a novel entirely without the letter E Dis in French, a void in English. It is wildly unreadable. But the constraint of having to not use E, made it almost impossible for him to mimic existing art because he was so busy just trying to achieve that. It's normally almost impossible not to mimic existing art. We're so ingrained in how stories should go, that it's very hard not to reproduce it, even if we don't think we're structuralists. Um, So you might be interested in finding out whether there are other ways of answering the questions, whether we can break free of the three act structure. My top read for thinking about this is Jane Allison's Manda spiral explode. And she discusses formal experiment often comes at the expense of the reader's feeling in connection to the narrative because people haven't answered these two questions in my terms, but a successful experiment will find new ways to engage those feelings. And she looks at some other story shapes you might want to try and how they might work. Because remember, you'll still need to answer my core questions. Why should I keep reading? So what? Mastering the three act structure and navigating the unique questions thrown up by each instance it will home your storytelling instinct that will get you better and better at answering these questions and getting yourself into the mind of your reader. It's a great place to start. It is a very respectable place to end. Great literary feats can be written that are well within this structure, and you are under no pressure to ever leave it. Just remember to use it in service of those two questions. If you find a better solution, then you should be using that solution. You wear the structure. The structure does not wear you. I think it's probably time we ended. Thank you so much. I would love to see your plot outlines. Please do post them up here, and I hope you really enjoy planning lots and lots of stories. Thanks a lot. See you soon.