Understanding Story Structure – Part 2: Macro Structure

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Earlier this week I began discussing story structure – looking at the macro structure of entire novels and their component Acts.

You’ll remember from the last post that I described story structure as a Russian Doll – the novel structure replicating itself in miniature with each of the smaller dolls it held inside. With that being said, now is probably a good time to reflect on that structure and pull out the key elements that form a clear beginning, middle and end:

1. An indication of what is normal or usual in the world of the protagonist

2. A trigger event that shakes up the protagonist’s world and gives them a new objective

3. Rising conflict and tension cause by obstacles of increasing significance, preventing the protagonist from achieving their objective

4. A major challenge that demands the protagonist make a decision

5. The response of the protagonist to this question

6. The outcome that flows from the protagonist’s decision and response

Looking at these elements we can identify the: (1) Status Quo, (2) Call to Action, (3) Engagement, (4) Crisis Point (5) Directed Action, and (6) Outcome.

Before I explore this structure is mirrored in Sequences, Scenes and Beats – Let’s review in more detail how these six elements play out in each of the acts in the Three Act Structure.

 

The Acts

Act 1:

1. STATUS QUO: The opening scene(s) that introduce the world and the protagonist.

2. CALL TO ACTION: The disturbance (also known as the Inciting Incident)

3. ENGAGEMENT: Engagement Status = Zero. The reluctance of the protagonist to engage due to the call not being strong enough, or personal enough.

4. CRISIS POINT: The tipping point – the moment where the protagonist can no longer ignore the call to action. The question posed: Do I run away or Do I engage? To be or not to be?

5. DIRECTED ACTION: The character engages. James Scott Bell calls this the First Doorway – the first point of no return for our protagonist. It’s the “We’re not in Kansas, anymore” moment – where the world will never be the same again, regardless of what subsequent decisions the protagonist makes.

6. OUTCOME: The entry into the story of ACT II – PART II…

Act II:

1. STATUS QUO: The new world the protagonist now finds themselves in – the one brought about by their Act I decision, action and its outcome. (ACT II – PART I)

2. CALL TO ACTION: The new objective the protagonist has, now that they have chosen to accept their mission. This is usually overly-simplified – e.g. beat the baddie. It signals the protagonist’s Plan A. (ACT II – PART I)

3. ENGAGE: Engagement Status = Pathetic. The inability of the protagonist to do anything useful due to them being a total noob in this strange and threatening world. Cue subplot and fun & games… (ACT II – PART I)

4. CRISIS POINT: The tipping point – the culmination of urgency, growing strength of the baddie and developing skills and expertise of our protagonist. The question posed: Am I ready to trade my defense strategy for an attack strategy? Am I ready to flex my newly-formed muscle and take the fight to the bad guy? (MIDPOINT)

5. DIRECTED ACTION: The character engages more fully and with more focus. It signals the protagonist’s Plan B – which is either a complete re-imagining of the Act II – Part I objective or a more detailed version – e.g. I don’t want to beat the baddie, I want to convert them to the light! or I want to beat the baddie by amassing an army of flying monkeys. The protagonist has a better plan and more skills to implement it. But the antagonist isn’t resting on their laurels – they come to the party. Cue ramping up of tension… (ACT II – PART II)

6. OUTCOME: The Darkest Moment. The protagonist is so close to victory, only to have it snatched from their grasp and their greatest weakness laid bare before the greatest strength of the antagonist. The quest is over. The protagonist has failed. (ACT II – PART II)

Act III:

1. STATUS QUO: The new world of pain and hurt and bruised ego and despair the protagonist now finds themself in.

2. CALL TO ACTION: The Glimmer of Hope. That thing whose use becomes suddenly apparent, that grumpy old hag that is now seen as a wise old mentor, the useless hunk of metal that is recognised a key. All is not lost – victory can still be the protagonist’s! This signals the protagonist’s Plan C. Not as vague as Plan A, not as ambitious or ignorant as Plan B.

3. ENGAGEMENT: Engagement Status = Reinvigorated. The protagonist is not holding back. They are throwing all they have at the antagonist. They are not going down without a full-on Rocky IV fight.

4. CRISIS POINT: The tipping point – the part in the battle between the protagonist and antagonist where it is looking pretty dicey. It’s the All is Lost moment, when it seems the hero has finally run out of luck. In the Karate Kid, it is that moment when Daniel San falls victim to Cobra Kai’s dirty tactics – a cowardly leg sweep by the jerk Johnny that exacerbates Daniel San’s already-weakened leg. The question posed: Do I surrender? Have I given everything? Is there something left in the dregs of this frail and beaten body/mind/soul that I can still draw on.

5. DIRECTED ACTION: The protagonist identifies that last bastion of hope and in a singular display of courage, strength, integrity (and all the other noble adjectives we can throw at them), plays their final card to defeat the antagonist.

6. OUTCOME: The tying up of loose ends. Defeating the antagonist should always be a means to an end – not the end itself. In winning the battle, did the protagonist win the war? Did they achieve their real, true goal? It’s the: “You’re alright, Larusso”. (you’re still a jerk, Johnny).

 

So, that’s the detailed look at Acts. Stay tuned for a detailed look at LITTLE STRUCTURE – the story of Sequences, Scenes and Beats. 

 

(Featured Images courtesy of a) evil_mel via Flickr Creative Commons, and b) Colombia Pictures Corporation)

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Understanding Story Structure – Part 2: Macro Structure

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