Aha!’, not ‘Ugh!’

What’s an act? McKee, among oth­ers, defines it as a col­lec­tion of scenes that end with a major change or reversal for the main char­ac­ter. Modern, pop­u­lar stor­ies — par­tic­u­larly movies — tend to have three acts. The first act is the set-up, the second the devel­op­ment, and the third the cli­max or res­ol­u­tion. At the end of an act, some­thing very import­ant hap­pens to the prot­ag­on­ist. In a strong story, the act bound­ary tends to mark an undo­able change. By the third undo­able change (the one that occurs at the end of the story, after the third act), the prot­ag­on­ist will be quite dif­fer­ent from the per­son he or she was at the begin­ning of the story. The story is, in effect, a record of these changes.

Not all stor­ies have acts, of course. And some have more than three (Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, for instance, has a bunch, each one marked by Indy’s life being put in danger). But the notion of an act remains a use­ful one, because the essen­tial prop­erty of any story — the prop­erty that makes it nar­rat­ive, where the mean­ing of a later scene is trans­formed by the con­text of the pre­ced­ing scenes — is the jour­ney, or change, of the main character(s). If the main char­ac­ter remains unchanged at the end of a story, the audi­ence com­monly cries ‘What was the point?’ or ‘Nothing seemed to hap­pen’. For example: ‘Girl meets girl’ (one act, no change). Boring. ‘Girl meets girl, then loses girl’ (two acts, one change). Semi-bor­ing. ‘Girl meets, loses girl, gets her back’ (three acts, two changes). Story.

I’m ram­bling on about acts in this post because, as you can see from the little ‘word fuel’ gauge at the base of this entry, I’m into the final third of my cur­rent nov­el. This nov­el is a tech­no­thrill­er: enter­tain­ment first, high-fal­lutin’ ideas second. That means I’m con­stantly on the look out for inter­est­ing things to hap­pen to my char­ac­ters, and I will not wander far from the three act struc­ture, because I know it works in my pre­vi­ous nov­els.

In some ways, the third act is easi­er than the first because you have your read­er firmly hooked. He or she has come with you thus far, and, as a writer, you are free to stretch your legs theme-wise. Your char­ac­ters are likely to be in a great deal of per­il (not neces­sar­ily phys­ic­al per­il) at this point (if you’ve been doing your job prop­erly), and that per­il will sus­tain the reader’s atten­tion if you want to broaden, here, the them­at­ic base of your nov­el.

In oth­er ways, the third act is the most dif­fi­cult. You now have to sat­is­fy the read­er. All the con­flicts and obstacles you put in the path of your prot­ag­on­ist must be resolved and over­come. Not only that, but they must be resolved in a way that makes sense for the char­ac­ters, their situ­ation, and the themes that may or may not be hov­er­ing in the back­ground. All the bluff and mir­rors and smoke you infused into the open­ing and second acts must be employed in use­ful ser­vice to an end­ing that makes the read­er go ‘Aha!’ rather than ‘Ugh!’. Read about Chekhov’s gun.

This is the chal­lenge I face over the next two or three weeks. Right now, I just don’t know how the story is going to end. But I do have an advant­age over a writer who works to a detailed plan: When I com­plete the third act, I will be close enough to the mater­i­al for my response to be an hon­est, fresh one. If I dis­gust myself and throw my com­puter out of the win­dow with a shout of ‘Ugh!’, I’ll know that the end­ing didn’t work. But if the end­ing sud­denly clicks into place with an ‘Aha!’ — it’s happened before, with Déjà Vu and the unsold Proper Job — then I’ll know I have a draft that might, in a couple of years, shape up to be a nov­el.

In related news, the next epis­ode of my free pod­cast of Déjà Vu is up and run­ning.

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Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

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