Every story you’ve ever read or seen has more in common than you think. What if I told you, a bloodcurdling horror movie with zombies and a Shakespeare play has the same building blocks? Sounds bizarre, doesn’t it? But it won’t be once you understand what narrative structure is.
Plot vs Narrative
You may have heard of the word plot and the word narrative, but they are not one and the same. ‘Plot’ refers to the summation of events in any given story, while ‘narrative’ refers to the way the plot is structured and presented to the reader. For example, every detective novel involves the detective recounting what actually happened in the mystery. While the plot would involve these details regardless of where they appear in the text, the narrative offers the reader clues along the way and saves the big reveal for the end.
At a quick glance, the structure may seem inconsequential. But in truth, the narrative is what makes every story satisfying. As readers, we love to piece together the details of any story ourselves before its revealed at the end. We also love when the writer peppers foreshadowing throughout the novel, as it makes the ending that much more satisfying. Even twist endings make sense in some way. But why is that?
The Three Act Structure
This is because of a concept most writers use called the three-act structure. The concept is simple; your story can be divided into three, clearly defined or not, acts, each serving a different purpose. At its simplest, a story must have a beginning, middle and end. But how the writer structures these three has a large impact on how the story itself is read.
Act I: The first act has all to do with the setup. Also known as the expository act, this part of the story establishes everything we, the reader, need to know. Where is this story set? If it’s not a real-world setting, what are the rules by which the universe operates? Who is our main character? What are their strengths? What are their weaknesses? What is the main conflict our hero must overcome? These are all questions the first act must answer. The first act also features an ‘inciting incident’ that sets the story in motion and slowly builds towards a major plot point.
Act II: The second act starts right after the first major ‘incident’ in a novel. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, this would be when Harry reaches Hogwarts, for example, and the first major plot point was Hagrid telling him he was a wizard. The second act’s role is to build towards the big climax by adding additional details that will become relevant later and include a second major plot point. Some novels may even feature a ‘midpoint’ – this is where the protagonist is at their lowest or the farthest from achieving their goals.
Act III: The third act packs the biggest punch of all – the climax. But before the climax, there must be something called a pre-climax. This is the part where the protagonist is working towards the climax in which they face their primary conflict head-on. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, this would be the puzzles Harry, Ron, and Hermione must solve before Harry confronts Lord Voldemort. The third act is usually the shortest act in any novel because it moves so fast. Following the climax, the novel quickly offers a resolution that wraps everything up.
The 19th-century German writer Gustav Freytag adapted the three-act structure into what is now known as Freytag’s pyramid. According to Freytag, ‘rising action’ where the stakes are continuously raised is the key to building a satisfying climax. Following the rising action is the falling action when the big conflict is conquered and the story either winds down for a resolution or resets for a sequel, as is the case with most children’s books.
The name ‘three act structure’ comes from the fact that most dramas, especially dramas in ancient Greece as well as most of Shakespeare’s play years later, followed the three-act structure almost religiously. Aristotle, in his seminal work ‘poetics’, where he explains the mechanics of what makes a good story, explains the important way to keep a story moving is its “cause and effect beats”. Every scene in a story must feed into the scene that happens next and not seem like standalone episodes.
The three-act structure is especially important in cinema, which must fit a remarkable amount of plot points, rising action and character growth into two hours or so. Screenplay writers rely on the three-act structure to help them pace their movie in a way that keeps the audience engaged as well. The three-act structure really took off in the film industry after Syd Field’s pioneering book ‘Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. This book has served as a reference for some giants in the industry like James Cameron and Tina Fey in writing their own movies too!
The three-act structure has become so prevalent that it has also influenced the way TV shows are written. You may have noticed that when your favourite TV show ends on a cliffhanger, the next season quickly resolves the cliffhanger so it can move on to building up the story again. A narrative that is just as intense throughout the story with no build rarely has a satisfying ending. So what these TV show creators are doing is something like a soft reset. They are slowly building conflict again so that the season finale can be the most exciting point in the season.
Once you know the basics of the three-act structure, it’s not that hard to spot. Whether it’s in books, movies, or TV shows, the three-act structure is everywhere. So the next time you think, “wow this book/movie/TV show is so unsatisfying”, think about why. Where did the writers go wrong? Was there not enough exposition? Was there too much exposition? Did they drag out the middle? Now that you know how stories are told, it becomes much easier to figure it out.
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