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When I was in elementary school, they taught us that the shape of a story was a triangle, with Exposition at the beginning, the first slope up being Rising Action, the apex being the Climax, the declining slope being Falling Action, and the end being the Resolution or Denouement. Exposition was meant to set up the story, Rising Action established the stakes and the actors first moves until the story exploded at the Climax, winded down with the Falling Action, and was finally all resolved with the Resolution.

This story form followed me up through high school. However, I believe it is too simplistic and even misleading. This story arc was always drawn as an equilateral triangle with the climax as the midpoint of the story.

It wasn’t until I starting taking creative writing courses in college that I was introduced to the idea of putting the climax much closer to the end of the story. This placement can be seen in both the three-act structure and the five-act structure. While acts are most commonly associated with plays, stories can also be broken down into acts, or segments defined by a main part of a story.

The three-act structure is, coincidentally, broken into three main parts: Set-Up, Confrontation, and Resolution.

Act one you introduce your characters and their desires and goals. You introduce us to the problem, and you end act one with a “turn” or a plot point that changes things. My writing instructor, Professor H., described a turn as “A stranger comes to town or a woman goes on a trip.” Of course, this is to be taken completely metaphorically. The stranger coming to town could be a letter arriving. The woman going on a trip could be the loss of a child. Writers interpret it as you will. Something happens that changes the game.

Act two your characters go on a journey and experience obstacles. The act ends with another turning point.

Act three, according to John Yorke’s Into the Woods, begins with the crisis, or “the moment when [the hero is] faced with the most important question of the story – just what kind of person are they?” It is the moment when all hope is lost. This is followed by the climax, the scene where the protagonist applies the skills their learned over their journey and engages in the final battle. And then the resolution. All the necessary threads get tied up.

According to Yorke, the five-act structure is “merely a detailed refinement of [the three-act structure].” Professor H. taught the five-act structure in great detail. He went so far as to tell us the exact point of when something should happen in a story (eg. if your story is 250 pages long, on page 7, a character should say the theme to another character.) Now, I don’t think I agree that everything needs to happen at a precise place (or even if the theme ever needs to be explicitly stated), but the structure made a lot of sense to me.

Act one is the introduction where you get the main character on stage, introduce some other characters, clue us in to the time and place. We need to know what drives the character and the complication to that drive. The rest of act one is resistance to the complication, but in the end, the character realizes resistance is futile.

Act two is the intensification. The complication worsens at first. Then things start to look up. A plot point happens that catapults us into act three.

Act three is the separation. The crisis happens. The characters respond to the crisis and a plot points catapults them into act four.

Act four is the re-evaluation. According to my notes from my class, this is where the darkest hour occurs. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure how that is different from the crisis, so take that as you will. According to Yorke, the crisis happens at the end of act four. He later goes on to talk about the midpoint, which happens in act three and “marks a massive escalation in jeopardy” or “the moment something profoundly significant happens.” So, let’s just say that in act three the midpoint happens, and in act four the crisis happens. In this act, the hero gets a new insight into the problem of not getting what they want. Final plot point catapults us into act five.

Act five is the resolution. Here, the climax and resolution occur. We gather all the characters and settle the scores.

Now, here is where I find the act structures to be useful. They are already set up as an outline of how a story is structured, so why not use it as a guide for your own outlines?

Take the five-act structure (or three-act, I prefer five because it is more detailed). In five sentences you can outline an entire story. Act one, introduce. Act two, set up the complication. Act three, a significant event occurs. Act four, the darkest hour occurs. Act five, the final battle and resolution occurs. Write one sentence for each act describing what happens in your story. 

If that is too much for you right now, try this: Complete the sentence “It’s about a [man/woman/dog/alien/whatever] who…” Keep in mind what do they want, why can’t they get it, and what are they going to do?

Of course, there are many ways to outline. What’s your favorite way to outline?

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