God knows I love a good Three ACT template. There’s something about a neat little list of all the things that need to happen in a story, in chronological order, that warms my control freak heart.
As evidence, check out the numerous story structure breakdowns of films on this blog. Sadly, there’s nothing I enjoy more than taking a piece of miraculous dramatic art and breaking it down to its smallest crappy machinery parts. A nut exposed, a screw revealed… Hurray!
But sometimes, rules and order are my biggest enemies as a creative writer.
I, like you, have read a bunch of “how to” writing books. If you go on Amazon and search “Books on Writing,” you’ll get 478,881 possibilities. And I can guarantee that a fair number of these books (especially the ones on screenwriting) talk about structural models as if they were the Holy Bible. They make proclamations like, “On page thirty, you WILL have a Turning Point.” “In the middle of the story, something really big will happen that creates The Point Of No Return (notice caps here.) THE BIG GLOOM! Again, whoa, we get it—bad stuff happens. Race to the climax, climax, the section where All Goes Well. Each piece of the story is broken down into nice little sections, and yes, these sections can be helpful in mapping out your narrative.
But here’s the deal. Sometimes, while helping you, these templates destroy the life in your story. They can be a real creativity killer, forcing your characters to behave in prescribed ways. And occasionally, if you set a character free, they will do something wholly unexpected and wonderful and amazing.
They go Punk Rock, and the story comes alive!
Here are a couple of things you can try if structure is killing your story.
1) Instead of starting with an outline, start with a character. Explore, on the page, who they are and what they want and why. Then just start writing scenes with them to see where they lead you. As your character begins to emerge, what actions does he or she take? Does this draw out some conflict from someone else who appears in the story?
2) Chop your Narrative Up. Move things around. What if you started at the end and flashed back? What if you started in the middle, then looped back to this point, then through to the end? If you have two story lines, what if you gave them equal weight and had two different main characters who intersect in the climax?
3) Get rid of your boring main character. What if you focus on a supporting character? What if THEY suddenly became the protagonist in your book or film? Does this shifting of focus offer you a new way into telling the story that feels more fresh?
4) For fiction writers, think about point of view. Who’s telling the story? How can you use shifting or alternating povs to strengthen an uninteresting narrative? Could two (or even three) points of view actually increase the tension and create more conflict and engagement for you? A great example of a book that uses POV to manipulate and mess with the reader is GONE GIRL, by Gillian Flynn. The book is traditionally structured, but because of the way the author twists our understanding of what’s happening, it all feels new. Rotten to the core, but fantastically original. Similarly, the film MEMENTO has a traditional three-act structure, but because the story is told backward, it feels like a different beast all together.
5) Just start writing. Don’t think. Be Sid Vicious!
Remember that story structure is about form, NOT formula. Don’t be afraid to shake things up and experiment.
Listen to your characters. See where they lead you.
Don’t be scared to venture off the beaten path into the tangles alongside the trail.
Sometimes this is where all the cool stuff is hiding.