Why Three Acts Don’t Add Up to a Plot
Many storytellers have a concept they love, but feel lost when it comes time to hammer that concept into story. Novelists in particular have a lot of space to cover, so they may struggle to fill in their middle or reach a worthwhile end. Because of these problems and more, many people are looking for a step-by-step guide that tells them precisely how to plot their stories.
For these storytellers, The Hero’s Journey and similar structures look like the perfect solution. After all, it describes what to put in their stories from beginning to end. Not only that, but many classic stories follow them, at least to some degree. So how could the results of this process be unusable?
To answer that, allow me to share a recipe for lemon poppy seed cake.
- 1 tbsp lemon zest
- 1/3 cup poppy seeds
- Batter – make sure it’s sweet
- Add lemon zest and poppy seeds to the batter.
- Let cool and spread with icing.
It’s entirely possible for someone to follow these directions and end up with a great lemon poppy seed cake. However, that will only happen if they already know how to make a cake. If they don’t, they may end up with something that doesn’t even resemble a cake, poppy seeds or no.
Saying a cake should have cake batter is no more vague than saying a story should have three acts. The term “act” has no technical meaning; it is an arbitrary division of the story into sections. It represents the beginning, middle, and end, but every story has those things regardless of what’s in it. Similarly, I could say my lunch and my workday have three acts.
Writers don’t notice that directions for cake batter are missing from recipes because no one has told them that these directions exist. Recipes like this one are often pitched as though they are complete guides to plotting a story, and when they aren’t, they rarely mention what’s missing.
What popular structures actually offer is more like lemon zest and poppy seeds. Let’s examine this with a case study on The Hero’s Journey.
How Star Wars Uses The Hero’s Journey
Stars Wars, particularly Star Wars: A New Hope, is famous for using The Hero’s Journey. Let’s look at how this first movie fits into that structure. I’m using the steps of The Hero’s Journey as defined by Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey, the most popular writing book on the subject.
- The Ordinary World: Viewers meet the hero, Luke, as he goes about his normal life on Tatooine. He gets two droids for his uncle’s moisture farm and starts working on cleaning and adapting them.
- The Call to Adventure: Luke runs into a challenge that disrupts that ordinary life. One of the new droids shows him a recorded message from a woman begging for help.
- The Mentor:* Luke meets a mentor who equips him for the challenges ahead. It’s Obi-Wan Kenobi, who unlocks the rest of the recorded message and tells Luke about the Jedi.
- The Refusal of the Call: Luke chooses to go back to his ordinary life instead of adventuring. He tells Obi-Wan that his aunt and uncle need him and he can’t run off on a mission to save the galaxy.
- Crossing the First Threshold: Luke lets go of the ordinary life he once led. He returns to his home to find his aunt and uncle have been killed by the Empire because of the droids they bought.
- Tests, Allies, and Enemies: Luke meets friends and foes, and he’s tested along the way. Obi-Wan takes Luke to a cantina where some jerk aliens almost beat him up, but they also meet Han Solo, who can help them complete their mission.
- Approach to the Inmost Cave: Luke and company brace themselves before entering a dangerous place. They are caught by a tractor beam and pulled into the Death Star.
- The Ordeal: Luke comes face to face with death. In the Death Star, he and his allies end up in a trash compactor, where a monster tries to eat him.
- The Reward: Luke gets something important from his Ordeal. Princess Leia has been rescued and is now part of the team.
- The Road Back: Luke is pursued by vengeful forces as he heads for safety. Four tie fighters attack the Millennium Falcon, and then Vader tracks the ship back to the Rebel base.
- The Resurrection: Luke goes through a second Ordeal that transforms him. As the last pilot with a shot at destroying the Death Star, he hears the voice of Obi-Wan and puts his faith in the Force.
- Return With the Elixir: Luke returns with something valuable to offer his people. Hmm… Obi-Wan had Force powers before, so that shouldn’t count. Let’s just choose an abstract concept and say that’s the elixir. Luke brings back hope.
It’s easy to look at this outline and think that because the plot of the movie is solid and it follows The Hero’s Journey, that The Hero’s Journey must be responsible for its success. That seems to be what Vogler thinks, since in his book he says that A New Hope was “a stunning confirmation of the power of the mythic patterns I had found [in Joseph’s Campbell’s work].”
To demonstrate otherwise, I’ve created an alternate plot for A New Hope that still follows The Hero’s Journey, but nonetheless is a complete disaster.
- The Ordinary World: Luke chats with his friends about power converters.
- The Call to Adventure: Luke gets an acceptance letter from the imperial academy.
- The Refusal of the Call: Luke decides to become a moisture farmer like his aunt and uncle.
- The Meeting with the Mentor: When he’s trading in town, Luke meets a smuggler who teaches him how to recognize when someone’s trying to cheat him.
- Crossing the First Threshold: Luke and his aunt get in a big fight. He runs away from home.
- Tests, Allies, and Enemies: While delivering goods for his smuggling mentor, Luke meets a series of strange people who try to take the goods without paying.
- Approach to the Inmost Cave: Luke decides to impress a new love interest by sneaking into the camp of some Tusken Raiders.
- The Ordeal: The Tusken Raiders catch him and leave him out for a monster to eat, but it doesn’t eat him because it thinks he’s already dead.
- The Reward: Luke’s managed to hold on to a shiny token he stole from the camp. He suspects it’s worth a lot of money.
- The Road Back: The token attracts the spirits of dead Sith lords, who haunt him as he heads back to the city.
- The Resurrection: When he arrives back in the city, a battle between the Empire and the Rebels is taking place. He gets shot, and his heart briefly stops before it starts beating again.
- Return With the Elixir: Luke goes to a tavern and tells everyone how the brush with death taught him that life is precious. He shares the money he got from selling the token with everyone there.
Some indignant readers might think this is only bad because I made it that way on purpose. Surely sensible writers don’t create plots like this! But they do; this is typical for an unpublished manuscript. And if writers can stick to the points of The Hero’s Journey and still create a mess, it can only mean that the structure is either incomplete or simply not what makes a story engaging.
Not only can a story using The Hero’s Journey be dysfunctional, but plenty of stories are compelling without using it. Or at least, they don’t use it in any meaningful sense. While Vogler and other proponents of The Hero’s Journey claim the structure universal to all stories, the only way that stands up to the barest scrutiny is to make the structure so broad and vague it could apply to anything. When stories don’t adhere to the structure literally, proponents can say they do it at some metaphorical level, for instance, Luke returning with hope as his elixir. Popular works cited as using the structure are often missing stages or have them in a different order. Luke meets his mentor before refusing the call instead of after. Plus, A New Hope doesn’t open with the first stage of The Hero’s Journey, The Ordinary World. It opens with a space battle.
Truly universal story components aren’t like this. They can’t be fudged, skipped, or rearranged without doing significant damage to audience engagement. Let’s move on from our poppy seeds and examine this essential cake batter.
What’s Missing From Common Structures
You might have noticed that in my messy Star Wars outline, all the events seem disconnected from each other. This is typical when storytellers follow popular structures, because the focus is on crafting events or beats individually instead of plotting the story holistically. If structures looked at stories from a holistic angle, they’d include what makes story events work in concert: plot arcs.
Also referred to as lines or threads, this is the basic unit of a story. It’s what makes a story a story, holds every story together, and on top of that, provides internal structure too. Arcs are often complicated in practice, but they have only three basic components.*
- A problem that must be solved.
- A turning point in solving the problem.
- A resolution that shows the problem is solved or unsolvable.
Unlike the stages of The Hero’s Journey, these components really are universal. If you don’t have them, what you’re writing may be fiction, but it’s not a story. If you’re missing one, your story is broken.
Most stories have multiple plot arcs, but one is more important than any other. We call this arc the throughline, because it lasts throughout the entire story, bringing everything together into a cohesive whole. My fabricated plot for A New Hope is a mess because it doesn’t have a throughline. The original, on the other hand, has a strong one. Let’s look at another outline of the movie that focuses on it.
- The title crawl explains that the Evil Empire has acquired the ultimate weapon: the Death Star. Rebels have stolen plans for this weapon, and that could save the galaxy.
- The Rebel droids holding the secret plans escape to Tatooine just before their ship is seized by the Empire.
- The droids are captured by scavenging merchants. While shopping with his uncle, Luke buys the droids from the merchants.
- One of the droids, R2D2, plays Luke a brief message mentioning an ally of the rebellion, Obi-Wan. After Luke mentions where Obi-Wan might be, the droid escapes to find him.
- Luke follows the droid, and they meet up with Obi-Wan. Obi-Wan gets the full message from the droid and explains they must deliver the plans to Alderaan. After finding his aunt and uncle have been killed for purchasing the droids, Luke agrees to come.
- To find someone to take them to Alderaan, they go to a cantina in the city. There they meet up with Han and Chewy.
- When the group gets to Alderaan, they find the planet has already been destroyed by the Death Star. The ship gets sucked into the Death Star, but they manage to hide from the stormtroopers that search the ship.
- They discover the Rebel Princess Leia is being held prisoner and free her before making their escape, though they lose Obi-Wan. Leia directs them to another Rebel base where they can deliver the plans.
- Rebels at the base analyze the plans and discover a weakness in the Death Star. However, the Empire has tracked them to the Rebel base, and unless they destroy the Death Star soon, the Rebels will be blown to bits.
- By using Force powers he learned from Obi-Wan, Luke manages to target the Death Star’s weakness and blow it up in time.
Watching the protagonists struggle to solve the central problem is what makes Star Wars: A New Hope a cohesive and gripping story. Of course, while this is the most important arc of the movie, it isn’t the only one of significance. Other arcs such as Luke’s training in the Force also contribute. These threads are woven together to create the movie’s structure.
So why don’t our most popular structures emphasize the throughline instead of asking for a laundry list of events? And why are these lists so popular?
Why Popular Structures Fall Short
In all likelihood, the contradiction wherein The Hero’s Journey describes specific events yet is vague enough to fit any story is what makes it so attractive. It promises storytellers clear direction while allowing them to do whatever they want. But that only means it’s not particularly effective. Guidelines that don’t eliminate anything from consideration won’t prevent storytellers from driving their stories off the rails.
Staying on the rails requires learning about plot arcs. After all, they are the rails. Unfortunately, while some storytellers do find it easier to plot with arcs as a guide, their universality means they are too abstract to provide the straightforward, easy-to-follow directions that so many storytellers are looking for. If you make them less abstract, for instance by naming a specific problem for the hero to solve, then they’ll only fit a small number of stories.
Many advice-givers try to bridge this gap by using genre conventions. They’ll insist that to write a successful story, you need to know your genre and its rules. A charitable interpretation is that knowing your genre will help you reuse successful arcs from similar works. But genres are simply a collection of associations based on reader interest; they were not designed as plot formulas. So these advice-givers often make up their own “genres” to fit various plot categories.
One such person is Blake Snyder, author of Save the Cat. He has genres like “Monster in the House,” which applies to any movie where the protagonists face a monster that they can’t run away from. While that one is nicely specific, if he did that for every movie, he’d have far too many genres. This is probably why he puts Star Wars in a bizarre category called “The Golden Fleece.” This also includes The Wizard of Oz and, weirdly, heist movies. This is what he says about stories in the genre:
Because it’s episodic it seems to not be connected, but it must be. The theme of every Golden Fleece movie is internal growth; how the incidents affect the hero is, in fact, the plot.
Some stories do arrange their arcs that way, but Star Wars is not one of them.
Snyder doesn’t explain what arcs are despite mentioning them a number of times. He calls the most important arcs the “A story” and the “B story.” The “A story” in a movie is generally the throughline, whereas he clarifies that the “B story” is usually a relationship arc. He also mentions character arcs but says nothing about what they entail other than that characters should change.
Instead, the most meaningful way that Snyder encourages screenwriters to create a cohesive story is by insisting they condense their concept into a single line. This is no doubt very helpful, but it doesn’t guarantee a strong throughline. That goes double if the story is long. But Snyder doesn’t specialize in particularly long stories; he specializes in movies. In fact, so does Vogler. Both of these men have extensive backgrounds in Hollywood.
Don’t get me wrong, throughlines and other arcs matter to stories at any size. However, a shorter work forces storytellers to trim out the parts that shouldn’t have been there in the first place, whereas a long work gives storytellers lots of room to drive in the wrong direction. Add in that Hollywood scripts are written in a very different environment than novels, and a Hollywood story consultant may not articulate what’s essential for a novelist to hear.
What These Structures Do Offer
While The Hero’s Journey and Save the Cat aren’t doing what so many storytellers hope they will, that doesn’t mean they don’t have anything to offer.
Mainly, they can help you improve your story’s pacing. Without lots of experience, it’s difficult to judge when a story should speed up and when it should slow down. While one-size-fits-all structures may not create perfect pacing, they can help storytellers create conflict, get the plot moving, and bring things to a head.
Even my terrible new outline for Star Wars: A New Hope isn’t without excitement. The Hero’s Journey can’t guarantee exciting scenes, but a storyteller is more likely to write one when their structure says the protagonist should face death.
The broader three acts are often used for a similar purpose. After dividing a story into thirds, the advice-giver will specify that by the second third, the story should be heating up. It helps prod storytellers to stop the exposition dumps and start the plot twists.
If you focus on pacing without understanding your throughline, you’ll probably have to scrap what you create and start over. However, if you do know how to create arcs and keep your story focused, The Hero’s Journey or Save the Cat can be a fun addition to the plans you already have.
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