Beginning, middle, and end.
The three act structure.
Sounds simple?
It should be. Storytellers sitting around a campfire in a prehistoric cave followed this natural progression of a story. You, the writer, should too. You, the reader or viewer, should look for that. If you’re having problems liking a film, story, or book, the first suspect is a writer who doesn’t understand three-act structure and doesn’t shape her/his material to follow it.
This is why Quentin Tarantino’s film, “Pulp Fiction,” profane and violent and experimentally plotted as it is, works. Even though plots are left in mid-stream to be finished later and a number of “chapters” are labeled, the film rigorously follows three-act structure.
And this is why Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, “Once Upon a Time….in Hollywood,” is in my opinion a failure. Aside from the fact that the film leads the viewer on a manipulative mind-tease about the real-life horrific, brutal, senseless murders of Sharon Tate, her unborn baby, and six other people (and the many other objections I have), first and foremost, it is a meandering mess.
This is why “Captain Marvel,” which I analyzed in detail here and on my Patreon page, earned worldwide box office of over a billion dollars. Because the screenwriter rigorously followed the three-act structure, even with a complex plot with a lot science fictional material happening, plus a moving personal story.
Beginning, middle, and end.
Many storytellers do this naturally, but if you’re struggling with a piece, look first to this problem.
Sounds simple, but what do I mean, exactly?
Many how-to-write experts will tell you to start with “an inciting incident.” An action-packed opening that draws the reader in, wanting to know more.
That’s good advice, as far as it goes. Five bad beginnings, as I saw in a recent how-to-write article, are (1) having your character dreaming some action sequence and then waking up to find, well, it was all a dream, (2) a description of the weather, (3) a description of an impossibly gorgeous character, (4) having your impossibly gorgeous character look at herself or himself in a mirror (5) having a character furiously being chased through a woods, precariously climbing a mountain, or whatever.
In good hands, any of these may work (Gone With The Wind springs to mind, “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom noticed that” and then Mitchell goes on for the first entire page to describe Scarlett’s looks), but you don’t want to tempt fate.
But wait, isn’t the inciting incident supposed to be exciting?
In a writing workshop I attended years ago, the teacher read the action-packed opening scene of a mountaineer scaling a treacherous mountain, slipping, falling, continuing to climb. The problem? It was boring! Boring because we readers didn’t connect with the character.
I’ve seen this same problem in many, many YA books.
Whatever ordeal or ordinary situation you put your character through in the inciting incident, you must make the character believable and sympathetic. You must connect the reader to the character in an emotional way so that the reader cares what happens next—to the character, first most, not necessarily the plot.
Even in a prologue—like in Water for Elephants by Sarah Gruen—that skips ahead to a later point in the plot, you must connect to the characters to the reader in a sympathetic way.
I’ve often told writers seeking advice, you have no plot without character.
But the beginning is just that—a set up of characters, time, place, and yes the initial glimmerings of a plot.
The beginning should take up about a quarter of your screenplay, story, or novel during which you should plant plot points of what is to come later. I always admire a good setup and good plot points that are then later “paid off.”
You reach the end of Act One, and initiate Act Two with a surprising plot twist that sends the action spinning in an unexpected direction. Take all your characters set up in Act One and send them on a quest, into a war zone, into betrayal by a lover, into a problematic marriage, into capture by hostile aliens.
The choice is yours, but make it a doozy.
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