The Three Act Myth: Your Novel is Not a Movie

April 10, 2013, at 04:28:37 PM

Read any book about how to write a novel and you’ll probably be admonished to divide your plot into three acts.

Taken in the most basic form, this isn’t bad advice. Your story will probably have a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s not very helpful advice, though, to tell someone to start a story, have things happen and then end a story. No, these how-to books break down exactly how these three acts should go. You should have a major plot point at the end of act one that thrusts your hero into her journey. You need to have rising action through act two and bring the hero as far away from the beginning of the story as you can. You need to end act two on a major, major, plot point and propel the story to act three and the climax. Quickly ease the story out with the denouement and the end. Sounds like a good action movie, right?

Where do the three acts come from? Drama, originally, and now movies. Screenwriters learn the three acts like the Israelites learned the Ten Commandments. I’m not a screenwriter, but I guess it works for them. A movie holds an audience captive for two hours with no breaks. It needs to get to the point quickly and cut out any fluff.

Novels are not movies. The length of a typical novel is more akin to one season on a television show--Game of Thrones is a good example of this. There is more subtly to a novel, more natural storytelling. A novel shows us the lives of characters for a certain amount of time. Sure, plot and story are important but the longer arch gives you more options than the screenwriter has.

We’ll look at a few example novels and see how they fit in with the three act structure.

On the Road

I’ve seen a few people try to pigeon-hole this into a three act structure, but it’s really grasping at straws. This book tells us of three road trips, and some divide it along those lines. That doesn’t really work dramatically, though.

Maybe the first act is really short and is just the introductions and exposition in the beginning, the second act is the first two road trips and the last act is the Mexico trip. That’s better. Really, though, you can split any book up any number of ways you see fit. We could make this a four act or a five act book if we thought hard enough about it.

On the Road is a great book with no acts, just events that happen and characters that change. The recent movie adaptation of this book wasn’t very good because the director and screenwriters were too faithful to the book’s structure. Two hours isn’t long enough to tell a story like this and still ramp up our emotional investment.

A Farewell to Arms

This is a classic three act book, except then there’s a fourth act.

The first act is the introductions, the flirtation of Fred and Catherine, and Fred’s injury. The second act is his recovery, the romance, his being sent back to the front and defection. The third act is his reunion with Catherine and escape to Switzerland where they live happily ever after. Except… Act four.

The final part of Hemingway’s book is poetic, sad and masterful. It does not fit into a three act structure.

I recently watched the 1932 film adaptation and the fourth act is mostly cut and tacked on to the end of the third act. Hollywood needed a more defined three act structure for the movie.

A Catcher in the Rye

I suppose you could try to divide this into three acts. The school would be act one and act two would go up to the meeting of his sister. Do you think Salinger was thinking about three acts when he wrote this book? I doubt it. The story structure is almost like The Odyssey. Holden goes from one situation to the next, getting more depressed after each. Could you imagine how awful a movie version of this book would be? There’s no structure and no resolution.

Just Tell a Story

Setup, conflict, resolution, repeat: That is all you need. Create your characters and tell their story. Start it at a good point and end it at a good point. Have something unique to say. Write good prose.

Stop thinking about how movies tell their stories. You have an older and more powerful platform: use it.

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