DL Fowler's Blog

The Hero’s Journey in Three Acts

Posted in Plots, Plots, Uncategorized, Writing by DLFowler on October 12, 2017

No matter how unique we want to make our stories, readers need a familiar pattern to follow. Otherwise, they will likely get lost. A millennia-old recipe provides a roadmap for the Lead’s journey.

The three-act structure has been fundamental to crafting enduring stories since the time of Aristotle (384-322 BC). The pattern resonates with readers because it imitates life and always has.

3 acts

All things have a beginning, a middle, and an end. We are born, we live, and we die. When someone’s journey is unfulfilled, as in classical Greek Tragedies, we lament. When someone completes a journey victoriously, as in classical Greek Comedies, we celebrate.

The three-act structure gives us the bones of a story—theme, moral premise, inciting incident, moment of grace, climax, and resolution.

In Act 1, up to 20% of the story can be allotted for readers to bond with our characters. Early bonding is best accomplished in the Lead character’s normal world. The goal of early bonding is to meld readers’ interests with the Lead’s compulsive need.

Readers are comfortable with normal. Psychologists are nearly unanimous in the view that, by nature, we humans are resistant to change. Many people even fight changes that are in their self-interest. Late in Act 1, a reader’s urge to resist change will enhance the bonding process when the Lead’s status quo comes under attack.

Tension begins to build when the Big Boss Troublemaker (aka antagonist) provokes a disturbance that threatens the Lead’s normal existence and culminates in what is generally called the inciting incident. The Lead faces a decision: pursue a virtuous goal, which feeds her compulsive need, or capitulate to the will of the Big Boss Troublemaker and suffer the consequences. At this juncture, the decision under consideration is whether to pursue a goal. Achieving it comes later.

After struggling with indecision, the Lead recognizes she must pass into a new (alien) world in order to preserve or recapture the familiar order of her normal world. The passage goes only one way. Returning to her normal world is not an option, even though the new paradigm is fraught with conflict. If Act 1 is artfully crafted, readers will empathize with the Lead’s dilemma, and the Lead’s journey becomes their journey.

Act 2 should consume around 70% of the story and it should take place in the unsafe, unfamiliar world filled with challenges and conflict. In this part of the story, the Lead is never quite able to come out on top. Readers know what it’s like to muddle through problems and struggle to control their lives. Readers become desperate for the Lead to get out of the spiral of conflict, but the Big Boss Troublemaker gets in the way. Until the Lead is ready for the climactic scene, she does not lead. We call her the Lead because her compulsive need points to the journey’s destination.

Tension increases as readers imagine themselves fighting alongside the Lead while she gathers allies and resources for a final confrontation with the Big Boss Troublemaker. Unless she defeats the adversary, she cannot end the cycle of conflict and resolve the moral premise.

Near the end of Act 2, the Lead realizes she must pay a steep personal price in order to defeat the Big Boss Troublemaker. Not only that, but readers who have become viscerally engaged in the Lead’s journey find themselves willing to let her take whatever risks she must to win. As the Lead grows physically and psychologically, the balance of power shifts in her favor. In a climactic scene, she is either defeated or she conquers the Big Boss Troublemaker. In the latter case, she is able to reach her destination.

If the Lead is victorious, Act 3 shows her entering a new world or returning home with the prize she has earned. Her compulsive need is fulfilled and the story’s moral premise is affirmed. But the story can’t end yet, because readers want assurance that the lessons learned will stick and that the Lead has a firm grip on the prize.

If the Lead is defeated, the fair and just consequences of her failure must be demonstrated in the fates of her surviving allies.

The purpose of Act 3 is to unwind tension and validate the Lead’s victory, or in the case of a tragic ending, to assure that justice has been served. Readers want to know that the new world makes sense, and they don’t mind if Act 3 takes up as much as 10% of the story.

How do you feel after reading a story that doesn’t seem to follow a logical pattern? Have you read stories that end tragically, but you were satisfied anyway? I love hearing from you. Please leave a comment.

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2 Responses

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  1. […] into a story’s three acts we often find five psychological movements. These movements parallel Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy […]

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  2. The Whole Story | DL Fowler's Blog said, on October 26, 2017 at 3:23 PM

    […] A Journey’s Three Acts […]

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