Submitted by acmfox on Mon, 07/23/2007 - 9:01pm

Hello everybody!

CyberSavant has suggested the following writing to everybody in the group. If you're interested, read through the challenge description below, and send your story in three acts to me (hostsfww) by July 29th. I will send out all of the stories that I have received by that date on July 30th (Monday), for critique due August 13th.

Happy writing!

Writing Challenge
The Three-Act Structure

Okay, kids, it’s time for another writing challenge! This time we’re all going to write a scene, or story, using the three-act structure. The three-act structure is an old but simple plot technique that goes back to the time of the ancient Greeks, who invented modern drama. Basically, it divides the major action of a story into three distinct parts, like so:

ACT I (The Setup)

This is the beginning of the story. Here, the protagonist and the problem that confronts him are introduced. For example, a man is driving home after a long sales trip. The problem is he is lost.

ACT II (The Complication)

This is where most of the action occurs. The protagonist tries repeatedly to solve his problem, but fails each time. Each failure, ironically, brings him closer to his goal, but it also raises the danger for him. He might overcome one obstacle only to run right smack into a bigger and meaner one.

In the case of our driver, he first tries to solve his problem by stopping at a gas station to ask for directions. The attendant tells him to take Route 13, which will connect to the highway. Our driver follows his advice and runs into a roadblock. Emergency workers have closed a section of the road because of a chemical spill. No problem, he thinks, because the detour he takes is clearly marked with temporary signs that point him to the highway.

However, the weather turns dark and nasty. Rain hits his windshield so hard he can barely see out of it. Wind knocks down one of the signs he was searching for and he misses his turnoff. He is lost again, but he figures that if he doubles back he will find the turnoff. Unfortunately, lightning strikes a tree and causes it to fall across the road, blocking him. And so it goes. Somehow, our driver overcomes one complication after another and sees city lights up ahead. He thinks he is home free.

Then he notices that the rain-swollen river has carried off the middle span of the bridge he needs to cross.

ACT III (The Resolution)

Here is where the tension that has been building in the previous act reaches its peak, or climax. This is the do or die moment for our hero. He either finally overcomes his problem, or doesn’t. At this point the price for failure is usually catastrophic for him. Most stories end happily, with the protagonist beating his problem into a bloody pulp. After the climax comes the resolution. All the tension is released as the protagonist enjoys the rewards of his success.

Let’s return to our example.

Our driver, desperate to reach the comforts of home, looks at the missing bridge span and says to himself, “I can jump that.” So he guns the engine and makes like Evel Knievel. This is the climactic moment of the story. If he falls into the river the story ends as a tragedy, usually hinting at some important moral such as “don’t be a dumbass.” However, our driver just happens to have a rocket pack attached to the rear of his Ford Escort, and thus he makes it across the river. His wife and kids welcome him home with smiles and kisses, and he helps himself to all the beer in the fridge. End story.

The three-act structure comes from theater, but its formula can be applied to all forms of fiction. Not all stories follow the formula, of course, but those that do are usually more successful than those that don’t. Think of Star Wars. Think of Harry Potter. If your readers are complaining that your story lacks action, that your characters just seem to be treading pages, it is probably because you are not following the three-act structure. Audiences and readers like characters who struggle to achieve something against impossible odds. No one would care about Frodo Baggins if he did not destroy the One Ring.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to write a scene using the three-act structure as a framework. This scene does not have to be a complete story in and of itself, but it should have a beginning that introduces your protagonist and his/her problem, a middle where your protagonist tries at least three times to overcome his/her problem but hits an obstacle each time, and an ending where your protagonist finally succeeds or fails. After the climax there should be a short resolution that drains away all the tension and makes your reader feel happy (or sad) for your character.

This isn’t a hard challenge. You can apply a three-act structure to virtually any scene: a man arguing with his wife over who owns the remote control; a sniper trying to kill a high-value target; a virginal writer trying to bed a supermodel. Let your imagination run free. You can even take a problematic scene from one of your current writing projects and see if you can fix it by rewriting it to conform to the three-act structure.

The scenes are due two weeks from now. They will then be collected and sent out to the entire group for critique. Those participating in this challenge will get free beer or wine coolers courtesy of Dave. Thanks Dave!

Now . . .

Ready! Set! Get writing!