“A whole story is what has a beginning, a middle, and an end.” Aristotle, in Poetics
Plot structure is as old as old Aristotle. Although he wrote the above quote about drama, it also holds true for fiction. It’s the classic three-act structure many novelists follow; other authors put their own twists on it. Before experimenting, though, it’s important to understand how this formula works. Let’s look at Aristotle’s structure as though our characters are climbing a mountain.
Act One: The Beginning, or Setup
At the mountain’s base, we have the beginning. It introduces the setting, the hero and villain, and the tone. It immediately draws readers into the story, includes conflict and begins in medias res (Latin: in the middle of things). That is, in the middle of the conflict and action.
The hero must have an important goal or objective, and the villain must try to prevent the hero from realizing his goal. Also, readers should care about the characters and what happens to them.
An inciting incident disrupts the hero’s world, and he gets involved in its event. He starts “climbing the mountain,” for he cannot go back. This incident may not happen in the first scene or first chapter, but it must happen in Act One. As the main character struggles through it–“up the mountain”– he moves toward the middle of the story and into Act Two.
Act Two: The Middle, or Confrontation
The villain does everything he can think of to stop the hero from reaching his goal–the mountaintop. Yet our hero continues climbing and struggling against him and his obstacles. Each obstacle the hero encounters should be harder than the previous one, and the stakes higher, ramping up tension, with setbacks (stumbles down the mountain) and regrouping.
Another way to show conflict is internal — the hero’s inner battles that must be fought before reaching his goal. In C.S. Forester’s novel, Greyhound (original title, The Good Shepherd), an American destroyer captain, Commander George Krause, commands the naval escorts shepherding merchant vessels across the Atlantic during World War Two. Krause doesn’t just fight Nazi submarines, though. He also battles self-doubts, personal demons, and physical and mental weariness. Commander Krause’s internal and external conflicts (the battles with U-boats) keeps readers on the edge of their seats. Near the end of the book, Krause and his ships are low on fuel and ammunition. Will he and his ships survive the enemy’s wolfpack? This is the reader’s main concern.
As we see from this, Commander Krause’s stakes are high: life or death for him and his crew, the sailors in the other naval vessels he commands, and the lives of the merchant mariners he escorts. Also, England’s need for the supplies the merchant ships carry so it can keep fighting Hitler.
Are your hero’s stakes high enough? Will your hero be harmed in some way if his goal isn’t met? If not, the stakes aren’t serious enough.
Also, do we care about our hero? We care about Commander Krause for lots of reasons. He’s an honorable man, this is first trip across the Atlantic in command of a naval squadron, and he grieves over Evelyn, his wife who left him for another man. We want him to succeed.
Act Three: The End, or The Resolution
Alas, hero and villain go at each other on the mountaintop—the story’s climax. Conflicts come to a head and issues are resolved. Then the hero proceeds down an easy path with falling action to the mountain’s base as his life returns to normal. After a tense and exhausting journey fighting Nazi U-boats and protecting merchant ships, Commander Krause finally gets the sleep he desperately needs.
By the end of Act Three, the main character(s) should be changed, either in a positive or negative way. This is called the Character Arc. Author K.M. Weiland, in her excellent book Creating Character Arcs., mentions a third arc she calls the Flat Arc. We’ll discuss the Character Arc in another post at a later time.
Next week, we’ll look at a different plot structure.