The Organised Author

The three acts structure, Aristotle, and Dostoevsky




The three acts structure, Aristotle, and Dostoevsky

The three acts structure is the most common (and old!) way to write stories in the western culture. Every western story, from novels to films, has three acts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. Aristotle created this very simple structure, and we’re so used to it, it’s practically embedded in our DNA and seems “logic” because every story starts somewhere and ends somewhere, right? Well, yes and no.
The three acts structure is more than just a story divided in three parts. It has some very rigid rules.
The beginning is short and sweet, introduces the main character(s), the main conflict, and the hero’s quest (what the hero has to accomplish).
The middle is the longest part of the novel and describes how our protag tries to reach his/her goal (the quest).
The end is again a short section. There’s the final epic battle, the accomplishment, and the end with the happily ever after. Are there other ways to tell a story? Yes!
The three acts structure isn’t the only one writers use to tell a story. For example, Russian, Japanese, and Chinese stories don’t follow this structure. The beginning can be quite long and often there isn’t an “obvious quest”. For example, Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crime_and_Punishment). I lost count of all the people who told me they’d given up reading it because “it doesn’t go anywhere and it’s boring.” But it does go somewhere.
So what’s the story? A young man, Raskolnikov, kills an old lady for money (he really needs that money). A detective, Porfiry, investigates and understands immediately that Raskolnikov is the killer. In fact, the poor Raskolnikov is a lousy killer and riddled with guilt and worry. Now, if the story were set in London or New York City or even Auckland, it’d be a cosy mystery or a thriller with lot of suspense and tension, and a cat and mouse game between Raskolnikov and Porfiry. Possibly, a car chase as well.
(Side note: I love car chases by the way. I’m a DTM fan!  Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters, which is the German Touring Car Masters https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deutsche_Tourenwagen_Masters.  Go Paffett!)
But what happens in Crime and Punishment is different. Porfiry doesn’t arrest Raskolnikov. He wants the chap to fess up first so his punishment will be less severe (like he’ll end up in Siberia instead of being executed). There are several, long philosophical discussions between Raskolnikov and Porfiry about good and evil, about committing a vile act out of necessity, about the meaning of human soul etc…
And that’s when western readers put the book down. The original plot (the murder) seems forgotten. But it’s not like that. The focus of the novel isn’t the hero’s quest like in a three acts story. The focus is the spiritual growth of the protag.
The same thing happens in Japanese and Chinese books where the real core of the story isn’t the quest, but the protag’s soul. Once he or she has proven himself/herself worthy, the protag usually dies. Yup. And it doesn’t happen in the end, which as you might’ve noticed isn’t a happily ever after. The protag dies well before the end and then the story goes on, usually heading into a completely different direction as if a new story is starting.
I think that if western readers keep this in mind, they’ll appreciate stories from different cultures because it’s worth it. Besides, one of the most famous western novels and one of my absolute favourite books, The Lord of The Ring, doesn’t follow the three acts structure at all.
The beginning is very long, the end is quite long too and goes well past the accomplishment of the quest, and the middle is split into many different storylines. You have to wait 200 pages to know what happens to Frodo and Same while reading about Merry and Pippin.
On top of that, there are parts that can be skipped without losing the main plot (think about the chapters with Tom Bombadil). Still, it’s an awesome book, and if you love it like I do, try other non-western books. You’ll love them too.
Happy reading!
 

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