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  • Resurrect (But Reinvent) The Three Act Structure

    - David Kuelz

  • "Act 1" - Context

    Stories are ultimately about change. They're about the way that conflict forces your characters to evolve, and how that process alters the world around them. But players can't really understand change until they have a good grasp of what it is that's changing. Players can pick up on the fact that something is "important" without context, but they can't get emotionally invested in change without context around why said change matters.

    That's really what the beginning of your story is about: why what's about to happen will matter. That's the need that the traditional "Act 1" satisfies, and by dissecting it a bit further, we can learn what those needs are in greater detail.

    By analyzing sections that are traditionally known as "Setup and Debate" or "Ordinary World and Refusal of the Call" we can diagnose what it is that your player actually needs: Exposition and Stakes.

    Section: Exposition

    When we hear the word exposition, most of us cringe. Exposition, like structure, has a bad reputation - not because it isn't necessary to good storytelling, but because we generally only notice it when it's done badly. We've all cringed at a graceless line of dialogue that exists solely for ‘teaching-time' ("But you're my half-brother on my mother's side, Steven!").

    But the unfortunate reality is that players need exposition. Without being exposed to the world and the characters before the conflict really kicks in, the player will never be able to understand how the conflict actually affected anything. They won't have anything to compare all that change to.

    In the Hero's Journey, this section is called "The Ordinary World" because (in that version) it's essentially a dictation to watch your hero on an average Tuesday. The point is to see what their life is like before the conflict enters, so that when the conflict does enter, the player can see exactly what that conflict means. Players might understand the story intellectually without exposition, but they won't ever really grasp it emotionally. They might ‘get' it, but they won't be able to feel it.

    Before players can really feel change, they need context. Don't think of it as the first cutscene you need to have - think of it as the first thing you need to provide to your players, regardless of how you provide it (more on that towards the end).

    Section: Stakes

    By now, the player probably understands the change your story is about, but they won't care just yet. Even if they understand what's happening, they won't get emotionally invested until they are introduced to why it all matters. They won't care until they know what's at stake.

    What happens if the hero succeeds? What happens if they fail? What's at risk if the player loses, and what's to be gained if they win?

    This section of the structure is generally known as "The Debate" or "The Refusal of the Call". And this is one of those areas where the ironclad prescription of different versions of the Three Act Structure aren't super helpful. Does the hero really have to refuse the adventure? Do they really need to debate what they should to do next?

    Honestly: probably not.

    But the reason those commandments were laid down is because those two sequences can't help but cover what does matter. It's impossible for the hero to refuse the adventure without the stakes of the story rearing their head. You can't talk about ignoring the story's main conflict without covering what the consequences will be if you do.

    So. Do you really need to follow the tenants of your Creative Writing TA from college, verbatim? No. But will your player ever actually care about your story without a concrete understanding of what's at risk and what could be gained? Also no. Your player needs to know why they should care.

    We'll continue to see this more and more as we get deeper into structure, but hopefully you can start to see why the order of each section is important. Players need to understand stakes before they can care about the conflict, but they need exposition before they can understand the stakes.

    "Act 2" - Building Investment

    Now that we've given our players exposition (so they can understand what's happening) and a sense of stakes (so they understand why it matters), they're finally fully equipped to actually care. Which means that, from here on out, it's all about a buildup and release of dramatic tension.

    Now that your player is invested in the story, that investment needs to be maintained and reinforced. If you aren't actively encouraging your player to become more engaged, then their interest will actively dwindle. Your focus is now on both maintaining your players' investment in the story and providing a buildup to the eventual payoff.

    Section: Dramatic Tension

    The most effective way to maintain and deepen your players' investment in your story is the creation of dramatic tension - which really boils down to raising the level of conflict and creating a sense of momentum.

    Rising conflict is pretty self-explanatory. The hero realizes that the adventure will be even tougher than they thought. They realize that the stakes are even bigger than they'd thought - if the stakes aren't actively growing each minute. The journey gets tougher, and the outcome grows more uncertain.

    A sense of momentum can be a little bit tougher to pin down, but it generally revolves around two things:

    1. A sense of the ultimate climax, and the sense that the hero is getting closer. "Destination" plots like The Lord of the Rings have it easy, but the rest of us can get there with clever foreshadowing and intelligent exposition.
    2. A sense that the current activity is happening because of what the player did immediately beforehand. A story where each event/scene/level feels unrelated to the last can hemorrhage momentum, confuse, and bore the player, so it's always smart to ensure that each event/scene/level creates the need for the next event/scene/level.

    The traditional tenants of different variations of this section - "Trials and Challenges", "Tests, Allies, and Enemies", "Approach the Innermost Cave" - are only important because they provide that dramatic tension by raising the level of conflict and creating a sense of momentum.

    Section: Emotional Counterweight

    We don't experience emotions in a vacuum. Our feelings have extra weight when we compare them to each other. That's true both in the grand, existential sense, but it's also true when it comes to stories. Lows become lower following great heights. Highs become higher after truly dark times. If you don't believe me, try watching Game of Thrones.

    Especially in stories, our emotions are defined by contrast. This comes into play, in full force, in our finales and in the buildup to them. An epic, awesome climax will only be epic and awesome if the player has something contrasting to compare it to - and the fresher that comparison is, the better. That's why the Three Act Structure contains a section for all the things a finale is fueled by - uncertainty, darkness, failure - and that's why it's placed immediately before the climax.

    Mechanically, it tends to function exactly like the section before it. It raises dramatic tension even further, it continues to build momentum, but it does so while also preparing the player for victory by providing failure to contrast it to. It's everything we've already been doing, but with an extra edge of severity.

    Does the mentor really need to die? Does all really need to be lost? Not necessarily, but those guidelines fill the right need. They give the player an emotional counterweight to the epic, killer finale that they're about to experience.

    "Act 3" - Payoff

    We've already covered the fact that emotions don't exist in a vacuum, and this final act is all about a correlated fact: emotions also aren't very fun until they're resolved in a way that's satisfying.

    I don't know about everyone else here, but I can think of plenty of experiences that I can describe as "emotional" but that I'd also have rather avoided altogether. Emotion for the sake of emotion isn't the goal. Payoff on those emotions is the goal - it's what everything else we've done has been leading up to. The goal isn't emotions, it's a satisfying resolution to all those emotions, which includes both the resolution itself and also a climax of tension beforehand to make the resolution even sweeter.

    Section: Climax

    This section is normally known as "The Climax" or "The Finale", and it's exactly what it sounds like. All that conflict we've been cultivating comes to a head in dramatic fashion. Lessons are learned, people are changed, explosions are abrupt, et cetera, on and on.

    But, again, what really matters is payoff. What really matters is that all of that dramatic tension we've been building for hours and hours now finally comes to a head, so by now our players should be edge-of-their-seats eager to find out what happens. The conflict that we've given context around in "Act 1" and have built up the player's investment in during "Act 2" comes to a peak, and is concluded as a result. It can't happen too early, because too much empty space after the climax and players lose interest, but we also need space for all that resolution. Hence the placement and relative size of this section.

    Section: Resolution

    Pretty straightforward, really: all the remaining emotions that the player has get resolved.

    What that resolution looks like isn't for me to say, because resolution is unique to each story. Maybe it involves tying up any remaining plot threads and unfinished questions, maybe it involves seeing what happened to all of the individual characters in the player's party, maybe it's just a little taste of what's to come now that the conflict is over. Resolution looks different for every individual plot, but getting the player all hyped up and emotional and then dropping them on the sidewalk usually isn't the best call. Emotion without resolution it isn't satisfying - it's frustrating.


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