BEGINNING, MIDDLE, END
The three-act paradigm is the dominant model in modern movies, television and books. Once you see it, you’ll see it everywhere.
Aristotle’s framework is simple. It all starts with a story having a beginning, a middle and an end. Here are the contents of the three acts distilled to its core:
“In the first, put your hero up a tree. In the second, throw rocks at the hero. In the third, get the hero out of the tree.”
—George B. Cohan
You start by creating a “Set Up”, you define the who, what and where while grabbing the reader’s attention and establishing the situation for conflict, sounds like a mouthful, but hear me out. During the middle, Act 2, you develop the conflict and build complication towards a climax. In the end you resolve the conflict and conclude the story. Beginning, middle and end.
“That is a given….Ignore three-act structure , and you will fail. I guarantee it.”
—Michael B. Druxman
Classically, the beginning comprises 25% of the story, the middle is 50%, and the end is 25%. But in modern genres that division will often be skewed (more on that later). Once again, these frameworks exist to help and guide, but in no way dictate your story.
WHAT ABOUT NON LINEAR STORIES?
Can you tell a story without this formal three-part division? Yes, Lets look at the 2000 movie “Memento” which uses a fragmented non-linear structure. In the movie we experience the story in broken up parts, both in chronological and reverse order. But in the end, it is up to the audience to piece back the movie together into one cohesive linear three act structure. Beginning, middle and end.
WHAT MAKES A GOOD STORY?
The beginning of a story should grab your audience’s attention, introduce the setting, mood and tone of the story, generally give the audience a reason to invest their time and attention. How good your story is then becomes dependent on how compelling your challenge in Act 1 is, how engaging the complications of the middle are and how stimulating the final resolution.
“Craft the beginning to shine the light on your challenge or problem. Shape the middle around the struggle to meet that challenge. End with a resolution that ignites in the listener your call to action.”
STORY IN MINI-DOCUMENTARIES, WEB VIDEOS, ETC.
Classic story structure is also being applied in all modern sub-genres of story. However, in short-form media you no longer have the same time to develop a narrative arc and elaborate character establishment. Your conflict stays essential, but will be compressed.
Modern storytellers will even combine the Set-Up with the complication and the solution stage all in one. That means that you’ll see the classic 25% , 50%, 25% division changed, but with an overall three act structure intact.
Once again, and I will keep on stressing this, story structure is merely a guide. Your story will be your guide on how you tell it and what elements of classic storytelling will support and make your story more impactful.
WHAT ABOUT OTHER GENRES?
Let’s take documentaries. At heart, documentarians are storytellers. Telling stories that people want to watch and hear means engaging audiences in your narrative. A documentary with no real challenges or changes along the way is going to have a hard time nurturing that engagement.
But, isn’t putting a structure on documentary film manipulating reality? Maybe, but we have yet to see a medium that conveys reality 100%. There will always be choices made to shape the message. There will always be choices made in order to tell a story that resonates and engages audiences. That doesn’t mean that that structured documentary storytelling somehow becomes disingenuous or any less valuable.