Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Lesson 0: The Five Act Plot

Shakespeare was, among other things, a failure as a fashionista. I mean to say, that lacey collar thing really sucked. Not going to lie. However, we remember him for his writing, and so shall be left aside his fashion sense.

He called himself "The Poet", as did his contemporaries, and everyone else. It's a fitting title for him, because his originality came from his turn of phrase more than anything. Through his turn of phrase, his characters and their stories were made compelling, to put it mildly. Through the prettiness of his language, normal people were laid bare in such a way as to be seen beautifully. That was his genius: to set forth a reality so real that we believe it as we believe our lives. And his forum of choice was the five act play. As I understand it, the term "five act play" wasn't one used by him or anyone else. However, the formula of the five act play is the formula that he followed for every single play he wrote. And it's a winning formula. So effective is it that almost every movie we watch now sticks to the same formula. And here is the formula, presented with a famous story as an example:

Act 1: In the first act, the main characters are introduced, as are their conflicts and back grounds. The purpose of Act 1 is to describe the main plot. In Star Wars: A New Hope, the first act begins just after the text scrawl ends--that's technically a prologue. The first act of Star Wars explains that Leia needs Obi-Wan Kenobi's help.

Act 2: In the second act, secondary plots, characters, and conflicts are introduced. Act 2 of Star Wars is where Luke Skywalker comes in, all set to start his hero's journey, where he begins to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi. (For an analysis of the hero's journey/adventure, wait till I've written it.)

Act 3: In the third act, everything is thrown topsy-turvy and made difficult. This is where messes happen. In Star Wars, this is where Obi-Wan and Luke team up with Han Solo to get off Tatooine, and where Luke starts his Jedi training with the little training remote on the Falcon, and where they head toward Alderaan. The division between acts 3 and 4, here, is a little fuzzy, because of the reasons I'll explain in the next paragraph.

Act 4: In the fourth act, some way of concluding the plots and conflicts is suggested. However, the messes in the last act are made messier, so that the conclusion of plots and conflicts, while seeming inevitable, also seems impossible. In Star Wars, this is where the Death Star is explained as a doomsday device. They start doing this as soon as the Falcon is caught in the Death Star's tractor beam, as a demonstration of the Death Star's power. Then they have that scene where their battle plan is outlined from the Death Star plans they got from R2. This is also the scene in which the battle around the Death Star starts, but does not finish. This act ends about when Red Leader gets killed, and Luke has to start his attack run.

Act 5: Then it's climax time. In the fifth act, everything is fixed. In Star Wars, this act begins when Luke stars his attack run, and everything thereafter is the remainder of the fifth act. You have your climax, and your conclusion, and your feel-good moment of emotional relief in this act.

So that's Shakespeare's winning formula. The thing works, it's undeniable. Dial in a story, make your characters and situations work well, and this is a sure-fire entertainment.

My question, then, is: can the formula work with a short story? I plan to find out. I have a short story that I wrote for a class, and my teacher wrote on it that it was a "genuine pleasure to read." And I agree. I have written few things that I enjoy reading--I almost never reread these blogs, even. That story was a genuine pleasure, though. However, I showed it to another writer friend of mine. She's a super smart lady, who got her masters in creative writing and all, and she wrote on it, "ever heard of plot? Look into it." And that was a legitimate comment, too, because at that point I hadn't ever heard of plot. Now that I'm analyzing Shakespearean plot structure, I'm going to revisit that story and see if I can plug it into this winning formula and make something pretty of it. I understand the story I wanted to tell, and I did it pretty close to well, so it should work. I'll document my progress here, so keep an eye out for a repeat of the five act diagram above, but with the characters Trick and Moxy and their adventures, instead of Luke and Star Wars stuff.

Sound like a plan? Good.

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