The three act structure is most often created with Plato. Stories from any format should follow this model, or a similar one to be successful. Act one, using exposition, or if you’re lucky, clever writing, sets up the story. The characters, the world they inhabit, relationships, etc. are all covered. This should give you a feeling for the world and type of story. Act one should end with some sort of confrontation, setting the rest of the story in motion. This action typically upsets the status quo.
Act two, or rising action, comes as a result of this confrontation. How does the protagonist go about solving or rectifying the problem(s) from act one? Many times the protagonist is unable to solve the issue outright. If they did, it would be a rather boring story. They typically need to go out and learn a new skill, seek aid, or gather supplies. Most of the character development takes place here. Our protagonist grows and learns, becoming a new person. To me, this is the crux of the story. While many people can’t put their finger on it, if character development (whether positive or negative) is missing, the story falters.
The final act brings with it the climax. Plot lines should come to a head. Wrongs are righted, the villain is defeated, relationships rectified, everything should be restored, albeit as best they can be.
While many stories play with the dynamic of the three act structure, straying to far from it could break the story. Look at Looper for example. Act 1 ended with a clear goal for JGL. Yet as act 2 started, we were still introduced to new characters and concept. On the Tobolowsky Files, he talked about stories (and lives) stuck in act one. Constantly adding more and more, the case with the show Heroes. Superhero comics notoriously have this problem. Always needing to reset the status quo. The analogy lately is writers get to play in the Marvel or DC toy box. You’re given a cast of characters to play with for your run. When finished, everything must be reset, the toys must be put back on the self. While many great superhero stories have been told, they feel a little hollow without the repercussions and character development sticking around.
For me, a good story should be sold on the first act alone. While many could and should take a completely dramatic turn in act two, the first act alone should be enough to entice your audience. Take The Stand, by Stephen King, a +1200 page tomb. Reflecting on the tale, thinking about where it started verse where it ended, it doesn’t even seem like the same story. Act one (which is how most people know the story), is about a super flu, created by humans, is accidentally released, killing 99% of the population. Only those with natural immunity are spared. By the end of the first act, the flu is inconsequential. The story quickly shifts into a battle of good vs. evil. The flu is barely mentioned again. This isn’t a complaint, just an example of how widely the story swerved.
This technique must be used carefully. Switching genres or breaking the rules of the world would immediately turn off your audience. The best reason for the act one bait in switch is for the shock and surprise of what is coming in act two – three. If using act two to promote/explain your story spoils act one, then don’t mention it.
What’s your favorite bait and switch? Worst? Comment or tweet!