Monday, July 26, 2010

The Three Act Structure

We often talk about stories in terms of a three act structure. We usually break the second act into two halves, divided at the midpoint of our story. If we’re trying to develop the outline of a story, whether it is before we write or afterward, one way to start is to hang the story off of the three act structure.

The first act is a picture of the way things are before the lead begins to change. In this act, the lead is going through a slow death. For our example today, let’s look at the story of Hosea. The first act of this story is that Hosea is commanded by God to marry a whore. Hosea does as he is commanded and marries Gomer. Gomer stays with him for a while, but she isn’t happy with the situation. She has children but it appears that at least one of the children isn’t Hosea’s. She moves out of the house and chooses to spend her time with other men.

Act two is like the act one turned on its head. The lead of the story chooses to do something that brings him out of the slow dead of the status quo, giving us the opposite of act one. As I said, the second act is split in two. In the first part of act two, Hosea goes after his wife seeking to bring her home, but she prefers the other men. He provides for her needs, while she’s with these men, but she believes the other men are providing for her. So, in comparison to act one, she is now outside the home rather than in the home. She is playing the whore rather than the wife. Hosea is providing for her indirectly rather than directly. Her sin was private, but now it’s public.

The second half of act two is still in the upside down world, but the stakes are raised. She’s still chasing after men, but Hosea cuts off his support. Perhaps he doesn’t know where she is. Perhaps he gives up. Whatever the case, she is totally reliant on the men she’s sleeping with. But those men don’t want her being reliant on them. They want her for what she can give them, but they don’t want to give her anything in return. In time, her debts mount and she falls into slavery.

The third act merges the worlds of the first two acts. As we move into act three, God tells Hosea to go love Gomer. Hosea once more goes after her. This time, he gathers his money and goes to the slave market. As her husband, he had a right to her, but she sold herself to other men. But in this act he buys her and takes her home. This time, she stays. We see the merging of the worlds in that he takes her back where she belongs, but he does so by becoming one of the men who is willing to pay for her.

Hanging a story from this three act structure helps us to see the big picture of what’s happening in the story.

To see a modern retelling of the story of Hosea read For the Love of a Devil.