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Archetypes and Storybeats Part IV: Three Act Structure

Over the last three weeks I’ve blogged about the nexus between certain well-recognized Archetypes and the story structures that go with them.  I’ve reviewed the Hero’s Journey, The Virgin’s Promise, and the Sinner’s Redemption.  There are, undoubtedly, many more story patterns that fit specific archetypes.

But what if you’re writing a story about a protagonist that doesn’t quite fit the archetypal pattern of a Hero, Virgin, or Sinner? 

What if your main character is a Sidekick?  Or a Mentor?  Or a Networker? Or a Judge?  Or, the list goes on. . .  

In an earlier set of blogs, I wrote about using the positive and negative behavioral traits of Archetypes to develop character arcs, independent of the rigid structure imposed by the beat sheets of The Hero’s Journey, The Virgin’s Promise, and the Sinner’s Redemption.  For many authors, the detailed beat sheet is of no help at all in plotting or navigating through a novel’s story.  These authors need a structure that’s much simpler, more free-form, and in many ways more creative.

That’s where the classic three-act story structure is all about.   

You can find all kinds of writing and advice on three-act structure.  I’m a big fan of Michael Hague and his wonderful workshop on these topics in which he outlines the connection between story beats and character arc. 

In Hauge’s take on story structure, a story’s Main Character needs to move from his “identity,” which is the mask he shows the world in order to deal with a wound he’s suffered in his backstory, into his “essence,” which is the fully realized, authentic person that he needs to become.  Take a look at the video clip in which Hague discusses the Main Character’s “inner journey.”

If this sounds a lot like the Virgin’s Promise, or the Sinner’s Redemption, or even the Hero’s Journey, it’s not surprising.  All good stories tell a tale about a Main Character who changes because of the action of the story.  The Hero proves his manhood.  The Virgin empowers herself.  The Sinner sees the error of his ways.  So it’s fair to say that the detailed beat sheets of the Hero’s Journey, the Virgin’s Promise, and the Sinner’s Redemption all follow a basic structure, that’s usually presented in three acts. 

Now, here’s where I’ve added to Hague’s ideas by using behavioral archetypes to help define a character’s identity and essence. Since every character archetype comes with both positive and negative behaviors, I can use the archetype to develop an arc that takes a character from the dark side of his archetype to the light side. 

To give you an idea of this shadow and light quality of archetypes, here are a few:

A Liberator has the ability to free himself and others from outmoded forms of belief.  But a liberator can also impose his own tyranny over the very people he tries to liberate.  Could you write a story about a liberator who learns not to impose his will on the people he’s trying to set free?

An Engineer gives creative energy a practical form.  He has a talent for designing solutions to common problems.  But an Engineer can also rely on mechanical means, and have no regard for emotional consequences.  Could you write story about an Engineer who has to learn compassion?

An Athlete is dedicated to transcending physical limitations and developing personal willpower and strength of spirit, but an athlete can also misuse his ability for personal gain, or have a false sense of invulnerability.  Could you write a story about an Athlete who values money before the love of the game?

A Sidekick is loyal, unselfish, and tenacious.  But a Sidekick’s loyalty is usually be so large that he never moves on to find his own fulfillment.  Could you write a story about a Sidekick who becomes a Hero?

I hope you answered yes to all these questions.  And, just for fun, I’ve used the archetypal shadow and light behaviors of a Sidekick along with a basic three-act story structure to come up with a quick synopsis of a Sidekick story.  Here it is as a series of story beats.

Story Beat

A Sidekick Story

ACT I
Introduce the Main Character and his goal or problem.

 

INCITING INCIDENT
The story begins when something changes in the Main Character’s circumstances.  This could be like the Hero’s call to adventure.  Or the Virgin’s opportunity to shine.  Or the first messenger that arrives at the Sinner’s door.

We see Sidekick in his ordinary world, being the sidekick to the local Cowboy Hero.  He’s loyal and unselfish, but he’s also not moving forward with his life, because, well, he’s a Sidekick.  But suddenly the Hero comes down with the flu.

CROSSING THE THRESHOLD
For the first one-quarter of the story, the Main Character deals with the change in circumstances.  He may try to ignore it, he may refuse the call, he may miss the point.  While he dithers things get worse, until he finally makes a decision to do something.

Someone needs the Hero’s help, and the Sidekick dithers around feeding the Big Guy soup, but it’s not working.  Someone needs to rescue the Rancher’s Daughter, and the Sidekick finally decides that he’ll have to do it because the Hero is out of commission.

Act II
Through a series of events the Main Character learns about himself.  (Moves from identity to essence.) He must overcome obstacles and challenges using methods that are new and different for him.

 

THE FIRST PINCH
The Main Character faces a problem he must overcome. The problem is relatively easy, but it will require the Main Character to learn something new about himself.

The Sidekick goes to the neighboring town to talk to the Rancher.  The Rancher isn’t so sure the Sidekick is all he’s cracked up to be.  But with a little bit of fast-talking, and a mask, the Sidekick convinces the Rancher that he’s the real deal Cowboy Hero, here to rescue the damsel in distress.  During this encounter the Sidekick learns that he can be as charming and articulate at the Big Man himself.

THE MIDPOINT
The Main Character faces a much bigger problem in which he will have to learn something very important about himself.  Michael Hague would say that the character would have to move into his “identity” during this period.  The Hero gets the “magic elixir” here.  The Virgin is caught shining.  The Sinner meets the avatar of goodness.

The Sidekick tracks the bad guys to their lair and through a stellar display of cunning and bravery he rescues the Rancher’s Daughter. And he’s pretty impressed with himself because he did it single-handedly.  Something the Big Man can’t do since the Cowboy Hero always has a Sidekick – namely him.  Maybe the Hero’s success has been dependent on him from the beginning? 

THE SECOND PINCH
The problems facing the Main Character are getting more and more complicated.  He continues to learn stuff that will bring him further into his “identity.”  But the stakes are getting much, much higher.

Things get more complicated because the Rancher’s Daughter is cute and he likes her.  A lot.  And she’s smitten with the Sidekick who she thinks is the Hero.  Which is kind of a problem.  Nevertheless one thing leads to another and they make love.  In the heat of passion the Sidekick says something that the Rancher’s Daughter interprets as “I love you.”  (Of course a Cowboy Hero would never, ever do any of this, because, well, he’s a Cowboy Hero and always gets the bad guy but never gets the girl.)

ACT III
Something happens and even though the Main Character has grown as a person, he will still fall back on his old ways of thinking and reacting.  This will cause a huge crisis that he must resolve.

 

THE CRISIS
Something happens which forces the Main Character to forget everything he’s learned through the course of the story.  He reverts back to the person he was at the very beginning. (Hague would say he moves away from his essence back into his identity.)  From an archetype perspective this means he moves from the positive qualities of his archetype back into the negative ones.

The Sidekick returns home to find the Hero fully recovered from the flu.  The Hero is fine with the fact that the Sidekick rescued the Rancher’s Daughter, but when she arrives in town expecting the Hero to fall on his knee and propose marriage, the Sidekick is in deep trouble.  The Rancher’s Daughter discovers the Sidekick isn’t who he said he was.  And the Cowboy Hero feels betrayed because we all know Cowboy Heroes don’t ever get the girl.

THE RESOLUTION
All appears lost, but somehow the Main Character gets his act together, jettisons his fears, remembers what he’s learned about himself and fully embraces his “essence.”  When he does this he is able to resolve the crisis.

The Sidekick loses his job and the Hero’s trust, but maybe that’s not the end of the world.  After all, he could have the love of a wonderful woman, and he’s proven to himself that he could do the Hero’s job.  There are plenty of Western towns that need a guy like him.  And he could hire his own Sidekick.  So he jumps on his horse, catches the Rancher’s Daughter, professes his love, kisses her senseless, and they ride off into the sunset together.

The simple three-act structure above can be used to write any kind of story.  And if you combine it with archetypal behaviors that were first outlined by Carl Jung, you have some very powerful tools for brainstorming story and character arcs. 

I also think that this less rigid beat sheet is perfect for writing a synopsis or coming up with a brief outline, especially if you’re a seat of the pants plotter who doesn’t want to know every scene before you write it.  In fact, the story beats I’ve outlined above, if you put them in paragraph form, would create a very short, but complete, synopsis for this Sidekick story.

Even though I consider myself a tiny bit OCD when it comes to plotting stories, the truth is that I use the three act beat sheet way more often than I use any other story structure because I find that it’s the most fluid and liberating, and the best structure for synopsis writing.

Thanks for tuning in to this blog series.  It’s been fun to write.  Please feel free to ask questions in the comments below. 

And if you’d like to learn more about this topic, I’ll be teaching the three act structure and archetypes at RWA’s convention this July in San Diego.  I’ll also be teaching a workshop on this topic for the Virginia Romance Writers in October.

7 responses to “Archetypes and Storybeats Part IV: Three Act Structure”

  1. […] week, finding the story beats when your story isn’t a Hero’s Journey, a Virgin’s Promise, or a Sinner’s […]

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  2. elise hayes says:

    Hey Hope,

    This is the blog I’ve been waiting for, as I’m currently plotting! I agree this structure is the most flexible…and easiest for me to use. I’m actually reading the Dresden Files on my Kindle right now and while I haven’t fully analyzed the three-act structure for those books, I’m definitely seeing a pattern of a big action scene, always right around the mid-point of the book.

    One question for you: why the language of “first pinch” and “second pinch” (what’s a “pinch”)?

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    • Hope Ramsay says:

      I didn’t give those beats that name, I was taught that name by another plotting guru. I think another way of looking at those scenes is to say that the stakes for the main character are raised in some fashion. The MC will have to solve a problem, battle a foe, deal with an antagonist, escape from the bad guys. It’s not a turning point, but it’s a place where the MC gets to practice being in his essence, or using the light sight of his archetype’s behavior. These scenes are where your MC has an opportunity to grow by dealing with problems.

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  3. I’ll be looking for that workshop at RWA, for sure! Love all of this great information, Hope. Thanks so much.

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  4. This blog series has been fantastic, Hope! Thanks for sharing and providing such useful information. It’s going to be a great workshop. Wish I could be there for that!

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  5. Elisa Beatty says:

    This is the coolest freakin’ thing!!! I’m going to have to print it out and study it for awhile, but I know it will be super valuable for me!!

    Yes, thanks, Hope, for this great series!!

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  6. Lovely just what I was looking for. Thanks to the author for
    taking his clock time on this one.

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