Aristotle believed “a whole is what has a beginning and middle and end.” In essence, he taught a three-part plot structure featuring the protasis, epitasis, and catastrophe.
The first act, the protasis, introduces the protagonist and establishes what will be the over-riding conflict. It ends with the protagonist’s point of no return, often referred to as the first turning point--an event that takes him/her out of their normal world and propels them forward on journey that will force some type of change. Whatever comes next, his/her life will never be the same.
The second act, the epitasis, is where the protagonist faces obstacles that test his/her character and endurance. Here is where the rising action creates conflict through worsening situations in which the protagonist has yet to develop the skills to overcome. He/she must figure out who they are and what they’re capable of in order to overcome the forces trying to keep them from their ultimate goal.
The third act, sometimes referred to as the catastrophe, is where all hell breaks loose. The climax, or second turning point, is an out and out cage fight where the protagonist will either be utterly victorious or be smashingly defeated. Whatever happens, the protagonist should gain a new understanding of who they are.
Why does the three act structure work?
In life, there are three phases to life: childhood, maturity, and death. The idea of Trinity goes back to man’s earliest beliefs. Ancient Celts had the three sisters—The Morrigan: Anu, Badb, and Macha; Christianity—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There are other examples, but I’m most familiar those.
According to Mary Jones, author of Jones’ Celtic Encyclopedia, the number three “is simply the highest number grouping, the highest pattern that the mind will accept before dividing objects in a new group. [The] mind divides the number four into two groups of two. Five is divided into groups of three and two, six into three and three (or two, two, and two), etc. The preponderance of the number 3 is [universal].”
For whatever reason, the number three is a part of the universal consciousness. Why not incorporate its power into your writing?
Now, there is a lot of debate about formulaic fiction writing. But, remember, readers want a beginning, middle, and a satisfying end. In essence, commercial fiction requires a plot, not merely a series of random events. I’ve found that understanding the principle of the three act structure helps keep my characters from dancing all over the computer screen.
~Life off the Lease