The Three Act Structure

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200611171232 The Three Act StructureChris Butcher has a long important post spinning off from Queenie Chan’s comments on making her Tokyopop OEL/OGM THE DREAMING. First quote is from Chan:

“From this perspective, it’s almost inevitable that “The Dreaming” is structured in a Three-Act Structure. Does that mean that the three-act structure suits the 3-book format? Heck, no. This is because the 3-book format requires each book to be of equal length, which is NOT what you’re supposed to do with the three-act structure. The first act, mostly of set-ups and introduction, ought to be shorter than the other two acts, acting as a “hook” to draw the reader in. Over-extend the first act and your readers will start wondering when the plot is going to start. And yet, that’s EXACTLY what you have to do for the 3-book format. In other words, anybody who uses the three-act structure in the 3-book format is bound to hit against a similar wall. To be true, nobody complained about that aspect of “The Dreaming” vol1 to my knowledge (except me), but I thought vol 1 was too long, and it’s a flaw that I couldn’t fix as long as I used the three-act structure.â€?


And here’s Butcher’s reaction:

And that’s where her essay stopped me dead in my tracks. I’ve re-read her essay a number of times and I can only assume that she’s serious, and that she firmly believes that adhering to a three-act structure actually means that each physical book needs to be an ‘act’ of the story. I can only call this a spectacular failure of imagination on the part of her or her editor. Having an overarching narrative in three acts is fine, but why not, say, have the first act “endâ€? half way through the first book, introductions and premise out of the way, and then start your second act with plenty of action? Why not have your second book recap a brief introduction and then just get progressively crazier, with the climax of your story coming on the last page? Why not have your third volume offer the climax resolution (the end of act two) and then offer the dénouement (act three)? Where’s the rule that says the acts have to rigidly adhere to your publisher’s formatting decisions? Because in any sort of creative writing class I’ve taken, I have to admit to never encountering that rule. The fact that Queenie-chan, and seemingly other OEL creators have accepted this as gospel truth of pacing is a little upsetting. There are hundreds of multi-book series’ on the racks, manga or otherwise, and none of them that I’ve encountered follow this model.


G8904 The Three Act StructureButcher hasn’t read THE DREAMING, so he talks about the story structure of FOOL’S GOLD. Elsewhere, the structure of MAIL ORDER NINJA has also been discussed of late — this story was split into two volumes, which is not the way it was intended to be read. Butcher has been aken to task by a few other manga-ka for being harsh in his criticisms, but lets face it, Johanna and Chris are important critics because they don’t pull punches based on who they want to hang out with or work with or any other reason.

If nothing else happens from here on out, Tokyopops great original manga experiment has already been a significant undertaking that has introduced an entire generation of cartoonists who will be very important for the next decade, and, hell, let’s be honest, it’s paid them to learn on the job. But in reading all of this handsight, it seems to us that the Satisfying Chunk has become tainted.

Based on the books that sell the best, manga readers aren’t really that big on story structure. However, almost all the good manga we read is broken up into chapters or even short stories, because of the original serialization. Books from YOTSUBA&! to NEGIMA to RANMA 1/2 are broken up into segments, all with rising and falling action. We haven’t read THE DREAMING or MAIL ORDER NINJA either, so we can’t comment on how well the stories play out…or don’t. And as tempting as it is, you can’t compare everything to LORD OF THE RINGS.

Perhaps the bottom line is that just making a chunk bigger doesn’t make it satisfying. With all the graphic “novels”, or big picto-rockets coming out, you’d think people would have sat down and read Robert McKee at least. We don’t hold with all of McKee’s dictums, and certainly his ubiquity in Hollywood has led to rampant homogenization and predictability. (Speaking of which did anyone catch this week’s SOUTH PARK with Stan and the peewee hockey team? Genius!)

But if you’re going to write a 500+ page comic book, study story. It certainly can’t hurt. And it might just help you overcome vague editorial advice and logic-defying marketing decisions.

Comments

  1. Well, Tokyopop’s OEL books are all written by amateur writers and artists who would normally not be able to get published until they improved their skills to a professional level. The OELs are basically written by kids for kids, so taking their creators to task for their poor plots and structure isn’t really fair. TP’s goal is to produce manga, not good stories.

    TP OELs are not literature, they’re fishing expeditions for potential licensing deals disguised as manga. TP floods the market with books to make it harder for would-be competitors to get bookstore shelf space while it fishes for something its marketing team can turn into non-book related merchandise to generate the real revenue. The story quality doesn’t matter in that regard. If TP ever wants to make a movie or animated series, they’ll hire a pro to write the script anyway. All they need are sales figures (which returnability helps increase*) and a catchy image to sell.

    You can’t blame the starry-eyed TP OEL creators for anything except maybe their naivete. It would be like comparing a writer for a high school newspaper to Peter David.

    *(BTW, that’s probably the reason no one seems to care that most TP books at Barnes & Noble are in bent, unsellable condition due to the way most kids just read them at the store and put them back on the shelf.)

  2. I use a “three equal act” structure for the D2DVD movies that I have written. It’s a great structure in that your 2nd act doesn’t lag and the plot plunges headlong toward the conclusion.

    3 – 30 page acts.
    3 – plots. An “A” plot and two subplots to enhance the “A” plot.

  3. While yes, Chan’s argument–3 books, 3 acts–is absurd, isn’t the idea of… I don’t know… acts absurd?

    The 3-act structure is for theater (500 year old theater, right?), not comic books, not films, not novels.

    It seems like instead of McKee, who’ll just reinforce these ancient ideas, people ought to be reading… I don’t know. Something else.

    Robbe-Grillet’s “For a New Novel” maybe. Anything but Robert McKee.

  4. peter bangs says:

    I read McKee on recommendation from a lot of people and his book, Story, seems to relate only to the construction of of Hollywood blockbuster popcorn movies if his every criteria is adhered too. I can only agree that if you want to write you should read everything you can, not just the genre, you want to write in, and, perhaps most importantly, get a life. Writing informed by life experience generally is better then writing informed by reading to much Robert Ludlum.

  5. markus says:

    However, almost all the good manga we read is broken up into chapters or even short stories, because of the original serialization. Books from YOTSUBA&! to NEGIMA to RANMA 1/2 are broken up into segments, all with rising and falling action. We haven’t read THE DREAMING or MAIL ORDER NINJA either,..
    A case where the use of “we” to mean “I” on this blog obscures the actual meaning. On first reading I assumed the “manga we read” was referring to manga that’s generally being read by the public or the writer’s peer group.

    (Quite apart from that I consider the stylistic tick … retarded in itself. Apologies, but that’s how I feel about a news site by a person generally aware of what she’s doing using a stylistic tick appropriate to twelve year old kids talking among themselves.)

  6. JennyN says:

    I guess tastes differ – myself, I’ve always assumed that Heidi’s poking fun at all the pompous pontificating academic types who continue to use the faux-plural form in all seriousness. Even if it is a stylistic tic. (I assume, markus, that you’re actually referring to the metaphor derived from “a local and habitual twitching especially in the face”, not “a blood-sucking creature related to spiders”, a “minumum change in price, up or down”, or any of the other multiple meanings of ticK?).

  7. maribell says:

    omg i luv the book “the dreaming” its my favorite book .

  8. Sign: umsun Hello!!! rcuwwymhyw and 9647ssgfhphzye and 8701I will try to recommend this post to my friends and family, cuz its really helpful.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] At The Beat, Heidi contributes her take on the problems of three-volume manga: If you’re going to write a graphic novel, spend some time thinking about story structure. Good advice! [...]

  2. [...] Christopher Butcher’s review of Fool’s Gold Queenie Chan on the three-volume format Butcher’s reply Heidi’s comeback [...]

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