In my last post, I said I was going to review some folktales to see if any conventions of the “three act structure,” used in contemporary fiction and cinema, apply. Lest I be accused of hubris, I did not say I was going to be systematic about this. My qualifications are simply a lifetime of love for this stuff. Here are a few random observations.
The first thing I noticed – and I should have expected this – was the apples and oranges nature of my comparison between long fiction and short, between modern novels and screenplays and the kinds of tales you find in Grimm and other folklore collections.
Some longer epics do mesh with the three act structure. In Homer’s Iliad, plot point #1 is Paris taking Helen to Troy, and plot point #2 is the Trojans wheeling the horse into the city – this is how the 2004 movie, Troy, is structured too. It seems the three act structure only really fits longer fiction. This leads to the question of whether the concepts apply to short fiction at all and to folktales in particular.
Every one of the folktales I reviewed has what Syd Fields called, an “inciting incident,” an event or situation that sets the action in motion. The king is sick, the princess is missing, a dragon is loose on the land. Often this is right where the tale begins, without any other preamble.
In terms of the major plot points, most of the folktales I looked at only have one. Some have two and a few do not have any. Are there any plot points, in the sense of a major crossroad, in the tale of Red Riding Hood? Not really. The unfortunate girl obeys her mother – “Take this basket to grandmother” – and events roll on to their unfortunate conclusion.
Cinderella has a single plot point. The fairy godmother asks, “Do you want to go to the ball?” When Cinderella says yes, her happy fate unrolls like destiny.
Another common folktale set up has just one decision point: three brothers or three sisters set off on quest. Each of them meets an “insignificant” or repellant creature as they set out. The older siblings are arrogant and come to an unfortunate end. The younger sibling behaves with respect, and the creature’s advice and boons are key to fulfilling the quest and often finding love and riches as well.
A Grimm’s fairytale, “The Water of Life,” is a good example. The king is sick and only the water of life will heal him. Two brothers set out, but disparage an “ugly little dwarf” who offers advice. They wind up stuck – literally – in a mountain pass. The youngest brother, who is open to help, receives it in abundance, both for the immediate quest and in overcoming the treachery of his brothers later on. Although the action is rather complex, the only real decision the brothers face is whether or not to befriend the little man at the side of the road. That choice determines their fate.
Some stories with two plot points echo the three act structure. An example is, “The Pedlar of Swaffham,” which I discussed here a year ago: http://wp.me/pYql4-85. A poor pedlar in the English village of Swaffham dreams he will find gold if he travels to London Bridge. Unlike most people who do not act on their dreams, he decides to go (plot point #1). He spends three days waiting fruitlessly. His decision to stick it out, to believe in his dream, is the second key plot point and is rewarded when a shopkeeper asks what he’s doing. When the pedlar tells him, the shopkeeper says dreams are a lot of foolishness: “Why just last night I dreamed of a bag of gold under the peddlar’s oak in the village of Swaffham, wherever that is, but you don’t see me running all over the countryside, do you?”
A story like this seems so modern in it’s emphasis on trusting oneself and following dreams, it may be surprising to know that Rumi recorded the first version 900 years ago. In other variations, the poor man travels to Baghdad, Jerusalem, or Krakow. Still, in conforming (sort of) to the three act structure, “The Pedlar of Swaffham” is the exception and not the rule.
Every story has a beginning, middle, and end. How long the sections are and how we move between them is the province of structure. If you’ve ever heard a good storyteller, you’ve seen them adjust the pacing to match the mood of the audience. You’ve seen gesture, expression, and silence used to enhance the tale in ways a written transcription can never capture.
It’s easier to gain an intuitive sense of how to tell a story aloud than to write one, and easier to structure a short story than a novel or screenplay. Some people may gain a sense of how to structure a novel by reading them, but for the rest of us, constructions like the three act structure form a useful skeleton to build a story. It isn’t the secret of what makes a novel or movie compelling, but I find it a useful bridge to that destination.
In a similar way, structure alone does not explain the magic in my favorite folktales. For that I will have to slow down and consider each one more closely. And there is a topic for more than one future post!