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Three, the magic number

I’m sure we’ve all heard the song “Three is a magic number” countless times in our life (in Italy we had it as a commercial jingle). I am not sure in which sense its lyrics were intended, but I know there are a few to which it applies.

Even restricting the field to the realm of storytelling, one of the most discussed aspects is the Three-act structure. All the stories ever told seem to adhere to follow this structure: to put it simply, a beginning, a middle, and an end. This subdivision dates back to Aristotle, who analyzed a ton of screenplays back in ancient Greece and found out that the best-structured ones were subdivided into three parts (he called these parts protasis, epistaxis, catastrophe).

The beginning is the story set-up, spanning from the characters’ introduction until the inciting incident, which sets the story in motion. This incident marks the start of the middle act, which follows the narrative until the resolution of the conflict which caused it all. After the resolution, the end act begins and carries the story to its end.

More recent forms of storytelling seem to reject this point of view and prefer to subdivide the story arc into a more arbitrary number of parts: usually the middle act is longer than the other two (approximately 25%, 50%, 25%), and it can be split into two, obtaining a story subdivided into four parts.

To give a more acclaimed example, Shakespeare itself structured his plays into five acts and many screenwriters still follow this script.

Nowadays, with the advent of televised storytelling, writers subdivide stories and their chapters into a variable number of acts depending on the number of commercial breaks (usually between 5 and 8).

If you search online, you will find countless articles defending the Three-act structure and countless articles strongly against it. Those defending it point out how it naturally follows a kind of parabola of the story tension, increased by the conflict and the stakes until resolution solves it all. Those against the Three-act structure, instead, say that it is a way of subdividing a story too old and too strict to actually fit it all.

Who gets it right? Well, it’s not an easy answer, because I can see how both positions have a point. It’s true that it’s not correct to constraint something apparently so free such as a story into a strict structure, but it’s also true that every story is kickstarted by an incident and then resolved. And if we use two plot points to subdivide a storyline, we are splitting it into three parts.

Even one of the most critical articles I found online argues against the fixed subdivision into three acts, and it has a point when it states that a story shouldn’t be tied too tightly to a structure, but its identification of two plot points take it back to where we started: a line subdivided into three parts.

I think that this subdivision in three acts is something that comes naturally so that we don’t have to think too much about it when we plot a story: it’s enough to give it a beginning, a compelling incident, and a clear ending, but the path leading to the story milestone (or even the number of minor milestones) is quite arbitrary and depends on the story.

What about you? What do you think about the Three-act structure? Is it something to avoid at all costs or you just can’t do without it? Please hit the reply button and let me know.

We’ll talk again soon.


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