I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to structure as a storytelling foundation. Please understand that the following are just random thoughts and questions, not meant to indicate a final theory. AND this is long, I suggest not reading it at all.
Okay, here we go.
For many, many years, the fundamental structure of storytelling hasn’t really changed. In it’s most simple terms, it is:
Act One) Meet your characters
Act Two): Put them in the worst peril they have ever faced
Act Three): Resolve that peril
That’s it. I know the full on definition is a little more complex, but this is our working model. We have a denouement after act three, and we’re done, happy and sated.
Not all stories follow this structure, but the vast majority, up until this generation, absolutely do.
There have been periods in history where the serial effect distorts our structure somewhat. Dickensian stories were often serialized, and that sometimes extended and twisted the second act in particular. But even in those cases, when read as a whole, the structure holds.
One of my observations with the fanfiction I have read is that this structure is often thrown out the window in exchange for either the ‘ficlet’ model, essentially the fiction version of a snapshot moment, or for a definite lessening of the importance of the second act. I think that stuff is interesting, socially.We often see a huge importance placed on the first act, the introduction of character, and then we skip to the end, bypassing the elevation of peril entirely.
Here’s the strange thing, comics are distorted in structure, in large part as well, at least most mainstream comics. DC had followed the structure, Marvel threw it out the window somewhat. They favored a serial approach, wherein the second act would alter and change over a series of issues. That approach is still what the industry mostly emulates today.
And it’s going on in television and even film. In television, dramas used to mostly be complete tales each week. A Star Trek episode carried few notes over from week to week. Compare that approach with most drama on television now…they are following a Marvel approach, as mini-third acts replace genuine story conclusions. Notes are carried over each week. Even with sitcoms, there are overall arcs for the season, something less common in past generations.
Film series like the Dark Knight do this as well, taking the three act structure and laying it out over three films (with little mini-acts along the way).
So I think this generation is the first one really raised on the idea of the mega-story being all around them.
Where it gets truly interesting for me right now is video games. Because they seem to chuck all that right out the passenger side window.
When I asked earlier this evening what games people obsessed over and why, there were a lot of answers, some that don’t have a huge bearing on this discussion, like visuals, even character creation.
But video games are fascinating because, well, they are accomplishing something that traditional media are struggling with…they are conquering the short attention span and limited available time of the average reader/player.
The average role-playing game takes tens of hours, maybe more, to complete.
I recently discovered the joys of Doctor Who, and I loved it. I went wild, I watched episode after episode, read the novels, read the comics, the whole thing. And at some point, I just had to take a break…as good as it was, I was full.
Skyrim, on the other hand, I played probably twice as many hours as I spent watching Doctor Who and I never got bored, I wanted to get up in the morning and play again.
Here’s the deal, you spend hours upon hours not only doing the same thing over and over, but seeing the same animation and hearing the same exact sound effects over and over. You spend hours smithing. HOURS. The BEST movie would lose your attention in that span of time.
When you go out, you fight the same limited number of creatures. You travel the same path a hundred times. You get an armor upgrade? Great, it changes almost nothing. It makes you a little harder to kill, and it took you twenty hours to get that incremental change.
I love Skyrim, don’t misunderstand.
But they might have found a way to flog the three act structure and win.
In the early days of video games, character and plot barely existed. You were this blob, you ate that blog. You were this rectangle, you shot that rectangle. And Harlan Ellison himself pointed out that video games could never be anything important or meaningful because you COULDN’T WIN.
Harlan was wrong, I’m sure he knows that.
But when you go back and play some of those early games, it’s hard to stay patient. There’s no character and no story. It’s interesting that the current casual games that have become big hits, say, like Angry Birds, have at least made an attempt at character and plot, even in a cursory way.
But I digress.
How does a game hold your attention, if the play mechanics don’t hugely change, for 60 hours or more?
A lot of people said story.
I’m telling you, the idea of writing a sixty hour story is terrifying. Hats off to game developers.
But they manage to do it.
But the structure is different.
What we tend to have in these games is a brief first act, the introduction of stage and setting and cast, and then EVVVVVVVVVVERYTHINGGGG is second act, right up until the final boss, or conclusion.
And that’s interesting…because the second act is disappearing in most other fiction.
How do games keep you THAT involved with the story, in a second act that takes up 58 of 60 playtime hours?
Because I’m telling you, that’s kind of miraculous. And then we have MMORG games that literally don’t HAVE a third act at all. People are paying a monthly fee for an endless, endless second act.
That’s very fascinating to me. You may disagree with my thinking here, I’d love to hear your opinion. But many people said story is what keeps them playing. And if that’s the case, what are games doing that movies, tv and prose seem to have a hard time managing?
I think the answer may be that the second acts are ACTUALLY made up of a series of smaller acts, these would be side-quests, mini-quests, and secondary goals.
It would go something like
Second act (composed of this pattern repeated a hundred times: mini-second act, mini third act))
I’m sure people have given this a lot more of a scholarly look than I have, but my question is, are video games training us to look at stories differently, and if so, will they affect or alter the three act structure in other media?
I say it’s not only inevitable, I say it’s already happening.
Curious to hear your thoughts.