There have been a few theories and models throughout the years relating to how a story is, should be, and could be constructed. Dividing stories into acts is a way to generalize the state of the actions taking place within the story. Where you are on the story’s continuum may lead to speculation as to where the story is going. When stories become predictable by either falling into the run of the mill templates that have been done time and time again, they lose their spark.
The question I went looking for was two-fold: Is there a general structure that all stories have? And, does it matter? In short, the answers seem to be yes and no, respectively.
Although, I was not able to get there without doing more reading then I ever anticipated doing on this topic. It started by diving in to Aristotle and The Natyasastra, see here. Where I read about the three act structure attributed to Aristotle and the model pieced together by Bharata Muni. After diving into those bodies of text I realized that the structure was not as important as the content. The structure is important in order to ensure that the story itself makes sense and piques the interest of the audience. However, beyond cohesion, there is little else. When this gets transferred to film there is even more disconnect from the requirement for “cohesion”. Take a look at films like, The Man with the Movie Camera, or Un Chien Andoloue, or other avant-garde films throughout the years.
While there is always debate about how “good” a film might be, there is no arguing that at the very least films like these are successful in the sense that they are still discussed to this day. So by either following the rules put in place around story telling or completely disregarding them, stories can still attribute to the collective conscious.
So, while there is a basic structure to films as you break them down further and further, it ultimately does not matter. With that said though, I might as well share some of the ideas I came across to get to this conclusion.
Some of the most interesting and compelling models related to act & arc structures that I came across were from Poetics, The Natyasastra, Kurt Vonnegut’s Shapes of Stories theory, and Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism.
One of the most basic and fundamental ways of looking at story structure can be found in Aristotle’s Poetics. It is simple yet important as a basic foundation to ensure the story does not go astray. Aristotle emphasized the importance of plot and its focus on the subject matter. Resulting in a timeline with a beginning, middle, and end.
Bharata Muni took a more nuanced route in The Natyasastra. The text goes in to myriad versions and styles of potential story formats. Each of the various story types has distinct rules that differentiate them. When compared to Poetics, a potential contemporary, The Natyastatra provides more detail into the linear format of story telling, then the three act model described by Aristotle.
Another analysis of arc structure, less about acts themselves, that is worth mentioning is Kurt Vonnegut’s theory on story development. His is less instruction and more observation. Vonnegut found patterns while analyzing the fundamental arc of story lines. He was able to translate those patterns into shapes by creating a graph with good/ill fortune on the y axis and time on the x axis. These patterns help illustrate the various arcs as well as the importance of not creating stories with predictable and spoon-fed narratives. Life is mysterious and the importance of individual events is not always quantifiable.
Finally, looking at Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism you can see that he took some of the ideas from Aristotle and expanded on them with some modern interpretations and years of adaptation on the form.
Aristotle’s Poetics is credited as being the first place that the ‘Three act structure’ is outlined, although I was unable to find any mention of a three act structure within the text. The idea though, is that a story can be broken down into three distinct parts: beginning, middle and end, see more here. This concept is outlined by Aristotle in Poetics.
This concept seems to be common sense and intuitive; however, there is some nuance to Aristotle’s basic requirements. The primary trajectory of the film will depend on the genre (i.e. epic, tragedy, comedy, etc..) as well as the audience. While Aristotle goes in to great depth about the variations, main features, and format of various types of plays, the overarching focus is on plot and the pathways created between good/bad fortune.
A basic outline of Aristotle’s concept for “the best tragedy”1 looks like this:
Aristotle describes both his ideal subject as well as the path that they should take in order to achieve the most pity and fear from the audience. In terms of subject, Aristotle describes the ideal as follows,
“So it is clear first of all that decent men should not be seen undergoing a change from good fortune to bad fortune – this does not evoke fear or pity but disgust…Nor should depraved people be seen undergoing a change from bad fortune to good fortune – this is the least tragic of all…Nor again should a very wicked person fall from good fortune to bad fortune – that kind of structure would be agreeable, but would not excite pit or fear…We are left, therefore, with the person intermediate between these. This sort of person who is not outstanding in moral excellence or justice; on the other hand, the change to bad fortune which he undergoes is not due to any moral defect or depravity, but to an error.”2
In terms of the path they should follow, Aristotle again has a vision for the most effective journey to get the audience engaged.
“…it must involve a change not to good fortune from bad fortune, but (on the contrary) from good fortune to bad fortune – and this must be due not to depravity but to a serious error on the part of someone of the kind specified (or better than that, rather than worse).”3
Aristotle acknowledges several paths and subjects as well as how an audience might respond to each. While the above is described as the “best” and “complex” tragedy, by Aristotle’s standards. It is still a simple and straight forward description of story structure.
The Natyasastra is significantly more specific and detailed when compared to Poetics. There are many variations and rules within the many plot styles as well as multiple layers to the framework behind the storyline.
The Five Stages of Action
The plot is created from the five stages of action. The five stages of action describe the phases of the storyline. The general categories that define the general action taking place within them. Here is a simple summary of how I understand the five stages of action:
That part of the play which merely records eagerness about the final attainment of the result with reference to the Germ. 4 Simply put this is the setup that outlines the goal for our hero to attain through their story.
[Heroe’s] striving towards an attainment of the Result when the same is not in view, and showing further eagerness [about it]. 4 The hero working towards their goal in the form of training or pursuing logical steps
– Possibility of Attainment.
When the attainment of the object is slightly suggested by an idea, it is to be known as the Possibility of Attainment. 4 An opportunity is presented where the hero can attain his goal.
– Certainty of Attainment.
When one visualizes in idea a sure attainment of the result, it is called Certainty of Attainment. 4 When the attainment is within reach.
– Attainment of the Result.
When the intended result appears in full at the end of events [of a play] and corresponds to them. 4
The Five Elements of Plot
Within the five stages of action, you have the five elements of plot. These five elements are the individual events that happen within the story that help drive it its conclusion.
The five elements of the plot are the key aspects that form the backbone of the story.
The initial idea or concept of the play that starts small and grows as the play develops.
– Prominent Point.
That which sustains the continuity (lit. non-separation) till the end of the play even when the chief object [of the play] is [for the time being] suspended. 5 The main goal or task that is driving the characters progression.
– The Episode.
The event which is introduced in the interest of the Principal [Plot] and is treated like it. 5 A major event that has the main directive of driving the principal plot forward.
– The Episodical Incident.
When merely the result of such an event is presented for the purpose of another (i.e. the Principal Plot) and it has no Secondary Juncture. 5 An event that does not fundamentally push the principal plot forward, but perhaps surrounds a secondary characters relationship to the primary. An event that has more of a supportive role, and is not required in all stories.
– The Denouement.
The efforts made for the purpose of the Principal Plot introduced [in play] by experts. 5 This is the climax that is the culmination of the events and plot of the play/story.
The Five Junctures
The five junctures are the Natyasastra version of the Three Act Structure from Poetics. The five junctures are essential 5 acts, or segments, of progression of a story.
The name given to the story as a whole. The Principal Plot includes the entire body of the story. The principle plot includes all five junctures: The Opening, The Progression, The Development, The Pause, & The Conclusion. Each phase outlined in the Natyasastra as follows:
1. The Opening.
That part of a play, in which the creation of the Germ as the source of many objects and Sentiments takes place. 6 This is where the story is set up. The characters, purpose, concept, object (i.e. the germ) are all established.
2. The Progression.
Uncovering of the Germ placed at the Opening after it has sometimes been perceptible and sometimes been lost. 6 After the introduction (The Opening), the germ, or the focal goal/idea, is initiated and set into motion.
3. The Development.
The sprouting of the Germ, its attainment or non-attainment and search for it, is called the Development. 6 This phase of the story is the journey or work put forth to attain or accomplish the goal. This is where the Episode may take place.
4. The Pause.
One’s pause (lit. deliberation) over the Germ that has sprouted in the Development on account of some temptation, anger or distress, is called the Juncture of that name (i.e. Pause). 7 – A Pause takes place when a disruption takes place that veers the Hero off path. Thus requiring serious thought and reflection to move past the distress. This juncture is not found in Dima, Samvakara, Vyayoga, Ihamrga, Prahasana, Vithi, or Anka.
5. The Conclusion.
Bringing together the objects [of the Junctures] such as the Opening etc. along with the Germ, when they have attained fruition, is called the Conclusion. 8 The closure of the play. This juncture is preceded by the Denouement and wraps up the story.
In an attempt to try and make sense of all of this, I tried to draw it out (below). I am not sure if this right on the money, but this is how I am understanding the pathways within the Natyasastra.
Kurt Vonnegut Models
I came across a few video lectures of Kurt Vonnegut explaining his thesis on the shapes found in story lines. Vonnegut breaks down some common story lines into a visual graph to show how many stories tend to follow one of several common templates. While explaining these he does not comment on them being “good” or “bad”. No right or wrong way to write a story. The idea here is that there is no formula for the best story, but simply how well that story is told.
A story can start at varying levels of good or bad fortune, and can take a variety of paths (including paths that do not go up or down on the good/bad scale). The measure of success may not be hitting defined milestones and ensuring that certain hoops are jumped through. It is then difficult to use the structure, or shape, of the story as means to criticize on its success or failure.
Here are some of the graphs that I found that were noted as created by Vonnegut. They clearly illustrate the types of paths that he was explaining in his lectures.
Vonnegut does not focus as much on the importance of act structure, as that is not what is important. What becomes more important is the story itself and how the reader, or viewer, interprets and understands the content and how they can relate it to themselves.
Below is a link to one of his lectures.
Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism
In Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye picks up where Aristotle left off thousands of years ago. Frye taps in to the language and theories established by Aristotle and brings it in the the 20th century.
Anatomy of Criticism is broken down into four essays that focus on different aspects of literary structure. The essays focus on: 1) modes (relationships between the protagonist and their surroundings), 2) symbols (identifying noteworthy and meaningful symbols and their meaning within the story), 3) myths (describing the various archetypal paths stories take), and 4) genres (understanding and evolving the genres established by Aristotle, epic, drama, lyric).
I could not find any portion of Frye’s text where he defines any strict or various types of act structure, as that would seem to go against his overall point. To try to pin point or enforce a finite structure when it comes to story telling would be a frivolous task. If story telling was to fit into a defined mold in order to be considered successful, then all of the artistic value would be stripped away.
The closest thing I could find that relates to the topics here, are found within Frye’s third essay “Archetypal Criticism: The Theory of Myths. Frye explains the various, generalized, story arcs that can be found in literature. He does this by breaking stories down by the essence of what they represent and how they are framed. He is then able to place them in general categories. Frye writes,
We have, then, three organizations of myths and archetypal symbols in literature. First, there is undisplaced myth, generally concerned with gods or demons, and which takes the form of two contrasting worlds of total metaphorical identification, one desirable and the other undesirable… Second, we have the general tendency we have called romantic, the tendency to suggest implicit mythical patterns in a world more closely associated with human experience. Third, we have the tendency of “realism”… [fourth] Ironic literature begins with realism and tends toward myth, its mythical patterns being as a rule more suggestive of the demonic than of the apocalyptic, though sometimes it simply continues the romantic tradition of stylization.“THIRD ESSAY. Archetypal Criticism: Theory of Myths.” Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays, by Northrop Frye, Princeton University Press, 2000, pp. 139–140.
These arc categories are Frye’s conclusion to the question, “[A]re there narrative categories of literature broader than, or logically prior to, the ordinary literary genres?” The categories help define the tone and context found within a given story. Frye goes on to lay out his vision for the spectrum of story arcs and how the above categories relate. The analysis results in his explanation for the phases, or “seasons” within storytelling.
Frye sees the above categories broken down into four distinct phases of the cyclical nature of life, and thus storytelling:
…the four seasons of the year being the type for four periods of the day (morning, noon, evening, night), four aspects of the water-cycle (rain, fountains, rivers, sea or snow), four periods of life (youth, maturity, age, death), an the like.THIRD ESSAY. Archetypal Criticism: Theory of Myths.” Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays, by Northrop Frye, Princeton University Press, 2000, pp. 160.
Frye breaks down these four phases into seven distinct phases into a wider spectrum. The spectrum ranges from content derived from the divine/spiritual to nature, with human life in the center. Each of the seven categories that he identifies is built around a cycle. When all seven categories are looked at as a whole, they too are a cycle. I will let Frye speak for himself, instead of butchering his text.
1. In the divine world the central process or movement is that of the death and rebirth, or the disappearance and return, or the incarnation and withdrawal, of a god…
2. The fire-world of heavenly bodies presents us with three important cyclical rhythms. Most obvious is the daily journey of the sun-god across the sky, often thought of as guiding a boat or chariot followed by a mysterious passage through a dark underworld, sometimes conceived as the belly of a devouring monster, back to the starting point. The solstitial cycle of the solar year supplies an extension of the same symbolism, incorporated in our Christmas literature.
3. The human world is midway between the spiritual and the animal, and reflects that duality in its cyclical rhythms. Closely parallel to the solar cycle of light and darkness is the imaginative cycle of waking and of dreaming life. This cycle underlies the antithesis of the imagination of experience and of innocence already dealt with.
4. [animal]. It is rare…to find even a domesticated animal peacefully living through its full span of life to reach a final nunc dimittis… Animal lives, and human lives similarly subject to the order of nature, suggest more frequently the tragic process of life cut off violently by accident, sacrifice, ferocity, or some overriding need, the continuity which flows on after the tragic act being something other than the life itself.
5. The vegetable world supplies us of course with the annual cycle of seasons, often identified with or represented by a divine figure which dies in the autumn or is killed with the gathering of the harvest and the vintage, disappears in winter, and revives in spring.
6. Poets, like critics, have generally been Spenglerarians, in the sense that in poetry, as in Spengler, civilized life is frequently assimilated to the organic cycle of growth, maturity, decline, death, and rebirth in another individual form. Themes if a golden or heroic age in the past, of a millennium in the future, of the wheel of fortune in social affairs, of the ubi sunt elegy, of meditations over ruins, of nostalgia for a lost pastoral simplicity, of regret or exultation over the collapse of an empire, belong here.
7. Water-symbolism has also its own cycle, from rains to springs, from springs and fountains to brooks and rivers, from rivers to the sea or the winter snow, and back again.“THIRD ESSAY. Archetypal Criticism: Theory of Myths.” Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays, by Northrop Frye, Princeton University Press, 2000, pp. 159–160.
The cyclical design of storytelling makes sense as a common flow, as the human brain seems to gravitate towards order. Having a storyline logically follow an orderly process as well as be reinforced by similarly constituent content, only makes sense. It is not a surprise at all that these stories lead to more successful and well received criticism, and thus perpetuate themselves.
With all of this said, it does not tell us much about act structures. It does however lend itself to success in terms of story structure and arc, in a general sense. By building off of Aristotle and taking the analysis past the point of simple constructs, Frye expands the concepts of literary structure to help explain the success of story telling over the millennia since “Poetics”.
This is why I found myself going down a rabbit hole. My mission was to find some semblance of a pattern, template, or formula that most (or all) stories fit in. The idea being that there might be some magic formulae that writers use, or try to avoid in an avant-garde sense, in order to further the medium of story telling and film. What I discovered was there are many different ways to craft and execute a story. If you break down the building blocks to a basic form, then of course all stories look a like (i.e. beginning, middle end). So what is the point. Being able to categorize and identify the patterns of a story helps further reinforce the ideas being conveyed within it as well as highlight those that break the mold, for better or worse.
1 – Aristotle., and Malcolm Heath. Poetics. London ; New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books, 1996. 20.
2 – Aristotle., and Malcolm Heath. Poetics. London ; New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books, 1996. 20-21.
3 – Aristotle., and Malcolm Heath. Poetics. London ; New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books, 1996. 21.
4 – Muni, Bharata., and Manomohan Ghosh. The Natyashastra: A Treatise on Hindu Dramaturgy and Histrionics ascribed to Bharata-Muni, translated by Dr. M.M. Ghosh, Vol. I, Chapters I-XXVI, The Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, Calcutta 1959. 381.
5 – Muni, Bharata., and Manomohan Ghosh. The Natyashastra: A Treatise on Hindu Dramaturgy and Histrionics ascribed to Bharata-Muni, translated by Dr. M.M. Ghosh, Vol. I, Chapters I-XXVI, The Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, Calcutta 1959. 383.
6 – Muni, Bharata., and Manomohan Ghosh. The Natyashastra: A Treatise on Hindu Dramaturgy and Histrionics ascribed to Bharata-Muni, translated by Dr. M.M. Ghosh, Vol. I, Chapters I-XXVI, The Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, Calcutta 1959. 385.
7 – Muni, Bharata., and Manomohan Ghosh. The Natyashastra: A Treatise on Hindu Dramaturgy and Histrionics ascribed to Bharata-Muni, translated by Dr. M.M. Ghosh, Vol. I, Chapters I-XXVI, The Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, Calcutta 1959. 385-386.
8 – Muni, Bharata., and Manomohan Ghosh. The Natyashastra: A Treatise on Hindu Dramaturgy and Histrionics ascribed to Bharata-Muni, translated by Dr. M.M. Ghosh, Vol. I, Chapters I-XXVI, The Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, Calcutta 1959. 386.