Many novelists resist the idea of three-act structure because they understandably fear it will limit their creativity and lead to formulaic writing. This misconception is sometimes the result of structure's being taught by story analysts whose gifts lean more toward an ability to deconstruct the anatomy of an existing work, than in exploring the nature of what the author was attempting to express.
This can leave the student with a keen understanding of how a particular story was "assembled," while struggling with how to translate the lesson into completing his or her own work. Although one might eventually begin to grasp the inner workings of structure by staring at the various lifeless parts of a work of art, there is perhaps a more direct approach.
Story structure actually has little to do with plot. In fact, the "structure" that's being alluded to is actually the underlying theme. But what is a theme exactly, and how does working with one help you structure your story?!
Many books on writing speak of there being a dramatic problem at the heart of a story. In fact, there isn't one. There's a dilemma.
Here's the difference: Problems are solved, while dilemmas are resolved through a shift in perception.
The purpose of story is to reveal a transformation -- to show, through conflict and complication, the world in a new way. Einstein stated, "One cannot solve a problem at the same level of consciousness that created the problem." What he's describing is a dilemma.
For example: Jimmy Stewart must leave Bedford Falls in order to have a wonderful life. King Lear must find a worthy heir by determining who loves him most. Initially, these appear to be problems, but as the story progresses, we begin to see that solving one problem only leads to another, until eventually, the protagonist wakes up to the reality of his situation and realizes the fundamental flaw in his thinking, thus necessitating a shift in perception. (Note: transformation does not mean a happy ending.)
Every character in your story has a relationship to this central dilemma, whether you're aware of it or not. This is not accidental. It is theme. You don't have to hope that you're doing it right. Working with story structure is not about "getting it right." It is about making your story as clear and specific as it can be. Focusing on your characters' desire or goal will lead you directly to the dilemma at the heart of your story.
If all that happens in your story is that your protagonist achieves his goal, your reader will be disappointed. The reader's interest lies not in the hero getting what he wants, but in getting what he needs. The dilemma lies in the protagonist's attempts to square these two opposing ideas. Jimmy Stewart needs to understand that he already has a wonderful life. Lear needs to understand that truth does not lie in flattery.
Writers tend to get stuck when they try to figure out their story. Just as your protagonist is struggling with a dilemma, so are you. This is because the desire to write is the desire to evolve. At some point in the story (usually the end of Act Two), your protagonist discovers that what he is confronting is impossible to achieve, thus necessitating a surrender. And because on some level you are the hero of your story, through the act of writing, you are going to experience a death of this old identity. It's only through this dark night of the soul that your protagonist begins to reframe his relationship to his goal, thus making it possible to achieve it, if it still belongs in his life.
What's so thrilling about inquiring into the dilemma is that it invites your imagination to stretch. When you read a well-told story and wonder, "How did the author come up with that?" the answer is probably that she made herself available to a process that led her characters to places she might not have otherwise ventured.
Working with structure allows the writer to see his story from a wider perspective. Sometimes you'll write a scene, only to realize that the situation doesn't belong in your story, but if you inquire into the nature of the conflict, i.e., the dilemma, you may discover that what was essential finds its way in.
The three-act structure is not limiting, though it does demand that you be rigorous with your ideas, because story structure holds your ideas accountable to universal truths. This means that anything you imagine can be contained by structure if you're willing to distill your ideas to their nature. Story structure keeps you connected to your theme by placing your focus squarely on your character's primal desires, and in doing so, plot naturally emerges.
Alan Watt is the author of the bestselling book on writing, "The 90-Day Novel." He has been running the creative writing workshop LA Writers Lab since 2002. Visit him online at lawriterslab.com.