“The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” ‒ Orson Welles (pictured above)
It’s a fascinating artistic paradox. Total freedom inhibits creativity, whereas strategic limits generate creativity.
Strategic limits? you ask.
Let me give you an example of the concept. If I say to you, “Write five pages about anything you want” you might tense up, floundering in that sea of vagueness, thinking: Where the heck do I begin?
But if I say, “Write about one thing that made you belly-laugh as a child, one friend you envied as a teenager, and one time you saw your father cry,” I guarantee those specifics would strike sparks in your mind and you would charge into writing.
Imposed limits force creative ideas from the writer the way champagne is freed from its bottle.
Three-act structure epitomizes the freeing power of strategic limits.
From the beginning of human society, stories have been told in three parts: an inciting incident, complications, and climax. In our time, thanks to centuries of theater and, more recently, film, this has become known as three-act structure.
I believe that three-act structure is how our brains understand story: beginning, middle, end. And I believe that story is how we understand life: we comprehend each event we experience as having a beginning, a middle, and an end.
This goes very deep. Many experiences we value most, or consider the most profound, occur in three acts.
- People meet, fall in love, marry.
- Enemies confront each other, fight, then win or lose.
- A journey is three acts: you set out, you travel, you arrive.
- A meal is three acts: appetizer, main course, dessert.
- Lovemaking? Foreplay, intercourse, climax.
- The scientific method has three acts: hypothesis, experiment, proof.
- We measure time in three stages: past, present, future.
- And we measure our very time on earth in three acts: birth, life, death.
Three is a magical number that occurs over and over in myths and fairy tales, and it carries magic because sensing three parts to every experience is how we understand our lives: beginning, middle, end.
So in story, which is a metaphor for life, three-act structure is fundamental. Inciting incident. Complications. Climax. The wise writer will apply this potent principle to shape and focus their story.
You’ll find a detailed examination of 3-act structure, and of every essential aspect of writing a successful novel, in my book Page-Turner: Your Path to Writing a Novel that Publishers Want and Readers Buy.
All my best,