07 April 2012

Banana Juice in Three Acts?

Since Syd Fields so astutely wrote about screenplay writing, the three-act structure of plotting has been a staple of screenwriters for decades.

Once upon a time, in some lonely writer’s den, a novelist or short story writer struggling to find Voice and Structure in his tale read Fields’ screenplay bible, drew a red line from Fields’ premise to the structure of story in prose writing, and ever since that epiphany moment, the hue and cry of publishers, editors, agents, and writers has been, “A writer must write in the three-act plot structure, or write not at all!”

Acknowledging that Syd is much more intelligent and creative than I am, I propose that writing in the three-act structure for novels and short stories is anathema to the art and craft of tell-tale storying.

Now, I realize I just stepped on some very tender and sensitive grad school creative writing toes and can hear the collective gasp of the three-act faithful at my heretical statement.

I submit that writing tales utilizing the ritual of three-act structure is unnatural to storytelling.

I remember watching the old F.B.I. on television and each segment of each show began by naming the “Act”. A couple of other shows did this as well.

What exactly was each “Act”? Simply, that meant “End of commercial interruption; Now, on with our show.”

I listen to much Old Time Radio shows on iTune via http://radio.macinmind.com, and I hear the same pronouncements by the announcers: “End of Act One” or “And now, for Act Two of Suspense.”

However, short stories and novels don’t have commercial interruptions. A person can stop at any point in the tale to go to the bathroom, answer the phone, get a glass of tea, eat something, clean the house, et cetera.

Thus, writing in “Acts” doesn’t really fit. Movies, television shows, and even Old Time Radio programs are different media from short stories and novels, and, therefore, require a different approach to tale-telling--a division into Acts.

Think in terms of natural structure of the problem:

  1. The action that created the problem—inciting action
  2. Threat—who/what created the problem
  3. The action that resolves the problem—principle action
  4. Anti-threat—driving force of the principle action
“Anti-threat” is, of course, the “protagonist”.

What I like about calling the “protagonist” the Anti-threat is that this perspective requires the writer to look at his tale from the point of view of the “antagonist”, the Threat who caused the Inciting Action (Problem) in the first place. Without the Threat, the writer has no story whatsoever.

And this is where good writing is separated from Really Good Writing: the THREAT is the reason for the story NOT the Anti-Threat.

Begin with the Threat, not the “protagonist”.

Just like I begin by adding vanilla before I add any other ingredient in my Banana Juice. Vanilla is an intoxicating smell for me. If Liz wore vanilla as a perfume, I wouldn’t be able to keep myself off of her.


I love bananas. I love vanilla. I love cinnamon. I love milk.

And I love combining all the things I love into a tasty treat. For the following quaff, I added a bit of nutmeg, which reminds me of Christmas, which I also love very much.

Larry Mike's Banana Juice

  • One banana
  • 16 ozs skim milk
  • 2 tsp honey
  • ¼ tsp vanilla extract
  • ½ tsp nutmeg
  • ½ tsp cinnamon
Blend all ingredients together.

Drink immediately or chill in a covered cup until later.

Makes one serving for me.

Of course, you can make this a really interesting quaff by adding one-two ounces of your favorite adult beverage. Mine is vodka. I use McCormick’s Vanilla Vodka and leave out the vanilla extract.


Okay, I hear the grad school and high school creative writing teachers screaming: Write in Acts! Write in Scenes!


  • Beowulf isn’t written in Three Acts.
  • Dante’s Inferno isn’t written in Three Acts.
  • Milton’s Paradise Lost isn’t written in Three Acts.
  • Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex isn’t written in Three Acts.
Each of the aforementioned classical works of literature follow a much simpler and more natural approach to tale-telling.

Although Syd is a saint in the Gospel of Screenplay Writing, I prefer Aristotle’s simple approach to writing a good story:

  1. Beginning
  2. Middle
  3. End
Again, writing a tale from the point of view of the Threat (antagonist) rather than the Anti-threat (protagonist) provides the tale-teller with a profound insight to story structure and creation:

  • Resistance—the Threat that caused the problem; resists the Anti-threat’s attempts to resolve the problem
  • Complications—those events set up by the Threat that resists the attempts of the Anti-threat to easily resolve the problem, which leads to the
  • Crisis—an event that defines the Anti-threat’s character and forces the Anti-threat into
  • Climatic Action—that then forces the Anti-threat into
  • Crisis—in which the Anti-threat is forced by fate or sheer will to the only
  • Resolution—possible because of the choices made by both the Threat and the Anti-threat
Okay: Once you get all the above into your tale, if you still feel the urge to “divide” your story into Acts for the sake of discussion with other writers, prospective agents, and/or potential publishers, then do so.

Otherwise, every good recipe has one little secret, and you can keep your antithesis to the “acceptable” format for tell-taling to yourself--and I’ll keep your dirty little secret as well.

And, so, I raise my Banana Juice to each of you tale-tellers, and I wish you

Bon Appetit & Good Writing,

Larry Mike

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