Three Story Beats of the Three-Act Structure

3 Beats

Your Lie in April is one of my favorite anime in recent memory, combining wonderfully performed classical music with a dramatic and emotional story that continues to pull at my heart after many viewings.

It’s also a great example of how to tell a story.

At least, it nails the three-act structure, but what I want to talk about isn’t the whole of that, but the two pillars that make up the major story beats, along with the moment that takes place in the middle of the series. Before I move onto Your Lie in April (for next week’s post), we should probably spend a bit of time on those story beats themselves.

WARNING: I do spoil parts of films, books, and games. I tried to stick with well-known examples, like Star Wars, but you might not be familiar with everything. Readers beware.


Even if you don’t know the three-act structure, you’ve undoubtedly watched it unfold countless times. Films are built on the three-act structure, as is literature and the occasional song or video game. The first act introduces our protagonist and a problem, the second act sees our protagonist attempting to solve that problem, and the third act resolves the story with the protagonist either succeeding or failing.

Yet those instances between acts are just as important. I’ve seen these called “point of no return” since they’re the moment where the protagonist is unable to return to their lives prior to that point. This is the moment when, in The Bourne Supremacy, an assassin kills Jason Bourne’s girlfriend. His lovely life with her ended, and there’s no return. Everything that Bourne does after is a direct result of that point.

Of course, not every point requires such impact. In The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Mikael Blomkvist is publicly sentenced to prison for libel after writing an article. Shortly after, he’s approached by Henrik Vanger, who requests that Mikael discover the truth about a missing grandniece, Harriet. With his reputation shredded and jail looming on the horizon, Mikael takes up Henrik on his job offer.

All that takes place in the first act. The point of no return for Mikael is when he moves onto Hedeby Island, where Henrik and other members of the Vanger clan live. It’s a fairly small island blanketed in snow, and here Mikael lacks many aspects of modern life. Although there’s nothing physically trapping Mikael on the island, his investigation into Harriet’s disappearance and his own problems keep him there.

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In other words, Mikael has his problem, and his previous life is done with until he reaches the conclusion.

The second point of no return, set between the second and third acts, follows a similar purpose by directing the protagonist towards the conclusion. In the game Valkyria Chronicles, this moment occures when Selvaria Bles commits suicide. Her death causes the destruction of the vast majority of Gallia’s army, leaving only the militia to stand against Maximilian, who’s traveling in a massive “land dreadnought” towards Gallia’s capital. Up until this point, the Empire was almost entirely pushed out of Gallia, but things quickly changed. Either Squad 7 stops Maximilian or Gallia, their homeland, falls to the dreaded Empire.

Priorities change, stakes rise. This isn’t the point where we learn if our protagonist succeeds or fails (that happens in the third act, following this moment), but puts them onto a path that leads to that.

Another example takes place during the original Star Wars, when the Rebels learn that the Empire is heading in their direction with the Death Star, intent on destroying the good guys. There’s no more running (except for Han Solo, but that sets up his heroic return). Either the Rebels destroy the Death Star or the Death Star destroys the Rebels, and this confrontation makes up the film’s third act.

Finally, there’s one last story beat that’s worth mentioning: the mirror moment.

The problem with the second act is that is usually takes up 50% of a story, nestled between the first and third acts, which often leads to stories slowing down towards the middle. Of course, there are ways to help ensure that this doesn’t happen. One idea is that instead of pushing the protagonist through another big plot moment, writer James Scott Bell suggests turning the middle into a moment of self-reflection:

“The character is forced to look at himself. As if in a mirror, only it’s a reflection of who he is at that moment in time. Who am I? What have I become? What do I have to do to regain my humanity? Sometimes, it’s the character looking at the odds. How can I possibly win? It looks like I’m going to die—physically or spiritually. Now what am I supposed to do?”

James Scott Bell, The Mirror Moment: A Method for Both Plotters and Pantsers

In James Scott Bell’s book about this moment, “Write Your Novel From the Middle,” he gives the following example:

“In Casablanca, at the exact midpoint of the film, Ilsa comes to Rick’s saloon after closing time. Rick has been getting drunk, remembering with bitterness what happened with him and Ilsa in Paris. Ilsa tries to explain why she left him in Paris, that she found out her husband Viktor Lazo was still alive. She pleads with him to understand. But Rick is so bitter he basically calls her a whore. She weeps and leaves. And Rick, full of self-disgust, puts his head in his hands. He is thinking, “What have I become?” The rest of the film will determine whether he stays a selfish drunk, or regains his humanity. That, in fact, is what Casablanca is truly about, in both narrative and theme” (Bell, 2014, The Magical Midpoint Moment, para. 6).

The anime film Summer Wars grants us another example of the mirror moment: the rogue AI Love Machine is messing with the virtual world OZ, causing countless real-world problems. By the movie’s middle, Kenji Koiso, our protagonist, is awoken in the middle night to find that his friend Natsuki’s great-grandmother died, a preventable death had Love Machine not screwed up the medical software monitoring the elderly woman’s vitals.

Kenji sits with Natsuki’s family, everyone in mourning, when someone suggests getting revenge on Love Machine. Kenji concurs, suggesting that they stop Love Machine before someone else dies. His behavior up to that point is meek, and everything he’s done is in reaction to the AI hijacking his OZ account and pinning the blame on him, but he’s spent the morning holding Natsuki’s hand as she cried, unable to help his friend.

The time for being meek is over. Now they force Love Machine to react to them.

Kenji: “I never would have guessed that the problem inside OZ would have cost someone their life, but that’s exactly what happened. That thing’s dangerous. What’s stopping it from doing the same thing to someone else’s family tomorrow? Or maybe the next day? That’s why… we need to stop it. Even alone if we have to.”

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What I like about the mirror moment is that is marks a strong moment for character progression without drastically altering the track that the protagonist is on. Rue, a 12-year-old girl from District 11, dies in Katniss Everdeen’s arms during The Hunger Games. We know that Rue reminded Katniss of her younger sister, and the girl’s death gives Katniss renewed pull to survive the competition and see her sibling again, even if her primary goal of surviving the Hunger Games hasn’t changed.

Also, if you’re able to determine a character’s mirror moment, you’re better able to plan. How does this person change from the first half of this story? Or, how has this character changed? Going even deeper, what events led up to that moment? What does she do difference since taking a deeper look at herself?

That’s a brief bit about the mirror moment, but I encourage anyone interested in this idea to read James Scott Bell’s book about it, How To Write From the Middle, available on Amazon as a softcover and e-book.

I started this by mentioning Your Lie in April, didn’t I? That comes in two weeks, when I analyze the two points of no return and the mirror moment in the aforementioned anime series. It’ll come with plenty of spoilers, so I strongly urge people to watch Your Lie in April, available on Netflix (English dub) and Crunchyroll (Japanese dub, English subtitles).


Sources

Bell, J.S. (2014). Writing From the Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between [Kindle Version]. Retrieved from http://www.amazon.com/

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One thought on “Three Story Beats of the Three-Act Structure

  1. Pingback: Story Structure with Your Lie in April | namevah

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