Our Greek philosopher pal Aristotle (who you might remember from our series on modes of persuasion) came up with a rock solid guide for narrative structure back in the fourth century, way before anyone had ever won an Oscar or penned a New York Times bestseller.
Aristotle said that the perfect story structure is a three-act affair:
Some people call this the ‘inciting incident’. This alliterative treat is the fancy name for the moment when the story's set in motion.
Where your characters start going through big changes (the pros call it character arc) as a result of what's happening.
The resolution. Our characters confront the problem, the story comes together, and we wrap up any loose ends (a.k.a. the ‘denouement’).
Most importantly, Aristotle said all the events must relate to each other, and that the plot needs to make the audience feel something. We’re with you on that, Aristotle.
Let’s take a closer look at the three parts of story structure in action. To do it, we'll explore screenwriting pro Sylvester Stallone's writing process for the greatest story of all time. Nope, not Star Wars. Or even Harry Potter. It's Rocky: a three-act structure with a heart of gold.
The first act is where you set the stage at the beginning of the story. It shows the viewer who your main character is, what their life's like, and what they care about. Importantly, you want to communicate some of the challenges that your character is facing. Obviously, your character wants to overcome these challenges, which has a big impact on how the story progresses.
Then, you'll need a catalyst or ‘inciting incident’ – something spicy that happens to get the story started. This will spark a series of events that sets the protagonist on an epic journey of character development. It inspires their character arc and helps them reach their goals.
At the start of the film, we learn that Rocky’s a working class guy living in Philadelphia, toiling away as a meat packer and loan shark collector. In his spare time, he fights in sleazy clubs. We see how much he cares about Adrian, a woman he starts dating. And we can tell how much he wants to make boxing his career.
A great story is all about the hero's journey. For our hero, Rocky, this journey starts when he gets the opportunity to fight the world boxing champ, Apollo Creed. It’s a chance for Rocky to prove that he’s not worthless, and can compete with the best. It’s an opportunity to fight for his self-respect – and, naturally, Adrian’s love. Naw!
The second act is where your story starts hotting up, as your intrepid protagonist sets out to achieve their goal. It's the point of no return. It’s also where your character starts hitting roadblocks as they get to know their new situation, and see the many challenges ahead of them. This is a good time to flesh out the rest of the characters in the story, both friends and enemies, as well as the protagonist. You’ll also want to expand on the story’s central conflict, whether it’s a person or a thing.
Our mate Stallone is definitely au fait with story structure because this fight is a real turning point for Rocky. He starts his torturous training schedule, but he can’t even manage to run up the steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Uh oh, roadblock! Then he has an argument with Adrian’s alcoholic brother, Paulie, and cuts his hands while punching some meat in frustration. Roadblock!
It’s not all bad news, though. Adrian moves in with Rocky and their love continues to blossom. Rocky ropes in Mickey – a trainer who previously didn’t rate him as a fighter – to get him ready for the match. And we see Rocky crushing his fitness schedule in the form of the world’s greatest-ever training montage. Which, naturally, culminates in Rocky running up the same set of steps that he couldn’t manage at the start of the act. It's a plot point that's guaranteed to make you shed a tear – or punch the air in celebration.
The third act is where your narrative arc culminates, the story comes together, and we see the final clash between our protagonist and antagonist. Often, this is the point where we get to witness the true strength of the antagonist – after not seeing much of them in the film – which can surprise the protagonist. Your viewers are probably aware that the main character will win in the end – after all, that’s how stories usually go. But it’s much more exciting if you keep them on tenterhooks for as long as possible.
That’s exactly what happens for our pal, Rocky. At the end of the story, he finally enters the ring with Apollo Creed, only to endure a savage onslaught of punches that leaves him reeling. But it doesn’t end there. Our hero manages to display enough grit to stay in the fight, culminating in him trading brutal blows with Creed. While Rocky doesn’t win the match (spoiler alert), he does manage to go all 15 rounds with Creed – which has never happened in Creed’s career. It might not be the victory we crave, but it’s a victory of sorts – and an expectation-defying testament to the strength of Stallone's creative writing.
One last thing. You're probably wondering what happens between Adrian and Rocky. That's what the denouement stage of the story-writing process is for – wrapping up all the loose ends. Well, as the final bell rings, and cameras crowd around our hero, the only word that escapes his battered, bloodied face is: "Adrian!" And there ends the greatest story of all time.
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