Mention the Three-Act structure to novelists and you get one of three reactions: their eyes light up, they look confused, or they start huffing. All we’re talking about really is that each story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Just ask Aristotle. Even that most novelly of novels Middlemarch is full of them. In each plot strand two people meet, there is a complication, and a resolution (tragic or otherwise). Simple.
The problem is that this structure was formalised by Hollywood. Typically in a US film, there is a brief set-up establishing the main character (Richard Gere is rich but bored). At ten minutes, or thereabouts, something happens which kicks off the action (he meets Julia Roberts). The first act ends at 25 minutes in, as the action shifts gear (He asks her to stay). Halfway through, something happens that shifts the gear again (RG and JR kiss for the first time). With about 20 minutes to go the second act ends as everything falls apart (she leaves him when he cannot commit). The third act has the resolution (he asks her to marry him). It even happens in art house films. I was watching The Master the other day, and Joaquin Phoenix commits to the movement at exactly 25 minutes in.
Very broadly this means a quarter for the first act, a half for the second act (sometimes divided into two acts: leading up to and away from the midpoint), and a final quarter for the third act. The set-up, the complication, the resolution. The Hollywood shorthand for this is: chase the cat up the tree, rattle a stick at it, and bring it back down.
And, full disclosure, I’ve used it. My first and second novel were based on that structure. My view was, if you’re going to climb Everest (never knowingly under-dramatised), you need to have your base camp and two more to get to the summit. To put it another way, it works like tent poles, something to drape the story over.
The problem is the formulaic element. To adopt such a structure could feel like just doing what everybody else does. Every writer likes to feel unique. But most use structure. Even if it is an attempt to subvert the more formulaic one. They get creative, Louis de Bernieres talks about Captain Corelli’s Mandolin having a structure like walking up a pyramid in a slow spiral. For more sophisticated writers the idea may be expressed more esoterically; Colm Toibin describes his process as more like mixing chemicals.
But the interesting thing is that even in a novel as episodic and experimental as Life, A User’s Manual, the three-act structure is there. The main story is about Bartlebooth who devises a plan to travel the world and create 439 paintings and to have them turned into jigsaws by the evil Winckler and then to solve each of the jigsaws in turn. He does it, and then there is a resolution, one of the best I ever read.