Plot Structure: Three-Acts or Pier & Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco, CA a...
The Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco, CA at sunset taken from the Marin Headlands (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When you’re driving along a big bridge, ever find yourself automatically registering the bridge piers? “There’s the first pier, I’m driving to it. Now there’s the second one, driving to that. Now it’s just the last bit before the end.” If you do, you may find “Pier and Bridge” a useful mental image for your writing.

When it comes to writing, structure helps. The question is, how can a writer create structure in a useful manner. For me, it’s helpful to have an understanding of plot theory and in particular, I find the three-act structure very effective for me. That said, when I’m actually writing, ideas of act structure are too nebulous for me. They don’t help me go from scene to scene. So what to do? My solution is not to toss out the concept of the three-act structure, it’s to add another representation of the plot, something more concise, something I can use as I write: pier and bridge.

Why care about structure?  Structure is what keeps your story building to a satisfying conclusion. Lack of it is what makes the middle sag. It’s often the ghost lurking behind writer’s block: when you aren’t sure what comes next it may be due to a lack of structure. Much good theory exists from the world of novels, plays and movies around a three act structure (a decent overview is here at wikipedia but there is a lot out there if you want to google.)

Freytag's pyramid
Freytag’s pyramid (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The three-act structure is not the only way to craft a story but it offers a good foundation. In it, your first act is about setting up the characters and the world they live in. It ends with an “inciting event”, something big enough and important enough to the protagonist that he needs to deal with it (“will he get the girl?”, “will he save his king?”). Act two is the “rising action”, a series of events where the protagonist finds the situation worsening despite his best efforts. Here he may meet the other characters and acquire the knowledge necessary to ultimately succeed. It typically ends with an epiphany: “Now I know what to do!” In act three, the protagonist resolves the main story and any subplots; this contains the climax. While the acts divide your story into three, typically the middle act is twice as long as the first and third acts. Thinking of it as quarters, act I is the first quarter, act II is the second and third, and the final act is the fourth quarter.

A lot more can be said about the three-act structure and I’ll include a few links below but this is a tried and proven method for creating a good story arc so worth a look if you aren’t familiar with it.

So where do piers and bridges come into this? It’s another way to visualize your book. And for me, a way that is more visceral and, therefore, more useful for when I’m actually typing away. Think about the civil engineer for a moment who has to put a bridge over a river. For a narrow river, he might do a single span: foundation at each end and one arch. In plot terms, this might be your typical short story: opening scene, a middle or two scenes and a climax. No need for sub-plots or elaborate structure. For a wide river, if you try to bridge that long gap without some supports in the middle, the bridge will sag, probably fall down. In story terms, the middle will be flabby, the readers will lose interest and your book will fail.

How do piers help? For a bridge, it’s simple: you sub-divide the span. For long spans, you don’t create an overaching road-deck which is either very expensive or impossible. Instead, you break it up. Think Golden Gate bridge. That middle span is still big (in the three act structure, it is still half your book) but now you have a pier, a support getting you to the middle and another one getting you to the end. In book terms, you have something big that ends act one, the “inciting event”, the thing the protagonist must deal with. And at the end of the middle act, you have the epiphany, the thing the protagonists needs to be successful. Applying the bridge model to writing, you write to the piers: at the start, I need to get to the inciting event. The rest will matter, but not now. After the end of act I, great that pier is complete, now I work on the middle: I have to drive the story to the epiphany point. That’s the next pier, the next mile post. What comes after the post is nothing to worry about now. Once you’ve ended act II, now your pier, your mile post, is the climax.

I don’t mean to suggest that you shouldn’t know what the climax and intermediate piers are. It’s that once you have created these piers (in an outline, a synopsis or just in your head), you can focus on writing to the immediate pier. There’s no need to worry about detail after the next pier, your task is to build a wonderful span to that next milepost. More on this in a later post, but for me knowing the three piers (the end of each act) is all I really need to do to start writing. Once I start working on the immediate scene, I do like to sketch out more detail and here I may outline parts of the act as I work towards that pier. I may also do a synopsis that sketches out the other acts but I also know that it will probably change a lot by the time I get to the end of each pier. It’s the piers that matter, the end of scenes. The rest I work out as the story evolves.

There are many types of writers but if you find yourself wanting some structure, liking the three-act structure, but still struggling for direction, don’t throw away the three-acts but consider visualizing it as three piers, three mile posts that you are going to write to. You may find that by focusing just on that next pier, you build a better structure since you’ll be focused on making it the best pier that you can and the “what comes later” stuff won’t distract you. For me, piers and sagging spans is a great visualization. For you it may be something else but regardless, consider structure!

Next: outline, structure: creating and using these three piers. Tipping my hand a bit, at present while the outline remains in my toolkit, it has been demoted to something used for near-term planning. In civil engineering terms, it is the scaffolding I may use to create the span to the next pier but it is just light falsework, something used only as needed and readily discarded.

5 thoughts on “Plot Structure: Three-Acts or Pier & Bridge

  1. Great summary. I like the three act structure myself, too, though I can see myself diverging from in once I get it down. But for right now, in my writing ability, it does get me from one end of the bay to the other. I also agree that focusing on just the next bit, helps to reach the end.

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