Select Page

A story can divided into three acts that work in more or less the same way from story to story to story. This is not a controversial point of view. And honestly, it had not occurred to me that the idea of dividing story-games likewise into three acts would be particularly controversial. Until, that is, the comments started to come in on The Mamet Post.

Ted Braun, the professor of screenwriting who taught the advanced script analysis course I took at USC, was always very careful to use the phrase “division into acts” rather than “three-act structure” when talking about dramatic structure. In considering the question of acts in games, I remember why.

It’s because when you say “three-act structure,” it makes it sound like you’re talking about a blueprint. But division into acts should be much more a diagnostic tool than a blueprint, best used to figure out why a particular story (or game, I argue) smells like ass.

Before going any further, let’s talk specifics: How are these three acts best defined?

The first act asks a dramatic question. It ends as soon as the question has been posed. It has been asserted that this is the moment, in a movie theater, when you feel inexplicably moved to put your popcorn down on the floor.

Dramatic questions posed by first acts are things like, “Can Agent Kujan find Keyser Söze?” and “Can Luke reach Leia?” A first act usually takes up about one-quarter of a story’s overall mass.

Some argue that it is better to divide a drama into four acts, or five, or seven. Apparently such people have hijacked the Wikipedia page on Dramatic Structure. I haven’t done a lot of reading on Freytag’s and other proposed alternatives, but from what I have read and heard, there’s no particularly compelling argument to complicate the division past “beginning,” “middle,” and “end.”

Often, a first act conveys introductory information about characters and situations, but frankly, this is (a) not necessarily, and (b) on par with saying “a first act most usually contains the speech of humans.”

The second act answers the dramatic question posed by the first act. It ends as soon as the question has been answered, one way or the other. Usually, it approaches the question from lots of different angles, and the protagonist fails a lot. In fact — and this is a key, key, key point — the second-act question is often ultimately answered in the negative. That is, the protagonist often fails completely. (Agent Kujan finds the wrong Keyser Söze at the end of the second act.) Note, however, that the hero’s failure won’t necessarily deny us our Traditional Hollywood Ending.

The second act is almost always the longest of the three acts, weighing in at about half of the story’s fighting weight. It is the part of the story a writer is most likely to use the word “slog” to describe.

The third act asks and answers, “Then what?” Leia’s been rescued… now what? Ripley’s escaped Alien Hell… so she’s going to do the only sane thing and jump right on that dropship of Bishop’s right?

In a story that’s any good, “Then what?” conveys the sense that there has been a larger purpose to answering the question explored in the second act. It communicates how the lives of the protagonists have been or may be forever changed, for better or worse. The third act often poses and answers a question that ought to have been asked at the beginning (had we only known more), or escalates to some even-more-critical follow-on question.

The third act usually runs about as long as the first act: one-quarter of total length.

Division into acts. All well and good for traditional stories. What about games, and what about practice instead of theory?

The concept of division into three acts is absolutely useful to game designers, and not just to game designers who work on traditional and computer RPGs. I’ll be following this post with a series of three more, each addressing one of the three acts, and, with any luck, proposing a variety of ways the basic structure described here can be used to make better story-games.

Stay tuned.