Friday, November 29, 2013

Act Two-and-a-Half


"No story ever really ends, and I think I know why. " 
George Macdonald

In fiction writing, stories often start with "Once Upon A Time..." and end with "The End." In between, they often have a traceable plot, a predictable framework they are built on.  It's called “three act structure,” and it works like this:

Act One is the set up. 

"Roberta lives with her grandmother, helping care for her elderly great-aunt, until one day she finds a map of the farm that shows her grandfather’s treasure hidden under the barn, along with some unreadable marks in a cipher of some kind. Roberta, who has never known her grandfather and yearns to know about her family, starts spending her afternoons digging holes in the unused stalls. But then, she realized that there is a mysterious stranger in town who is also looking for the treasure. Now, she has to find the treasure before he does."

Act Two comes after the main character is committed to the story. It is the building up, the raising of the stakes, the development and the drama. 

"Roberta, by this time, is determined to find her grandfather’s treasure, find out what it is, and keep it safe, all before this threatening stranger can steal it. She hears her grandmother having a conversation with someone late at night, but doesn’t know who. Her grandmother refuses to discuss the map, and finally, exasperated by prolonged questioning, burns it. Roberta is now unable to access whatever information was in the coded message. She is furious at her grandmother and they refuse to speak to each other. Rather than giving her more information about her family, the treasure is pulling what little family she has apart. And her digging about in the barn is getting her nowhere. The stranger in town has not been heard from or seen in a week. She is near giving up one night, when she looks out her window and sees someone moving about by lantern light in the barn."

Act Three contains both the crisis and the “denouement” or winding down. It’s where everything comes together and where the rubber hits the road. 

"Roberta sneaks out of her room and into the barn, where she watches a strange man with a copy of the map poke around the barn. She returns to the house to find her grandmother’s shotgun, and confronts the stranger with it. As they talk, the stranger reveals that he is actually her uncle, her mother’s brother and her grandmother’s son. Grandmother, who disapproves of both her husband’s “treasure” and her son’s desire to uncover it, has not spoken to him in years, and burned the map to keep him from getting it. He was able to find another copy hidden by his father and now, having decoded the message, is following the instructions to find the treasure. Roberta and her uncle are lifting the box from it’s hiding place what Grandmother walks in. A family fight ensues, and everything comes out. It turns out that Grandfather’s treasure was books, books that he wrote about his wild adventures as a young man. He buried them in the barn with a treasure map as a game for his sons. But after he died, Grandmother was terrified that reading the stories would make the boys want to leave home and travel the world, so she hid the maps and discouraged searching for them. Everything is tidily wrapped up, explained, and ends in family reconciliation."
The End.

Real life isn’t like that. In life, Act One can be interrupted by a sudden and unexpected crisis whose set-up was “off-stage” and unseen. So that Act One is disturbed by Act Three or even Act Four of some completely different story instead of tidily following into Act Two. The stranger in town comes three weeks after Roberta finds the books, and comes straight home to confront his mother. Roberta and her grandmother patch up their relationship over the course of years, including Roberta's husband and children in the saga. Very few things happen at convenient or dramatic times, and when Roberta sneaks out her window it is not at midnight to confront a stranger in the barn with a shotgun, but after lunch one spring day just to see if it could be done if she ever needed to do it. 

Sometimes a book that isn’t true mimics the trajectory of a true story. Stories like The Swiss Family Robinson and Mrs. Mike weave in and out of people and events and stories, tracing the path of a life and ignoring three act structure. One one hand, this can make the story feel disjointed and a little unsettled. On the other hand, often the story feels far more true than stories that tie off neatly. Because in real life everything doesn't tie off neatly, because no story ever really ends.

Because people live on and stories continue, and, even after death, the story isn't over.