Anyone who starts to do serious study in the field of crafting tales will hear the term "three act structure" thrown around. On the final day of this year's 2007 Wizard World Los Angeles convention, acclaimed comic book writer and novelist Peter David explained its rules and some exceptions with animated and comprehensible real life examples.
David walked in to find Ed Brubaker finishing up his largely unannounced panel, rescheduled from the day before with all of madness from Saturday. Looking slimmer after losing eighty pounds, ("I'm doing something radical," David intoned, "I'm eating less and exercising!") he framed his discussion with a reminiscence about a promotional tour he took with artist Dale Keown when they worked on "The Incredible Hulk." For reasons best left unexamined, they were watching the movie "Tango & Cash" during its original theatrical run, and David said that, using his knowledge of craft, he could predict key plot elements and exactly when they would happen based on the film's running time, despite never having seen the film before that point. Keown was summarily amazed when every one of David's predictions played out on the silver screen in front of them.
David started out by saying that some writers didn't have a basic understanding of the three act structure, and noticed a man on the left side of the room shaking his fist towards the front. David asked him why, and the man -- who turned out to be "X-Men" veteran Scott Lobdell -- said, "do you mean me?" At the time, David didn't know who the man was, and replied, "Some people have issues, you have a whole subscription!"
Moving on, David made sure that he clarified the differentiation between the three act structure of story and the slightly different ideas of a three act play, or that television shows are constructed in four acts to allow for commercial breaks. He also pooh-poohed the sometimes taught method of construction that has story development as a series of simple ascents and descents. He talked about stories with second acts that zig zagged to keep the audience off balance while doing character development and individual character arcs.
The first act, David said, "is where all the exposition goes." One of David's favorite examples of this, oddly enough, is from "The Great Muppet Caper." In that movie, the character played by Diane Riggs meets Miss Piggy and proceeds to discuss her entire family, including the antagonist played by Charles Grodin. Piggy asks Riggs, "Why are you telling me all of this?" Riggs responded, "It's exposition, it has to go somewhere."
"Generally all or most characters are introduced in the first act," David said, because to do otherwise risks the conclusion not making sense to the audience. "At the end of the first act you have the 'first act turning point,' which is a catalyst that sets your story in motion. " The example he used from "Lord of the Rings" is the moment of realization where they all say, "we have this evil ring, we have to get rid of it!"
In talking about the second act, David said "this is why romantic comedies are tough to write, because they're so formulaic but you have to keep your audience surprised." He also stressed the importance of character development, saying, "If the characters in the movie don't change, it's not really a story, it's an anecdote." He looked at standard James Bond movies as an example, because despite the fact that in most of them -- "Casino Royale" excepted -- Bond never changes, but the Bond girls do. "It's always the same arc for them," he joked, "at first they can't stand him and at the end they fall into his arms." Second acts conclude with a second act turning point, and David said, "This is the trickiest moment in your story. This is the point where you have to set into motion a ticking clock. Something must happen where your story must be resolved." The reason why this is hard, he said, is because everything that's happened before has to tie in at that point, and that it has to be an inevitable turn of events and yet still surprising. Sometimes this can happen in two stages, and here Peter used the example of "The Karate Kid." "The first beat is when Bobby kicks Daniel in the knee and makes it impossible to stand. It's not enough, but it sets an emotional ticking clock. The second beat is when he wipes out Daniel's legs, and you can see it in his eyes that Daniel has nothing left in the tank." David called the film's climax particularly effective -- when Daniel kicks the Cobra Kai in the face -- because the film fades to credits thirty seconds later, minimizing the unavoidable anticlimax. The less anticlimax that a story has, David instructed, the better. As a negative example, David cited Peter Jackson's "Return of the King," where the ring drops and Gollum goes after it and then scene after scene follows showing Hobbiton and Gandalf and more.
He then discussed subplotting, talking about how a "B" plot could be used "that in some way mirrors the themes of what you're doing in the 'a' plot. That will have either additional character development or plot development, intersects at certain points with 'a' plot." He said that when people were told "the third act doesn't work," it was often due to ineffective set up or lack of surprise. Again referencing "The Karate Kid," he talked about how both the fighter being instructed to cripple Daniel and Mister Miyagi's healing touch had been established earlier in the story, making them fitting later on. David cites "Terminator 2" as an interesting divergence from this, because Joe Morton's Miles Dyson character starts a "b" plot that takes over the film after Sarah Connor goes to kill him, which leaves the T1000 off screen for nearly an hour.
Bringing the discussion back to comics, David dissected the seminal "Watchmen." "The turning point of the first act is the death of the Comedian," David said. He then talked about how Alan Moore played with convention by inverting the second act turning point and having Ozymandias say that his plot was set in motion already, subverting the audience's conditioned understanding of how heroes work in situations. The real turning point, David claimed, was when the characters had to debate whether or not to reveal Ozymandias' hand in the disaster.
David did suggest that there were two "cheap tricks" used in the work. "Watchmen is actually an eight issue series," David suggested, "but it was padded out to twelve so DC could make more money." He suggests that the lengthy pirate comic sub plot was added to make more room, that cutting it could take off two whole issues, and that it would be the first thing to go for a cinematic version. David also cited the first six issues of "Ultimate Spider Man" as outrageously padded for the small percentage of people who did not know the elements of the story.
The second cheap trick that David alluded to was something he called "PES" or "Pre-Emptive Snarking." It's the element in a story when characters criticize the story from within, by saying something like "This is like something out of a comic book/horror movie/et cetera!" The invasion storyline of "Watchmen" is cribbed directly from an "Outer Limits" episode called "The Architects of Fear" ... so to allude to that and defuse criticism, Alan Moore had a television in the story say that just that episode was about to air.
As an example of using arcs in a grander scale, David talked about his plan to have Leonard Samson "use hypnotherapy to merge all aspects of Hulk into one gigantic Bruce Banner. That didn't happen for four years. What I did in the mean time was I had a series of shorter story arcs. All of them put together drove towards the final denouement in 'Hulk' #377."
In single issue stories, David said that he normally has his first act turning point on page three and his second act turning point around page 19 or 20, which came back to haunt him once when he had Rick Jones in a Bucky costume (as a favor to Billy Mumy) and realized -- close to deadline -- that he had blown up a Skrull spaceship before getting Jones off. Jones then was seen drifting down to earth, allowing David to PES himself by having Jones say he always kept a small parachute on hand in case he had to jump out of an exploding spaceship. The Hulk claimed that such an idea was ridiculous, and Jones said something like, "well, didn't I just have to jump out of an exploding spaceship?"
This got a big laugh from the audience and closed the panel on a bright note, with just one final plug for David's book "Writing Comics With Peter David," a title that makes his father happy due to the size his name is written on the front cover.