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    Default The Hero's Journey, Three act structure, and so on

    I just concidentaly stumbled again on some mentions of Jospeh Campbells Monomyth, which also mentioned classic three-act narratives, and it made me once again wonder why these fundmentally basic structures of storytelling are still so very popular?

    For those not familiar with the terms, they describe to very basic storytelling structures:
    Monomyth / The Hero's Journey: The hero lives a peaceful life, suddenly a task is forced on him, but he refuses. Tragedy strikes and he accepts the task. He then leaves his home behind, but he does not go blindly but receives some supernatural help. On his journey he learns about special powers which he masters, another tragedy strikes, he wants to give up, but raises himself up again, defeats the villain with help of a miracle, and returns home in triumph. Bonus points if he gets a girl in the last scene.
    Three-act structure: The problem is introduced, the problem escalates, the problem is solved.

    These are so unbelivably common that it even has been claimed to be universal to all humans because that's simply how the human mind works. But obviously, the heroes journey is a story told by male warriors to male warriors, and those males who would want to be warriors, and these people simply where the demographic that dominated public life throughout human history. The stories shared by other groups of people just didn't get recorded in the same way to have survived to the 20th century.

    Both classic structures can be found all over the place, and I can say, at least for my part, I really don't like them at all. For example, after I finished playing Mass Effect 2, I was thinking "wow, this was great, but what will they do in the third game?"
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    Mass Effect: Shepard discoveres that there is a race of ancient aliens that want to destroy all life. Their first strike is prevented in the last moment, but there's more of them and they will try again soon. (Problem is introduced.)
    Mass Effect 2: The ancient aliens send a second wave of minions much more dangerous than the first one, and Shepard learns that the terrible enemy from the first act was just the tiniest hint of what really is to come. Again, immediate disaster is averted, but now the ancient aliens aro going to destroy the galaxy themselves. (Problem is escalated.)

    But what can you expect from the third and last part of the series? Of course it will be "the Problem is solved". That means we will see the biggest explosions and battles of the whole story, but in the end the threat will be destroyed and no new plot lines or story elements will be introduced. And then the game came out, and it was exactly like I predicted.
    The Lord of the Rings movies are the same thing, and illustrate it probably better and more condensed than the books. In the first movie we get a hint of what we fighting, in the second movie things get a lot worse, and in the third it's the grand finale. And I have to say, I hate the third movie. Many people love it and it always has the best ratings, but I think it is borring as hell. There are no twists, no new elements, just the big fight we've been promised throughout the first two parts of the story. Once I was at a friends browising through his DVDs and "Oh, you also only have the first two movies?". He also hates the third because nothing interesting happens.
    Star Wars manages to cover it over quite well, as there are multiple plot lines and frequent changes of scenery, but over time, Return of the Jedi has become pointless to me. It's just the inevitable big kaboom.

    But one thing I loath more are Chosen One stories. I just utterly and completely hate them! The Chosen one is the worst character archetype right after the Comic Relief. And the Chosen One really is the perfect case of the Hero's Journey.

    But maybe that's just me. To me it feels cheap and unimagitive, and I just enjoy completely different types of stories. Nothing wrong with that.
    But it all makes me wonder: Does anyone really enjoy such stories, or is it just writers who think it's wonderful because that's the way most popular and famous stories are written? And if so, what it is that makes them enjoyable? The first few times it may be exciting to experience the joy of accomplishment and overcomming obstacles agains seemingly impossible odds. But after you've seen it three or four times, you know and recognize the pattern and there is no doubt that the hero will change his descision to stay on his farm, that he will almost lose the final fight, but turn things around in a miracle, and then make his way home in triumph. You know it will happen, but why is it great to read or watch similar stories all over again?

    @ME3:
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    Actually the hero does not return home in triumph and lives happily ever after. But while I thought that was one of the good descisions, lots of people make this one of their main reasons they don't like the ending.
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    Firbolg in the Playground
     
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    Default Re: The Hero's Journey, Three act structure, and so on

    Quote Originally Posted by Yora View Post
    I just concidentaly stumbled again on some mentions of Jospeh Campbells Monomyth, which also mentioned classic three-act narratives, and it made me once again wonder why these fundmentally basic structures of storytelling are still so very popular?
    Cars and other medium-size ground vehicles are generally designed with four wheels, one at each corner. You don't have to use four - you can use three, or two, or six. But engineers generally use four, because it works.

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    Ettin in the Playground
     
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    Default Re: The Hero's Journey, Three act structure, and so on

    Quote Originally Posted by Yora View Post
    But it all makes me wonder: Does anyone really enjoy such stories...?
    Short answer: yes.

    Okay, but digressing a bit more: it's actually pretty hard to diverge from the three-act structure. Not impossible, but as Saph says, the reason it's so common is because it's simple and functional. You see it in plays, you see it in trilogies, you see it in single-volume works even if it's not explicitly labeled as such.

    The first act is pretty much inevitable: if your work has a conflict, you have to introduce it. It takes a very unusual story to dodge this step.

    The second act is not essential, but it's smart to spend some time building up your problem, exploring it in detail and making it memorable. A problem that is introduced and promptly solved doesn't stick in the reader's memory.

    And the third act is necessary to, you know, resolve the story. You can leave this part out, but it's a very unorthodox decision and will require careful handling not to annoy people. Even if you don't tie off all the loose ends, you want to reach some kind of closure, rather than just chopping off in the middle. Mass Effect 3 and Return of the King may be your least favorite parts of the series, but imagine that those trilogies had simply ended with part 2. No conclusion at all. Would that have been better?

    (Actually - maybe you shouldn't answer that for Mass Effect 3. From what I hear, it)

    I can't think of many stories that try this; the only one that comes to mind is the book Icehenge. (Which I did like, but the ending was frustrating the first time I read it.)

    I'm a little puzzled that you dislike the resolution step. At some point you have to, you know, resolve all those lovely plotlines and story elements you introduced in acts 1 and 2, or else there's not much point in having them. A story that constantly introduces new things and never brings any of them to a satisfactory conclusion would be... bizarre at best, unsatisfactory at worst. It's true that the resolution can be boring if everything that happens was telegraphed in advance, but I've never felt that way about Return of the King. (Can't speak for ME3, since I haven't played it.) If you can predict what's going to happen, that's the fault of the story in question, not an inherent flaw in the structure.

    And it's not impossible to introduce new elements in Act 3! Looking back at Return of the King, there's the whole situation in Minas Tirith, which has been alluded to but not actually seen; there's Aragorn's quest for the army of the dead; there's the rescue at Cirith Ungol; there's the scouring of the Shire. (Yes, I know that's only in the books; I feel the books are a better example of a strong Act 3. The movie does an awful lot of foreshadowing and spends more time on battles than on scene-setting in Minas Tirith, Mordor, and the Shire.)

    Personally, I feel like Act 2 is often the weakest one. The first installment in a trilogy is generally self-contained: it sets up the premise, introduces most of the major characters, and usually concludes as the protagonists reach a milestone of some sort. Sovereign is defeated, the Death Star is destroyed... you get the idea. But there's a distressing tendency for the second installment to be nothing but a prelude to the third, rather than a story in its own right. It moves the story along but does not have a proper conclusion, just a lead-in to part 3. Sometimes that works (The Empire Strikes Back and The Two Towers being classic examples), sometimes it... doesn't.
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    Firbolg in the Playground
     
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    Default Re: The Hero's Journey, Three act structure, and so on

    Mass Effect is shaky considered as a three act story across the whole trilogy. Unlike Lord of the Rings, it's three separate stories tied together with a common thread. I'm not sure if Bioware was 100% committed to a sequel after ME1 and they definitely changed the direction the plot was going in after ME2 in ME3, so they don't really fit too well as a single story.

    The Mass Effect games do however individually contain stories that follow the three act, Heroes Journey/Vogler's Writer's Path quite well - ME1 being the best at this IMO - with the notable exception of ME3's ending. That's a big reason why there's such uproar about how it's generally considered unsatisfying; because it suddenly breaks the pattern for little good reason. This blog post by John M. Stevenson covers it quite well.
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    Ogre in the Playground
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    Default Re: The Hero's Journey, Three act structure, and so on

    To approach this from a different angle than Saph and The_Snark* (who've already covered why these things are used), some of the OP's criticisms seem a bit off-target. For a start, that the monomyth only reflects certain kinds of stories is actually pretty much the whole point. It's an observation on a particular reoccurring style, not on all forms of story-telling (quite a few ancient greek plays, for example, don't fit it).

    Some of the complaints, e.g. the Chosen One, are aimed at problems with a content or writing quality rather than with the actual structure of the narrative. It's rather like criticising AABA form songs (verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus) based on the songs of that form produced by, say, Creed. If a third act isn't holding interest that's usually a sign the writer hasn't done an adequate job in setting things up in the previous acts, or just doesn't know how to properly resolve things (note also that 3-act structure is not specifically tied to trilogies, indeed it's entirely possible for all three parts of a trilogy to themselves work in a 3-act structure). Similarly, if unquestioning adherence to 'because you're the chosen one' is the only reason the plot of a hero's journey is happening, then that is a problem with the writer's imagination or lack thereof.

    One other point: if you find being able to predict future plot points to be a problem then that is probably going to seriously limit how much enjoyment you can get out of narrative fiction. Because you can do that quite easily with pretty much all of it (regardless of whether or not it's following the Monomyth and/or a three act structure) unless you stick to things that are deliberately trying to avoid or subvert structured narrative.


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    Ettin in the Playground
     
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    Default Re: The Hero's Journey, Three act structure, and so on

    Yes, I like it when stories begin, continue and then resolve.
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    Default Re: The Hero's Journey, Three act structure, and so on

    Quote Originally Posted by Mr.Silver View Post
    *"Saph and The_Snark! The unlikely duo of mystery-solving bibliophiles! Their fight against crime continues this Friday at 8!"
    I would watch this, even if all the episodes would be three-act.
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    Default Re: The Hero's Journey, Three act structure, and so on

    OP, you should read The Trial, by Kafka.
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    Default Re: The Hero's Journey, Three act structure, and so on

    Two things to add.

    First, the three-act structure doesn't really have three acts - it has four. That is, if you were to watch a film and describe the three acts (what happens, the key points that begin each act, etc) and then watch it again and pay attention to the length of each act, you would find that the second act takes up about half the total length of the film. It's a matter of pacing; Act 1 can't be too long because if you spend too much time setting everything up you risk boring the audience, and Act 3 usually isn't long because action is quicker than dialogue. The second act consists of rising tension, with various obstacles the hero must overcome; if this is too short, it will seem too easy, and if it's too easy there won't be as much payoff in the third act. While the two halves of the second act are tied together by some common element, their own internal structures are strong enough such that they could stand on their own as individual acts. Usually some significant plot development occurs halfway through, marking a clear split between Acts 2A and 2B. In this manner, the story contains four discrete parts.

    A trilogy, on the other hand, contains only three parts, by definition. Quadrilogies aren't as popular because people expect a story to have a beginning, middle, and end. They don't want the middle to drag on for too long, even if the amount of content might merit it. Generally, this results in the middle film being streamlined. It's simpler, has more of a point, packed with action, and often contains a big plot twist and/or an exciting cliffhanger. Case in point The Empire Strikes Back. So when the second film is done well, it often has more action, is easier to follow, and has a better ending than the other two films. The climax of the series is in the second film, and then the third film fizzles out.

    There are also problems that are not inherent in the structure itself, but stem from poor planning, which exacerbate the existing issues. One example is the length of the film; check the runtimes of both the Star Wars and Lord of the Ring trilogies and you'll see a clear pattern. There's a demand to make each film longer than the last, because there are few things an audience hates more than feeling like they didn't get their money's worth, and time is money. This is all well and good when the substance merits the length, but as I noted before the second film generally has more substance, being in the middle, the meat of the film sandwich. So in addition to fizzling out, the third film might also drag on for too long before it fizzles out. So screenwriter who is used to the "three-act" structure might plan a trilogy using the same method, neglecting the incongruity between the lengths of the acts and the lengths of the films, by making the third longer than it should be and putting two films' worth of content into the second (which might be very good for the second and very bad for the third, or very bad for them both, depending on the quality of the content). But this isn't an inherent problem in the three-act structure - problematic, perhaps, but not insurmountable.

    Second, I'm a big fan of sequence structure. Screenwriter Frank Daniel believed that films have three acts and eight sequences. Essentially, the four parts of the film - 1, 2A, 2B, 3 - are each broken in half to form eight sequences. Each sequence contains its own three-act structure and is a self-contained story that starts with a problem, introduces a complicating factor, and then resolves the initial problem; all but the last in the story will introduce a new problem, which then begins the next sequence. The notion is that the more thoroughly you plan the sequences, the stronger the film will be. You'll always have enough stuff happening in each sequence, eight problems that are all resolved, with each building on the last.

    I have a couple of my own theories regarding sequences. For one I think they apply in a lot of other ways. Just as a trilogy is a modified form of three-act structure, it contains aspects of the eight-sequence structure, so applying the same design philosophy is likely to produce better results than simply constructing each film on its own, one at a time. But it needn't be restricted to films; television can also drag out, particularly if a season is plagued by filler episodes. There's nothing bad with the concept of filler episodes, exactly - a self-contained story that can be viewed on its own, often with a different tone than the rest of the episodes - but they tend to slow down the main story, especially if they're grouped together. If you look at a season overall as a series of sequences, you can place the filler episodes so as to avoid the latter - say, one per sequence in a 20-something episode season. Furthermore, I think sequences are stronger when they're easy to identify, when they have strongly defined characteristics that set them apart from the others. You see this often with acts; Star Wars usually has three main locations in each film and a different cast of supporting characters for each location, though they don't always correspond precisely with the three acts. But they can also be true of sequences; in Star Wars, everything that happens in Mos Eisley is a single sequence. And it can be something other than the location - a day, a character's viewpoint, an event such as a trial or battle preparations work as well. It all depends on the story, and the type of variety it demands. But in general, having the sequences different from each other means the story won't be too formulaic; so stuff isn't just happening all the time, different stuff is happening all the time.

    Of course it helps that the sequence structure fits in nicely with the three-act structure; Daniel came up with it by observing films, after all, just as Syd Fields came up with the three-act, four-part paradigm - they're both descriptions of the same thing, one structure that has lasted millennia. There's a lot of wisdom in both philosophies; Syd Fields' paradigm describes the relationship between the acts and their purposes, while Daniel's focuses on the sequences as single entities. In Syd Field's paradigm, Acts 1 and 2 end with a plot point that sets up the next act and the middle of Act 2, the midpoint, contains a twist that propels the story in a new direction. He thought it was important that the film build up to this point, so the second act would be more interesting. Each half of Act 2 contains what he calls a "pinch" - something that reminds the audience of the main plot, to get things back on track. That makes a total of four elements in the second act: Pinch 1, Midpoint, Pinch 2, Plot Point 2. For this reason I view each of these elements as a different sequence - or at least occurring in different sequences (when you add the inciting incident, resolution, and the build up to the resolution, it makes eight). Just as making each sequence different helps them stand out, making them similar helps connect them. Tying these particular sequences together with shared thematic elements makes them resonate and helps create a more consistent story. Again, it can be anything - the return of an enemy, return to a location, further development of a subplot. It makes it easier to write, too; in this manner, elements flow naturally from the structure of the story. So why bother messing around with a planning your three acts when you can make the story plan for you?

    There are other formats, of course, the five-act structure being most prominent. If you don't like third acts, you might be interested in jo-ha-kyū, a five-act with the setup in the first act and the resolution in the last - effectively a 1-3-1 to the traditional 1-2-1. Jo-ha-kyū puts an emphasis on building tension throughout and then ending suddenly, before it drags on for too long - in this way it's more similar to noir films than today's films with long denouements. (I'm seriously understating the importance of jo-ha-kyū in Noh, though; the same structure dominates the composition of the music, choreography, and even the program, which consisted of five separate plays.) But this only really applies to single stories; five film series are extremely rare and I would venture that translating a jo-ha-kyū fifth act into a film would be especially difficult. The three-act structure has persevered for a reason... well, I can think of two reasons: 1.) it's shorter than five acts, and 2.) it's simpler - beginning, middle, end.

    I much prefer miniseries, though.

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    Default Re: The Hero's Journey, Three act structure, and so on

    What's important to note is that the Hero's Journey is just the backbone of the story, the scaffolding. What is done with it - the setting, the dialogue, the characterisation - is usually what makes or breaks a story.

    I tend to skip these types of stories these days, but that's not to say that if a good example comes along, I won't try it out. We've had this discussion before, but I enjoy "established hero" stories more, where the protagonist is experienced from the start (although that's not to say such a character can't go on his own Hero's Journey).

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    Orc in the Playground
     
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    Default Re: The Hero's Journey, Three act structure, and so on

    Well I have to say that I join you in your loathing of the Chosen One character archetype, I literally can not stop myself from hurling a book across the room when I discover the plucky hero has a prophecy backing him up.

    Ironically my favourite chosen One is from SW itself, Anakin just for how much it blew up in the Jedi and Republic's faces for 20 glorious years.

    And I may be extending my own preference for "Part II"s but it seems to me that out of trilogies those are the parts people consider the best, for example again from SW Ep V: The Empire Strikes Back which is the traditional Part II for episodes IV,V,VI and Ep III Revenge of the Sith who is considered the best out of episodes I,II,III and is the darkest one.

    Or to give a more recent and personal example I consider the second season finale from Avatar The Last Airbender the best finale of the series leagues above the third season's in every area.

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