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Step Five: Acts and Tentpoles

In the last step, we talked about using the Hero’s Journey to structure your various plotlines. Today, we’ll learn about using Acts and Tentpoles to structure your story as a whole.

Now, what exactly do I mean by act or tentpole?

An act is a larger chunk of your story, and it can encompass multiple scenes in multiple places. A tentpole is more similar to the climax, where you can zoom in on a particular scene or even a particular second where something changes. When I outline, there are four acts and five tentpoles. Tentpoles (in bold text) divide the acts like so:

  1. Opening
  2. Act I
  3. 1st Doorway
  4. Act II
  5. Midpoint
  6. Act III
  7. 2nd Doorway
  8. Act IV
  9. Closing

Each of the four acts has a sort of theme to it. The Save the Cat! method for screenwriting designates them Orphan, Wanderer, Warrior, and Martyr.

  • Act I (Orphan) shows your main character in their ordinary world. They’re somehow alone or out of place.
  • Act II (Wanderer) shows your main character in the early stages of their adventure. They’re exploring, learning the ropes, but they’re still relatively passive, going where the plot pushes them.
  • Act III (Warrior) shows your character taking charge. They know what they’re up against, they understand the stakes, and they’re forging their own path.
  • Act IV (Martyr) shows your character in the final showdown. They will often sacrifice something important in order to achieve victory.

The tentpoles divide up your acts. The name comes from James Scot Bell’s book Super Structure (again, I recommend all of his books on writing). He says to picture the tentpoles like those of a circus tent, holding up the roof. His five tentpoles are Disturbance, the two Doorways, the Mirror Moment (aka Midpoint), and the Final Battle. I use:

  • Opening
  • 1st Doorway
  • Midpoint
  • 2nd Doorway
  • Closing

I put a lot of thought into the Opening scene, trying to choose the optimum place to start the story. It has to be early enough that you can introduce your reader to your world without just chucking them into the center of everything with no explanation whatsoever, yet late enough that they don’t have to slog through entire chapters before things get interesting. It’s not as much of a problem in stories set in modern day Earth, but easing your reader into a completely alien world a la sci-fi or fantasy can be tricky.

The 1st Doorway is when your character moves from Act I to Act II and they do so in such a way that there is no going back to the way things were before. That’s the key characteristic of the two doorways—no take-backs.

The Midpoint is a beat in the center of your story where your character flips from passive to active. Something happens that forces them to take charge—maybe they’ve hit their limit and refuse to be pushed around any more, or maybe they realize exactly how high the stakes are and start fighting in earnest. Maybe they learn something that flips their world on its head.

The 2nd Doorway is just like the 1st Doorway, except your character moves decisively toward the final conflict. You know in video games when your avatar crosses some imaginary threshold, and you’re suddenly locked in a battle with the Big Bad Boss with no way out? The 2nd Doorway is kind of like that.

For the Closing, look for some way you can relate it to your opening scene. I enjoy it when a book comes full circle—when something from the opening is echoed in the ending. It’s not necessary, but it’s a nice sort of crowning touch. A prime example comes from my favorite book, Watership Down by Richard Adams.

First line: “The primroses were over.”

Last line: “… and together they slipped away, running easily down through the wood, where the first primroses were beginning to bloom.”

If you don’t want to go the full-circle route, think of what final image you want to leave your readers with as they finish your story. Leave them with something to savor.

Example

I considered using Avatar again as an example, but I’m seriously afraid you guys might hunt me down and pelt me with rotten fruit if I tried. So we’re going to mix it up. You like How to Train Your Dragon, right?


Opening: Hiccup tells us about living in Berk. “This is Berk. It’s twelve days north of Hopeless and a few degrees south of Freezing to Death. It’s located solidly on the Meridian of Misery. […] The only problems are the pests. You see, most places have mice or mosquitoes. We have dragons.”

Act I: We see Hiccup’s life in the village—more importantly, we see how he doesn’t fit in. He uses one of his inventions to shoot a dragon out of the sky, but no one believes him. He goes out on his own to search for the dragon and finds it—tied up, helpless. Hiccup could kill the dragon and return to his village a hero, but…

1st Doorway: Hiccup sets the dragon free, and the dragon spares his life.

Act II: Hiccup’s father enrolls him in dragon-fighting training. They tell Hiccup, “a dragon will always go for the kill” but Hiccup knows differently now. Hiccup seeks out the dragon and learns about it, about its injury, names it Toothless.

Midpoint: Hiccup approaches Toothless, throws his weapon away, and reaches out. Toothless approaches and allows Hiccup to touch him.

Act III: Hiccup and Toothless play and learn about one another. Hiccup designs a tail fin to help Toothless fly. After some false starts, Hiccup and Toothless learn how to fly together. They are discovered by Astrid. Hiccup, desperate to keep Toothless safe, kidnaps Astrid (for a little while). Together they fly and see the dragons’ nest. They learn about the monstrous dragon that is keeping all the other dragons in thrall.

Back in the village, facing off with a dragon in the arena, Hiccup tries to prove to the vikings that they don’t have to kill dragons by showing them how he can tame the dragon, but it goes wrong and Toothless bursts in to save Hiccup. The vikings capture Toothless. Hiccup’s father Stoic learns that Toothless can lead him to the dragon nest. Stoic sets out with Toothless chained to his ship and leaves Hiccup behind in disgrace.

2nd Doorway: Hiccup shows the other young vikings how to ride dragons.

Act IV: Final showdown. The vikings face off against the giant monster-dragon. Hiccup and his friends arrive and save the day. Hiccup rescues Toothless and they defeat the monster-dragon, but Hiccup is nearly killed in the attempt. He wakes in the village later and discovers that he lost his foot in the battle. He and Toothless are now matched: Toothless’ tail-fin and Hiccup’s foot. The vikings live a new life alongside the dragons.

Closing: Again, Hiccup narrates. “This is Berk. It snows nine months of the year, and hails the other three. Any food that grows here is tough and tasteless. The people that grow here are even more so. The only upsides are the pets. While other places have ponies or parrots, we have… dragons.”


Assignment:

This week, look at your plotlines and think about how they might divide up into Acts and Tentpoles. Hint: use your Central Change to figure out your Acts and Tentpoles. After you have the basic structure worked out, you can add in all the extra plot points from your supporting changes to fill things out a bit.

But we’ll talk about that more next week, in Step Six: Outline. Until then!

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