Structure Critique

By: Cody Miller
Date: 10/03/10 8:24 pm


There is a very standard and very successful way to tell stories in visual mediums, which is the standard three act structure. Used in the stage, television, and film, following it provides an excellent framework for telling a story dramatically and presenting a narrative. While straying from it can provide for a unique and memorable narrative experience, doing so poorly can leave the narrative falling flat. This happened to Reach.

The idea behind the three act structure is to show the growth of the main character, in a gradual and dramatic way. The acts and plot points are arranged and spaced in such a way that story flows in a constant and dramatic way. The basic three act structure is as follows, using examples from films you may know:

Act 1 - Setup

The first act's purpose is to set up the characters, and set up the conflict.

Status Quo

The narrative begins with the main character in the status quo, in order to introduce the character and show him or her as they were before the events of the narrative took place, as well as giving rise to the setting. Later, this gives us the opportunity to show how the events of the narrative change the world and the main character. This portion lasts briefly, because there is no conflict and if it goes on for too long will bore the audience.

  • The Matrix: Neo goes to his normal job
  • Halo: Halo begins with the inciting incident
  • Halo Reach: Noble Team does its thing and investigates a distress beacon.

Inciting Incident

This is an event that sets the rest of the story into motion - a change in the status quo that the main character needs to react to. between here and the next plot point, things begin to change from the status quo.

  • The Matrix: Morpheus Contacts Neo
  • Halo: The Pillar of Autumn is attacked and forced to crash on Halo.
  • Halo Reach: The Covenant are on Reach!

First Plot Point

The first plot point is where the main overarching conflict is revealed, and when the main character must make a decision which sets the adventure into motion. This fundamentally alters the status quo, from which point there is no return.

  • The Matrix: Neo takes the red pill and exits the matrix.
  • Halo: The Master Chief learns Halo is a weapon, and decides to secure or use it before the covenant can.
  • Halo Reach: There is none!

Act 2- Conflict

Act 2 is meant to bring the main conflict of the narrative to light, and show how the character grows in order to overcome it. The character will face obstacles that prevent him or her from resolving the conflict, and typically will have moments of despair where all seems lost.

First Culmination

The first culmination is typically halfway through the second act, in which it seems as if the main character has accomplished his or her goal, only to be dealt a blow causing everything to fall apart, sending the conflict in a new direction.

  • The Matrix: The oracle tells Neo he isn't the one, and Morpheus is kidnapped.
  • Halo: The Master Chief succeeds in finding the control room, but learns that the flood have been released!
  • Halo Reach: There is none!

Black Moment

Black moments are meant to show the character at their weakest, in a position when they begin to doubt themselves. This will take place between the first culmination and the second plot point. He or she must overcome this to continue on.

  • The Matrix: Neo believes he is not the One, and that Morpheus will have died for nothing.
  • Halo: There are none!
  • Halo Reach: There are none!

Second Plot point

Just like the first plot point, the second plot point results from the decision of the main character to carry on the struggle and overcome the new challenges presented in the second act, which will eventually lead to the climax.

  • The Matrix: Neo decides to re-enter the matrix to save Morpheus
  • Halo: The Master Chief decides to blow up Halo to destroy the flood.
  • Halo Reach: Possibly where Halsey has the Spartans take Cortana and deliver her to the PoA.

Act 3 - Conclusion

The third act brings about the climax, and eventually has the character come to a realization that enables him or her to overcome the obstacles!

Climax

The climax is the buildup to where the character finally overcomes the obstacle.

  • The Matrix: Neo realizes he is the one after all, and uses this to save morpheus and destroy agent Smith.
  • Halo: The Master Chief fights his way to the PoA, then blows it up destroying the ring.
  • Halo Reach: Noble Six fights his way to the PoA and delivers Cortana to Captain Keyes.

Denouement

The Denouement is almost the opposite of the status quo, where because of the actions of the main character, the world now settles into a new status quo. This is where we see how the film has affected the characters.

  • The Matrix: Neo assumes the role of the One
  • Halo: The Chief and Cortana drift through space and realize the conflict is just beginning
  • Halo Reach: The inevitability of death reaches Noble 6.

Analysis

The Matrix is a strong film and follows the three act structure to great effect. We see each element being used, and in doing so we show the journey of Neo from software programmer to the One who will free humanity.

Halo likewise follows this structure well, but suffers slightly from not having a strong main character. Through the events, we see how the conflict and world around the Mater Chief change, but we do not get a sense that the events changed him or that he was instrumental in bringing about that change. The plot points are meant to be triumphs for the main character, and in The Matrix they are Neo's decisions. In Halo however, they are not, as the Mater Chief is ordered each step of the way by Cortana. This is okay, but it does not personalize the conflict.

In contrast, much like ODST, Reach gives us the inciting incident, then stagnates, eventually skipping into the the third act. After the Covenant invade Reach, Noble Six and the team engage in a series of missions which do not bring about a change in the plot. In place of the second half of the first act and the second act, we get a series of tasks which serve no purpose in building the conflict, or the character Noble Six.

The lack of a first plot point makes the story feel very weak. Instead of having the main character make a choice that jumpstarts the conflict, Reach has Noble 6 decide nothing, except to follow the rest of his team on pointless missions. It would be like if Morpheus had Neo fetch him items or programs from inside the matrix before telling him at the end of the film that he's the One.

Likewise, there can be no first culmination, because nobody in Reach decided to do anything (which they would have, had there been a first plot point). You could argue that the decision to take out the carrier qualifies, but it's not a decision by our main character. This would have been stronger in reach if it was Noble Six's idea to use the Sabers to deliver the slipspace drive. Then, Hor-Hey's death and the resulting failure of the plan to halt the invasion would have made an excellent segue into the middle of the second act, as Noble Six would be filled with thoughts of failure, and loss because of his actions. As it is now, he's probably thinking, "Shit, Kat's plan didn't work. whoops".

The second plot point, if you can even call it that, comes when Noble Team is summoned and given the mission to deliver Cortana. This is very weak because they are just doing what they are told. If, upon failing to stop the invasion by blowing up the carrier, Noble Six would have remembered Halsey mentioning a latchkey discovery, and convinced the team to go back to sword base to acquire it and keep it safe, that would have been much stronger. The action would have been motivated, rather than it is now as just arbitrary. "We're being re-deployed to sword base!" This is not a great way to advance the plot - by having events just happen out of the blue.

The idea of the little voice in your head, or the main character being ordered to do something is a very weak way to present plot points. If the main character is juts following orders, there is no significance to his or her actions. However if it is their decision, then now the weight of the outcome affects them.

Furthermore, Noble Six never grows as a character. How the main character is changed by overcoming the obstacles is an important reason we watch dramatic narratives! The three act structure sets this up very well, by forcing the character to fail, they are also forced to change.

I would advise Bungie to do the following in their next game:

  • Stick with the three act structure.
  • Give us a strong main character.
  • Have the plotpoints be brought about by the choice of the main character.
  • Have the overarching narrative show the growth of the main character.