The three-act structure has been a storytelling device for a very long time. While not referred to as the three-act structure that we know of today, early mentions of similar storytelling structures can be found in the writings of Aristotle in his written piece Poetics. In it, he notes that the better received Greek tragedies had solid beginnings, middles, and ends. This idea echoes throughout the years and slowly becomes what we know it as today.
In order to get a better understanding of the three-act structure, we can apply the concept to the year and its season. This may seem odd since there are only three acts, but four seasons, but hear me out. Act Two is always broken into two parts due to its large size. You have the first half and the second have, so there are four parts to match up with the seasons.
Save the Cat!
This idea of relating the seasons to the three-act structure is heavily inspired by what I learned from the Save the Cat! Beat sheet. I’ve already done a post on the structure, which you can find here if you want a more in-depth look at the full structure. As it is, I will be mentioning some of the beats in the next part of the article and how they relate to the different times of the year.
Breaking Down the Acts
The three-act structure has been around for centuries under different names. Like it or not, this structure still exists today because it leads to compelling stories. The structure helps break the story down so that readers can enjoy it.
The first act starts slow and introduces people to the characters and the world of the story. Whether the characters are ready or not, something then propels them into the new adventure of the second act.
The second act speeds things up, at first in a fun and exciting way as the characters get to experience something new in their world. Then halfway through the second act, something big happens and things begin to get serious for the characters.
The action speeds up as the bad guys (doesn’t have to be actual bad guys, just whatever is challenging the characters) close in until something bad happens for the characters and they are forced to reflect on everything that happened since their adventure began. During this time, they often try to return to their old life, only to learn that they can’t live that life anymore. They’ve grown and evolved as a person, and now they must face the bad guys head-on in the third act.
The third act is all about taking the lessons from the journey and using them to face the bad guys. They go in with a plan and a team, the plan doesn’t work out quite right, so they adapt and usually find victory. Then it ends with the readers getting to see the characters comfortable in their new place in the world after defeating their bad guys, whatever said bad guys were.
The Acts of the Seasons
Now that we have a basic understanding of the three-act structure, let’s apply it to the seasons.
Spring/Act 1. Spring is act one of the year. As the beginning of the year where life begins again following the cold of winter, it is very much like the beginning of a story. This is where the story of life is introduced and various aspects of the main characters and their world are introduced. It’s a very calm and intriguing time since the main character is often set comfortably in their little world.
Summer/Act 2 Part 1. Summer is the first half of act two. This season warms up and life truly begins to flourish. It’s the fun and games beat of the year. Everything is in full swing. This portion of the year is hot and full of excitement and adventure. Life breaks out of the comfortable world of act one and begins to explore a new, slightly more challenging, one. Fun is had along the way, but all the while things are getting more serious.
Fall/Act 2 Part 2. Fall is the second half of the second act. This is where people often begin to reflect back on the fun of summer, but also seek to return to the cooler, calmer world they knew in spring. Thing is, they can’t go back, not with the bad guys (the cold) closing in. Fall is calm, reflective, it still carries some excitement within it, but it also carries a darkness as the end approaches. The shadow of the finale, the final act and season, looms over life.
Winter/Act 3. Winter is the finale of the year. The cold closes in and life must confront it. There is no avoiding the cold any longer. In the dark depths of winter, life faces the hardest challenge of the year, but if it succeeds and survives, it gets to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Winter starts out harsh and cold but can carry a softness, even warmth and light, as it comes to an end. As winter’s grasp on the world fades, life can see a better future ahead, one that the last year has helped lead it to. At the end of winter, life isn’t the same as it was when it started out in spring. It has changed and grown in order to overcome the challenges set before it during summer, fall, and winter.
Then, of course, it all begins again with the sequel of the next year.
How I Use This to Help My Writing
This is how I see the seasons and I use it in a roundabout way to help me when writing. I’ve mentioned before how I often use music to help me when I’m stuck with a scene that I’m working on. While understanding the story beats does help in some instances with finding the right song for the scene, not every song in my library can easily be sorted into story beats. This is due to the fact that not every album I have follows the story beats. However, I’ve found that the songs can be sorted by their feeling into the different seasons.
Slowly but surely, I’ve been organizing my entire music library into seasonal playlists. I can then use these lists as good starting points to find the song for a scene because the seasons are a good representation of the three-act structure. You can check out the playlists here: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter.
On a side note, the interesting thing about doing this is that when I’m in a mood where I don’t know what I want to listen to, I can just pick the playlist for the current season. This always leads to me really enjoying what I’m listening to because the music matches up to the seasons for me. I highly recommend doing this with your own library.
Between this metaphor of a year as a story, and my seasonal playlists, finding the right song for a scene can be a lot easier.
Relating the three-act structure to the seasons of the years was something I noticed recently and found interesting. Doing so has helped me get an even better understanding of story beats. Of course, how I view the year may not be the same as how you view the year and so my analogy may fall apart, but it can still help give you a sense of the rising and falling action of the three-act structure which in turn can help you plot out your own story.