Great stories are built upon a careful organization of characters and plot. The main characters face conflict and engage in action that builds to a resolution. Skilled storytellers, whether they are writers or not, have a knack for this organization. Their stories are easy to understand and follow. They tantalize you with details and reveal twists and punch lines at just the right moments. A closer examination of effective stories reveals a common structure that helps them succeed. These stories carefully ratchet up tension and expose their characters to greater challenges in much the same way as a soldier prepares for combat or a criminal plots his crime. In this article, I show how the ideal three-act structure of a story overlaps with a theory of violent socialization. I then draw on examples from my literary crime novel Parabellum to illustrate this synergy.
An Unstructured Story
The first draft of my novel Parabellum could hardly be called a story. Instead of working from a precise outline, I started with ideas for four characters and wrote whatever scenes came to mind (more on my reasons for this approach here). The result was dozens of unconnected scenes with little discernible organization.
I was pleased with my first attempt to get my characters on the page and see how they behaved, and I could tell my story was heading in a certain direction. But I knew it would take a lot of work to get the novel where it needed to go. In organizing the scenes I had written, I relied on a combination of the three-act story structure and a theory of violence that I discovered during my research for Parabellum. The result was a convergence of form and function that shaped Parabellum into the book I imagined it could be.
The Three-Act Structure
Writers and literary critics often think of stories as having a three-act structure. There are slight variations in naming and description between sources; in this summary, I’ll rely on an explanation by author Kristen Kieffer. I’ll also use the plot of a generic James Bond film to illustrate the structure. The structure is easy to see in Bond’s adventures because they are especially formulaic (which is what makes them reliably entertaining!). But it is also present in most successful stories (Kieffer uses Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice in her examples).
Act I encompasses the first 25% of the story. The point of Act I is to introduce the story’s main character(s) in their normal environment, present a conflict that will drive the story and get the main character to engage with the conflict. Ideally, this approach involves an initial hook that draws the audience into the story, followed by an incident that presents a challenge to the main character.
For example, the typical Bond film opens with a big action sequence to captivate the viewer and introduce the villain. Bond returns to MI6, where M explains his next mission, then sets off to an exotic location, where he meets the female lead, the “Bond girl.”
Act II comprises the middle 50% of the story. It contains most of the story’s action. In the first half of Act II, the main character is reactionary; she responds to the conflict but doesn’t address it head-on. At the midpoint of the story, a major confrontation between the main character and her opponent gets the main character to tackle the challenge in front of her. From this point forward, she is active, rather than reactionary. I like to think of Act II as consisting of two parts—reactionary action and proactive action, with a significant turning point dividing the two.
In a Bond film, Act II is where Bond carries out his investigation of the villain and his nefarious plot. At the beginning of Act II, Bond pursues various leads but doesn’t fully grasp the villain’s plan. Then a major confrontation makes Bond realize the villain is even worse than he thought. From that point on, Bond aggressively pursues the villain and seeks to foil his plot.
The final 25% of the story occurs in Act III. Here, the main character suffers an unexpected setback that precipitates the final climactic sequence. The main character faces her opponent one last time, and either triumphs or is defeated. The story then wraps up most of the remaining loose ends.
In a Bond film, Act III is where the villain captures Bond and/or the Bond girl and threatens to torture and kill them. But Bond escapes, defeats the villain, rescues the Bond girl and disappears with her until MI6 agents eventually track them down.
I covered Lonnie Athens’ theory of violent socialization in a previous article, so I keep my descriptions brief here. Instead, I will show how the stages of this theory follow the three-act structure of a story.
In brutalization, the first stage of violent socialization, an authority figure uses violence against a novice or someone close to the novice to command obedience and respect. The authority figure then instructs the novice to use violence to attack people who provoke him. Basic training by a military organization is a perfect example of brutalization. At the beginning of training, a drill sergeant or other commander berates and physically challenges the recruits and prepares them to use violence in combat.
Brutalization corresponds to Act I of the three-act story structure. Both phases involve presenting a challenge to the main character/novice. Though the main character in a story may not face physical violence, she will encounter some disruption to her daily life that will prompt her to respond.
Belligerency and Violent Performance
In belligerency, the second stage of violent socialization, the exposure to violence forces the novice to question his previous values. He sees the benefits of violence and resolves to use violence to protect himself in the future. In the context of basic training, this is the stage at which recruits adapt to the discipline of training and begin to mentally prepare themselves to fight an enemy.
Belligerency corresponds to the first part of Act II. In each phase, the characters in question react to the challenges thrust upon them. The main character in a story doesn’t yet attack her opponent, just as the novice doesn’t yet use physical violence against another person. But both experience a shift in their identities and become fully aware of the challenge in front of them.
The turning point, both in violent socialization and the three-act structure, comes when the novice or main character confronts an opponent. In Athens’ theory, this point occurs with a violent performance, in which the novice uses violence against another person. This performance may be successful or unsuccessful and leads the novice to reflect on his action and the use of violence in the future. Violent performance corresponds to the second part of Act II. Following the confrontational turning point, the novice and the main character pursue their objectives with greater aggression.
The final stage of violent socialization is virulency. In this stage, the novice recognizes the power and notoriety that comes from using violence, especially in comparison to the impotence of the brutalization stage. Novices who reach this stage are convinced that violence is an effective solution to their problems and readily carry out violent acts.
Virulency corresponds to Act III of the three-act structure. In both phases, the agent has the tools to challenge his opponent. The main character in a story faces her physical and emotional challenges. Whether she succeeds or fails, her life has changed, just as the virulent former novice has fully adopted violence as a tool for future confrontations.
The Third Layer in Parabellum
This overlay of the three-act structure and violent socialization plays a significant role in my novel Parabellum. And the paired progressions benefit from a third layer that provides a formal structure for the novel.
There are four sections in Parabellum, each named for a phase in the process of firing a gun. The first section, Trigger, covers Act I of the story and the brutalization of the characters. Just as pulling the trigger initiates the firing of a gun, I wanted this section of Parabellum to introduce the characters and set in motion the events that lead them toward violence.
Ignition and Burn
The second section, Ignition, corresponds to the first part of Act II and the stage of belligerency. In a gun, pulling the trigger causes the gun’s firing pin to strike a part of the cartridge called the primer. This primer strike produces a spark inside the cartridge, which then ignites the propellant, or gunpowder. In Parabellum, this section shows the characters driven by the events of Act I but still floundering as they make their way forward. Their personal identities begin to shift and they become more open to the idea of using violence.
The third section, Burn, follows some decisive action by each of the characters at the end of Ignition. This section corresponds to the second part of Act II and the stage of violent performance. In a gun, the ignited propellant begins to burn as a result of the spark from the primer. This burning gunpowder produces the reaction that causes the gun to fire a bullet. It is the make-or-break point in the firing process. Once the propellant begins to burn, it will lead to either a successful gunshot or a catastrophic explosion. In this section of Parabellum, the characters refine their goals and actively pursue them. They perform aggressive, often violent, acts and evaluate the results.
The fourth and final section, Deflagration, corresponds to Act III of the story and the stage of virulency. In a gun, the burning propellant produces expanding gases in a process called deflagration. These expanding gases then force the bullet out of the cartridge case and down and out of the gun’s barrel. In Parabellum, I wanted to ratchet up the tension throughout this section. Deflagration shows how each character is driven to commit violence and culminates with the climactic shooting at a Chicago beach. This section brings the story to an explosive close and finishes each character’s progression toward violence.
The Story of a Crime
In conclusion, the three-act structure of a story and Athens’ theory of violent socialization combined to help me organize my novel Parabellum. While many authors rely on the three-act structure to shape their writing, the neat overlap between this structure and Athens’ theory could prove especially beneficial for crime writers and other authors following a character descending into violence, madness or some other tragic action. Combined with the phases of firing a gun, these structural elements moved Parabellum from a clutter of unorganized scenes into the fully developed story of a crime.