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American Tantalus: The Lure of Three-Act Structure

If you think satisfaction is just over the next hill, three-act story may be the reason.

In a previous entry, we looked at story’s general utility as a hedge against impermanence. Stories suggest an order and durability to what is, in truth, a chaotic unraveling of the very fabric of existence.

If stories, broadly speaking, address the whole of the universe, then three-act story (the most common structure in Western films) tussles with the disquiet of impermanence on a personal level.

Three-act Structure can be Roughly Summarized as Follows:

1st Act: The regular world – Hero’s life is unsatisfactory. Something happens. Hero must act.

2nd Act: Out to sea - Hero tests her limits, makes allies, discovers a bigger world: the adventure! Something happens. Things go from bad to worse. Hero fears everything she’s learned has been a waste of time and milk money.

3rd Act: Hero sees the true value of her adventure, applies the lessons and resolves her journey. Thus transformed, she drifts into eternity.

Drawn from mythological roots (The Hero with a Thousand Faces) this structure satisfies audiences because three-act heroes discover in two hours what few do in several lifetimes.

The American Dream

American stories cleave to this pattern more than others because the American Dream requires reinvention. The founders baked this ethos into the Declaration of Independence, and subsequent generations have distilled it’s meaning: In America, regardless of where you start, you are entitled to - and indeed should strive for - success, upward mobility, and happiness.

Leveraging three-act structure, American films restate this idea in practical terms: In life you can’t always get what you want, but if you try, you’ll get what you need (and also what you want). More importantly, through the hero’s journey you will come to understand what you need, be ready to seize it when the time comes, and then hang glide into the sunset in an ostentatious display of personal balance and well-being.

Take a moment to look up. Anyone hang gliding?

There’s the problem.

This almost never happens in real life, at least in some measure, because we don’t believe it’s possible.

There is an inherent tension between our stories, and the beliefs that undergird them. To look again at the Declaration of Independence, it is no coincidence that the word “pursuit” defines the American relationship to happiness.

We tell stories about the pursuit and attainment, but are then incited to chase satisfaction over the next hill.

For many, this is internalized, and much of society persists in a fevered state of dissatisfaction: we pay for the new experience, or acquire the latest gadget in the hopes that finally we will understand the meaning of our journey and be whole.

It’s even baked into our religion. One of the bedrock stories of Western culture, the Good News of Christianity, makes no guarantees of transformation in this lifetime. Though the story of Jesus offers that relief is in the eschaton, the practice of the religion suggests that continual striving is the responsibility of the faithful, and disappointment is the only reliable consequence.

This makes three-act story all the more appealing. Where else can the thirsty and hungry sit in a cool darkened room to sup the nutritive tonic of emotional satisfaction? (Probably many places, but few so easily and readily accessible.)

And so there is a feedback cycle: Our beliefs are delivered in emotionally resonant three-act packages, which reinforce our convictions. This moment of satisfaction leads to a positive relationship with the form, and we come to understand ourselves relative to this type of story.

Given this, it’s interesting to consider what part of the story we’re at. What part are you at? Are you in the ordinary world? Are you on the adventure? Or, are you on the verge of figuring it all out if you can just crest the next hill?

Based on neuroscience, I suspect most Westerners are right there on the brink, hovering between acts two and three: the fog is about to lift and we will see clearly just as soon as we have, do, get, realize, understand…

In part two of this post, I will consider the details of this theory. I’m certain it will be transformational, and that once I write it, the clouds will break, and the weather will be just right for a glide.

Until then, keep writing, keep thinking. We’ll get there.


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Axioms & Insights

All things are impermanent.  Our technological age has increased the pace of change, but not the fundamentals of entropy. Those who work in harmony with this truth will excel. 


Axioms and Insights is a collection of essays that explores the rules of our modern world, the practical, and philosophical implications for the entertainment business, and the culture in which we practice our professional craft. 

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