The Three Act Structure, Part VI: Act II & III Climaxes and the Try-fail Cycle

Tools and Techniques

This post will wrap up my overview of the three-act structure; however, this thread of posts isn’t all-encompassing. If you want to explore this method of organizing your novel further, there are several books I’ve mentioned that help:

The Try-fail Cycle

Really, many of these climaxes fall into one category: try-fail or the try-fail cycle. In the try-fail cycle, the central character will attempt a solution (try) that will be unsuccessful (fail). During each of these failures, the central character learns something that eventually leads to triumph and the final battle. Each try-fail cycle is more dangerous of more difficult than the last with ever increasing stakes.

This doesn’t mean all the central character’s choices were good ones. In fact, many of them were probably terrible. Some of them may even been damaging morally or physically. Someone close to the central character may have been wounded or died, or the central character may have made a moral sacrifice.

To clarify, along the way—typically at the end of Act II—the central character takes a morally questionable action or actions because the previous try-fails caused helplessness and hopelessness. So, the central character takes any action to defeat the antagonist. Watch any superhero movie and many movies that aren’t superhero centric: the hero will take amoral actions. When you see that, you know the movie is nearing the end of Act II, which means everything is going to pick up the pace toward the climax and denouement, and you’ll be picking up your garbage and leaving the theater soon (or shutting down your favorite streaming service as is more the case right now).

An Example: Big Hero 6

Take Big Hero 6 as an example. I recently watched it—yet again—with my sons. It’s a cool movie. I enjoy it. And, it follows the try-fail cycle.

For those of you who have not seen it, it’s about a robotics whiz kid who loses his brother and mentor to an explosion at a technology fair in a Tokyo-San Francisco hybrid megacity set in a technologically advanced future. The central character uses his dead brother’s nurse-robot to seek out the murderer of his brother and mentor. At one point, in an epic battle against the antagonist, whiz-kid takes out the morality chip from his nurse-robot and commands it to kill the antagonist. Not only is the action an afront to the central character’s morals, it’s an afront to the memory of his dead brother who wanted to provide exceptional medical care to all with his nurse-robots. That’s the end of Act II.

Then, in an orphan archetype cycle as outlined by Joseph Campbell, he feels complete pain and loss; however, he soon realizes he has family who will support him in the form of the other five heroes who joined him (hence the movie title, Big Hero 6), and he rises up as a morally superior hero pitted against the amoral antagonist who experienced his own familial loss. (The antagonist just happens to be a great villain as well.)

Taking a Step Back: The Point of No Return

Taking a step back in the acts, there’s the Midpoint or Point of No Return. This is the moment where the central character becomes completely committed to the adventure, the conflict, the primary objective. There is literally no turning back for the central character: They must follow through with their entire try-fail cycle and save the day or whatever the end result of the story is.

Swallowing the Formula

You may feel this is all formulaic. Well, you’re right. It is. However, it’s what the industry audiences have come to expect and feel comfortable reading and watching. There’s nothing wrong with formula. It’s an excellent story structure, and it’s what sells.

However, this is a debate left for another post.

My Next Post

In my next post, I want to go into literature: literature that has influenced me and how it may impact a writer’s style.

Author: Chuck Lang

Chuck Lang is a writer of science fiction and horror. Influenced by his years as a carpenter, four years serving in the US Navy, and his nearly two decades teaching literature, he holds an MFA in Writing (Fiction) from Lindenwood University. After completing his first manuscript, the supernatural horror novel DEAD GODS, in 2019, he has begun work on its two sequels, DEAD GODS: INHERITANCE and DEAD GODS: RESOLUTION. He is currently developing two additional projects, an urban fantasy horror novel and a military science fiction novel. He lives and writes near the frequently flooded Red River in Fargo, ND with his wife and two redhead sons.

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