By Shawn StJean
Shakespeare inherited from the Greek tragedians a 5-part plot structure, which functions to keep the writer on track concerning the overall trajectory of the work, and from getting lost in the details. English teachers know this structure as Freytag’s Triangle or Pyramid: Act I—Exposition, II-Complication, II—Climax, IV—Catastrophe (Reversal), and V—Denouement (“Unraveling”). In today’s faster paced, Hollywood-aligned writing environment, the formula is often shortened to the left half of the pyramid, or simply three components: Exposition, Complication, and Climax. Credits roll. And although crucial elements can be lost in this truncation (reducing the pyramid to a two dimensional line, as it were), that’s a concern for another time. More important for the moment, is that in its short form, the Complication (often oversimplified in diagrams as “rising action”) assumes even greater importance—in fact, it can truthfully be called the “guts of the story.”
Even so, not enough modern writers understand the pivotal function of Act II.
Act I—Exposition. The best narratives begin “in media res,” (in the midst of things)—at an interesting point in the overall action. This requires that the audience be briefed, by means of flashbacks or dialogue, on the conflict that brought the characters to this high pass, and quickly introduced to the individual characters themselves. In a film, this act consumes the initial 30-40 minutes of viewing time.
Act II—Complication. 30-40 more minutes. Many folks intuit that, here, we’ll “get to know the characters better.” They’ll make friends and/or develop antagonisms, either against each other, themselves, or the environment (in the case of Hamlet, all of these). But a complication only deepens plot, by mixing the element of characterization with it, so to speak. Think of it this way: Things go from bad to worse. Example: A soldier’s gash on the foot at first causes a mere limp, but left untreated, induces sepsis. How do the characters react? How does action lead to reaction? What ironies and motifs and themes begin to emerge? Does the narrative take on a tone of inevitability, or are choices still available?
Act III–Climax. Second hour. A sad truth about contemporary storytelling, whether oral, filmic, written, or graphic, is that Act II gets short-circuited and far too much attention gets lavished upon the action of climax (recall how much of the finest elements of Tolkien’s work have been jettisoned by Peter Jackson in service of gory spectacle). People say “it picks up,” as if this equates to “gets better.” True, this presents a mighty problem for the chronicleer: how to present a high significance of action, and not just a high and unsustainable level. But the truth is, a finely wrought set of complications will dictate the climax to a large extent, and no artificial resolution should be needed (such as a deus ex machina, aka miracle ending).
As ever, pop culture provides a ready resource for illustration. As a contained–hopefully visual and entertaining–example of structure and the energizing role of Complication, I’d like to use an unusual text–a performance of the Rolling Stones’ iconic song “Gimme Shelter.” Lyrics, naturally, form our primary, but not exclusive, focus here. To simplify matters even further, we need only examine the chorus (a term aptly take from Greek drama,) of the song, which not coincidentally divides itself into three, similar couplets:
It’s just a shot away.
It’s just a kiss away.
I’ve intentionally left out Act II here, to dramatize its effect later. Taking the first and third parts, we see the speaker has created a parallel structure, at both the local/grammatical-sentence level, and the overall plot level. And while technically speaking, it’s hard to say this is “plot,” so much as allegory, it certainly becomes one when we add the aural and visual elements of a performance:
If you’ll invest five minutes watching the video, you’ll see not only a great song performed by its creators, but even its flaw serves a wonderful purpose. Dividing it roughly into thirds, we initially see Mick Jagger and the boys doing professional, if run-of-the-mill, work—not exactly phoning it in, but doing what’s proven, in a fairly uninspired way. But what follows changes everything (Act II): an unfamiliar element, Lisa Fischer, for whom the term “back-up singer” would be a gross injustice, descends from the background, takes center stage, and electrifies the performance, raising not only the audience’s interest level, but galvanizing the other band members: Watts’ drums, Richards’ and Woods’ guitars, and Jagger’s vocals. And now we’re in a position to hear those lyrics Fischer is responsible for:
They’re just a shot away.
These lines complicate the basic conflict: that we’re all living, in the late 20th/early 21st centuries, under the delicate balance and precarious threat of war—just a simple misstep from Armageddon (recall the Cuban Missile Crisis of ’62.) But there’s a choice—peace, too, that can be embraced, through an act of love, not fear and hatred. If we ask ourselves, what structurally ought to come between the black and white, the right and left, we’ve confronted one of the most basic intellectual challenges in life. It isn’t always as simple as “Grey,” when the choice lies between wrong and right.
Instead, the Stones have chosen another route. Because “war” is such an abstract, monolithic concept, the 2nd stage of the chorus both amplifies and specifies what it entails: not just bloodless “killing” in defense of ideals, but the vicious and selfish ending of human life–murder–always a by-product of war, as well as the brutal stripping of the precious: land, children, women. Rape. These lines give the song flesh and blood, in the same way Fischer’s blood-curdling ability to hit the high notes thrill the spine and appall the senses. In terms of the performance in the video (enhanced by the camerawork, lighting, and editing) Fischer adds an important female presence, and more than a hint of controlled sexuality, which makes her repetition of the word “rape” very resonant.
To return to Hollywood terms, then, the Complication amplifies the basic conflict, by doubling or tripling it, by raising or personalizing the level of threat, by adding a previously unseen dimension. In Oedipus Rex, a plague has descended upon the city of Thebes, and a soothsayer reveals the gods have brought it on because a murderer roams free in the city. The king vows to find and punish the culprit: basic conflict established. However, we in the audience slowly come to realize, through layered ironies, that the murderer is Oedipus himself. Thus, a complication can often be expressed through a question: How can a man administer justice for the community and himself at the same time? Today’s films, even comedies, as simple as they often are, are no different. Take Jack Black’s School of Rock, for example. In Act one, we find a N’er-do-well ejected from his band, his job, and his apartment all in the same day. Basic conflict. He falsely assumes the identity of a middle-school substitute music teacher in order to make ends meet. Thus, complication: How can a man who knows plenty about music, and nothing about teaching, inspire a motley bunch of youngsters to play, appreciate, and love music?
The Complication, if well done, will rise above the Climax in its interest level. It’s here, after all, that protagonists struggle with the details of their challenges, suffer setback and defeat, and prepare to (potentially) grow, or devolve, in the final act. When you’ve seen enough Hollywood films, in fact, Climaxes begin to bore you, with their gunfire and car chases, somehow contriving to sell you on the dubious idea that violence always solves complex problems (try Divergent for a recent, disappointing example.)
What does this mean for writers, as a practical issue? First, Aristotle’s famous remark that “plot is the soul of tragedy” still holds true, especially if you take a generous definition of tragedy: a struggle (often failure, but an occasional success) of human beings to reach their potential. Western culture’s first critic insisted that events and our responses to them define who we are—we do not shape events. This may create an uncomfortable view of free will for the modern viewer, but it helps in storytelling immensely. Ask yourself: how is my protagonist both a representative of, and an amplified example of, humankind? What trials will represent and dramatize this best? How will s/he have it worse than the average person? What bits of key dialogue will support this plot? Which elements are worth repeating–with variations–to clarify my theme? Most importantly, what actions will the protagonist(s) take, or fail to take, when adversity arises?