Generating Dramatic Tension Within Each Act Of Your Story: Part Three

When it comes to increasing pressure on the characters in a story, look to the negative influences available within the structure.

When drafting the tension for a powerful narrative look to the stick, not the carrot. The reward is delicious, alluring, and attractive. Alone, it only generates positive motivation in those who desire. The stick, on the other hand, increase strain as it draws one away from peaceful resolution.

Last week's article in our series on Plotting Your Story with Dramatica covered developing tension within Two Act Structures. Whether a rise and fall or fall and rise, the two key Static Plot Points of Requirements and Prerequisites helped us single out the inflection points of motivation for the characters in a story.

All narratives are not created equal. Depending on the specific choices an Author makes in regards to dynamic forces acting upon the Main Character and the Objective Story and the makeup of the thematic material itself, stories sometimes split up into Three, or Four Act structures.

Every Party Has a Pooper

Aristotle ruined everyone with his notion that stories have a beginning, middle, and end. In our article Identifying the Number of Acts in Your Story, we established a more modern understanding of narrative by looking to to the shifting contexts within different Throughlines:

When shifting into a type of conflict that feels the same, the sense in the Audience is that this is a continuation of exploration. The delineator between the two is hard to find. Act turns feel like major turning points because they represent a shift into a decidedly different dimension of conflict.

In this article, we seek to build upon what we learned and apply it to what many consider the penultimate model for narrative: the Three Act structure.

A Three-Act Structure Approach

When it comes to identifying tension within a Two-Act Structure, the approach is clear:

Two Acts, two Static Plot Points; one for each.

But when it comes to singling out tension in a Three-Act structure, the approach becomes less clear.

Why the Story Consequences and not the Story Goal?

Tension in the Differential

The Goal of a story represents the focal point, or point of intention, for all the characters in the Objective Story Throughline. The Goal functions as a positive motivator.

The Consequence of a story functions as a negative motivator. If the Goal motivates initiative, the Consequence inspires reticence. The differential between the two motivates the entire narrative. This is why many say you can't write a Goal without a Consequence. You can't move towards something if you don't know what you're moving away from.

When it comes to generating tension in that final Act, a strategy of looking to the Story Consequence guarantees an abundance of narrative strain.

From a subjective view, the voice of initiative towards resolution drowns out any potential reticence. To simply add on to more of that motivation would only reaffirm the character's purpose. If instead, the Author heaps instances of negative motivation onto the characters in the preceding moments before realizing the source of their positive motivation, tension rises.

Besides, you remember what happens when multiply a positive against a negative, right?

A Positive Times a Positive Equals a Positive

I know. The whole point of becoming a writer was to escape any semblance of mathematics. But consider the positive motivation vs. the negative motivation. If you, as an Author, continue to pile on the positives, the energy needed to stimulate tension diminishes. No differential, no sense of what exists in-between, no inequity, or imbalance.

Same with piling on the negatives. Eventually the Audience will grow tired of yet another force drawing the characters back into regression. Positive times a positive equals a positive. Negative times a negative equals a positive.

And when it comes to tension, you're not looking for positives.

Match a negative up against a positive and suddenly you have even more negatives. You have what amounts to tension in the hearts and minds of the characters and therefore, the Audience.

The Perfect Three-Act Structure

We begin with the perfect example of Three Act Structure from the 1980s, Peter Weir's Amish-thriller Witness. We say "perfect" because this is the film many point to as THE example of how narrative works.

You know a paradigm of story lacks relevance if it continually refers to the same story from three decades ago as the one and only "perfect" example. We ourselves at Narrative First are guilty of this as well when it comes to Star Wars, but a) everyone has seen it and b) it's like the training wheels of story--Star Wars is, by no means, a "perfect" example.

We continue to update our catalogue of analysis and our showcase of Throughlines in an effort to communicate the idea that the model of story we prefer isn't tied to a particular kind of story. Dramatica binds itself to the psychological processes of the mind; the narratives that branch out from it appear in the reimagining of artists from every decade. Limiting ourselves to the 80s stifles better appreciation and locks us in to a singular myopic methodology.

Of Protagonists and Main Characters

As a reminder, these Static Plot Points apply to all the characters in a story. Many familiar with Witness might find it strange that we identify tension in characters other than John Book (Harrison Ford). As the primary driver in the efforts to resolve the problems in the story, Book functions as the Protagonist. As our eyes and ears into the emotional concerns of the story, Rachel (Kelly McGillis) functions as the Main Character of Witness.

The Dramatica theory of story distinguishes the motivation to pursue a successful resolution from the personal perspective of what many consider the point-of-view character. In Dramatica, the former is the Protagonist, the latter is the Main Character. Most Western-culture or Americanized stories (Hollywood) place both functions within the same player. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, Star Wars), Louise Banks (Amy Adams, Arrival), Moana (Auli'i Cravalho, Moana), and Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge) seek to end the major conflict in the story while simultaneously offering us intimate insight into their own personal struggles.

Characters like Furiosa (Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road), Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal, Brokeback Mountain), Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon, Election), and Westley (Cary Elwes, The Princess Bride) seek to end the major conflict in the story, yet don't offer us intimate insight into their own personal problems. In these films, the function of Protagonist and the role of Main Character fall into two different players.1

Static Static Plot Points

Referring to the official Dramatica analysis of Witness, we find these three Static Plot Points:

In sharp contrast to the examples found in our previous articles, these story points harbor an element of stillness to them. How do you write a Requirement of Progress? And how do Impulsive Directions lead up to that kind of progress? In films like Star Wars and The Sixth Sense2, Conceiving Ideas and Learning effuse a multitude of scene opportunities. But Progress and Impulsive Directions?

A Goal for Every Story

Dramatica determines the prefect balance of story points based on the narrative's dynamic and structural choices. In Witness, the Goal isn't to fight the Empire or understand a troubled kid; the Goal is to achieve a future state untarnished by this horrible and senseless act of violence. This anti-progressive community shelters a boy tainted by the modern world. Removing the boy or moving the entire community somewhere else is not an option: the Amish find themselves stuck in a hopeless Universe.

Universes do not look to Conceiving Ideas or Learning to resolve their particular kind of conflict. Problematic Physics--like those found in Star Wars and The Sixth Sense--do. Instead, Universes look to the Past, to the Present, Progress, and the Future. A problematic Universe needs a different situation to resolve its imbalance.

In Witness, a better Future functions as the Story Goal. Book fights to protect this and ensure it for both Samuel, Rachel, and the rest of the Amish community. Keeping the community from progressing (or regressing from the community's point-of-view) defines the type of Requirements needed to achieve this Goal. Controlling one's impulse towards violence specifies one way to meet these Requirements.

Generating Tension Between Two Worlds

Understanding the unique Story Goal of Witness and the particular Static Plot Points needed to achieve that Goal, we now reckon tension from the point-of-view of the characters.


Central Dramatic Question: "Will things return to the way they were?"

  • Act One Dramatic Tension: "Will the community keep to itself?"
  • Book attacked in the parking lot. (Act Turn)
  • Act Two Dramatic Tension: "Will Book be able to remain hidden and therefore protect Samuel?"
  • Book blows his cover and the corrupt officers arrive. (Act Turn)
  • Act Three Dramatic Tension: "Will Book be able to protect the witness now that he is found?"

The final Act finds tension within the Story Consequence of Subconscious. Here we look to a fear of violence (the negative of desire) and a lack of common human decency as the primary indicator of this dire consequence and a focal point for tension. Trying to generate concern from the Story Goal in this Act would only reinforce their purpose, not amplify the differential. Looking to the positive to generate a negative rarely works in narrative. Clash the negative (the Consequence) against the positive (the Goal) and the Author creates the strain needed to keep the Audience invested.

Reaching Our Final Destination

Of course, Witness is not the only "perfect" Three Act Structure. Films like L.A. Confidential, Election, and Y Tu Mama Tambien all feature one larger thematic movement surrounded by two smaller movements. In our next installment of Plotting Your Story with Dramatica, we dive into these near-perfect Three Act Structures and test our usage of Requirements, Prerequisites, and Consequence to generate tension within the Audience.

  1. How's that for current and up-to-date examples? 

  2. Sorry...couldn't resist using Star Wars as an example directly after our soapbox on analysis. 

Download the FREE e-book Never Trust a Hero

Don't miss out on the latest in narrative theory and storytelling with artificial intelligence. Subscribe to the Narrative First newsletter below and receive a link to download the 20-page e-book, Never Trust a Hero.