Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Deviating from the Plot Curve: Teaching Turning Points

While English teachers are notorious for teaching the plot curve and its inciting incident, rising action and climax, etc., and while this is a great way to analyze literature, one of my most interesting sets of lessons involves leaving the plot curve behind and replacing it with the three-act structure most screenwriters and novelists use today.

Teaching the three-act structure provides a fresh, modern approach, and feels more relevant to the learner. This approach also gets students out of the mistaken mindset of Freytag's Pyramid (aka the plot curve), where, for some reason, students start believing that the climax of the work (since climax is shown is the top of the pyramid) is in the middle of the book or short story rather than almost at the end.

In its simplicity, the three-act structure means the work is broken up into three parts, a beginning, middle and end. Act I, the beginning, sets up the story, while Act II, the middle, involves multiple character confrontations (good and bad). Act III, the end, reveals whether the characters have met their goals and if their conflicts have been resolved. Using this approach Act I and Act III are shorter than the middle Act II, and the climax occurs at the end of Act II.

Syd Field, author of Screenplay and The Screen Writer's Workbook, breaks up the acts into a different paradigm. He calls Act I Set Up, Act II Confrontation and Act III Resolution. Using his structure for a two hour movie, Act I and III would be 30 minutes each and Act II one hour. According to Field there are two plot points, and each of these respectively occur at the end of Act I and Act II.  Each of these plot points thrusts the action in a new direction.

Men with more wisdom than me have analyzed and put their own spin on the three-act structure, and the one that I like best is from Michael Hauge, author of Writing Screenplays that Sell.

Hauge's "Screenplay Structure: The Five Key Turning Points to All Successful Scripts" breaks the three acts up into six stages and I teach this structure when I am teaching William Gibson's "The Miracle Worker" and when teaching plot using the Disney movie "Sky High." Using a movie to teach this structure works well as it gives everyone a common reference.

Hauge defines Act I and Act III as each being 25 percent of the story and Act II as being 50 percent. However, he breaks these Acts into two parts each, called stages. Act I contains Stages I and II, Act II has Stages III and IV, and Act III has Stages IV and V. (A visual and a complete article are available here.)

Stage I is Set Up, and it encompasses 10 percent of Act I. Here we meet the characters, especially the hero, and learn what they desire. At the 10 percent mark there is Turning Point 1, which is called opportunity. This is when the hero begins his journey to accomplish whatever desire he has. After this follows Stage II, the New Situation, which is simply the new situation the hero enters to achieve that desire. Stage II and Act I end at the 25 percent mark, which is called Turning Point 2, Change of Plans. Hauge defines this as the moment when the character's original desire is turned "into a specific, visible goal with a clearly defined end point."  At this point the hero's outer motivation should be revealed.

Now we move into Act II, and Stage III, which is called Progress. Here the hero is able to start achieving that goal and overcomes the conflicts placed in his path. The midpoint, or 50 percent mark is where the next turning point occurs. Turning Point 3 is called Point of No Return. Literally, the characters are all in at this moment. They cannot turn around and go back. Turning point 3 sets up Stage IV, which is called Complications and Higher Stakes. Here the conflict intensifies. The hero faces more and more obstacles. The stakes get higher. The hero begins to experience some major trouble.

Act II and Stage IV end in the next Turning Point 4, at the 75 percent mark, which is Major Setback. Here the hero is failing to meet his goals and things start to look hopeless. This may also be what is called the "black moment" when everything appears to be lost.

Now the hero enters Stage V, which is Final Push. Here the hero picks himself up, finds that reserve strength and keeps pushing until the end, which he finds at Turning Point 5. This where the climax of the story occurs and it can appear anywhere around the 90 percent mark to almost the end. The climax is the biggest moment the hero faces, the big moment of triumph or failure. The outer motivation is resolved.

After Turning Point 5 comes the very brief Stage VI, which is called The Aftermath. Here the story winds up and finishes.

Just one note—not everything will be exactly those 10, 25, 50, 75 and 90 percent marks. Those are guidelines. It's not about timing, but structure.

Teaching screenplay structure is a great, fun way to wrap up the year. After working with it, my students and I will brainstorm a list of movies or TV shows acceptable to watch over the next week. Then from this list, the student picks one to view and completes a chart/analysis over the show he has picked. This allows the student to not only apply the knowledge, but to see how relevant learning can be. In addition, by analyzing, the student develops media literacy skills, especially as, on TV, most commercial breaks often fall after the turning points. The students can start to apply this structure to many modern novels as well as this structure has crossed into the writing style of many authors.

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Michele Dunaway is an award-winning English and journalism teacher who, in addition to teaching English III, advises the student newspaper, yearbook and news website at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, MO. In 2009, the Journalism Education Association awarded Michele with its Medal of Merit. She has received recognition as a Distinguished Yearbook Adviser in the H.L. Hall Yearbook Adviser of the Year competition and was named a Special Recognition Newspaper Adviser by the Dow Jones News Fund. She also practices what she teaches by authoring professional journal articles and writing novels. Click here to read more articles by Michele Dunaway.