Art and The Three-Part Structure

TrianglesI think I was introduced to Haiku when I was in Junior High. I vaguely recollect an english teacher assigning us a creative writing exercise involving a non-rhyming, three-line stanza with a 5-7-5 syllabic form. I’m sure I came up with something both amateurishly witty and embarrassingly juvenile. From that time till now, Haiku has intrigued me for a lot of reasons: the poetic elegance and economy, the lyrical and sometimes playful, sometimes profound quality, the provocative twist in the third and final line. From Ezra Pound to Calvin and Hobbes, Japanese Haiku has been a beloved form of poetry since the sixteenth-century.

Here’s the thing about Haiku. The rigid limitations placed on the structure of this type of poetry are what give it beauty. And the challenge to the literary artist is to embrace the rigidity of the structure in order to coax aesthetic and meaning from it. This is the way of all art forms, I believe. The painter accepts the physical limitations of the canvas. The playwright accepts the limitations of the stage. The chef accepts the limitations of the pantry. Understanding the structure of your art form is a necessary discipline to creating great art.

Consider the structure of the Sonata. A sonata is an expansive classical musical form, progressed and expressed by composers like Hayden, Beethoven, Bartok. Generally, it is formed from three sections: Exposition, Development, and Recapitulation. In the Exposition, the main theme of the piece is established, and sometimes a secondary theme, often in a related key, is also introduced. The second section, Development, is where the composer “shows off” by playing with the theme, usually by introducing harmonic and rhythmic tensions. Finally in Recapitulation, the expository themes from the second section dramatically descend back to a restatement of the original theme.

As I mulled over this very classical form, I realized that the basic sonata structure is the same form as jazz, particularly with jazz standards. In a jazz performance, musicians will typically state a basic melody, often a simple line or show tune, then develop that melody with increasing harmonic tension, before ending the song with a restatement, or recapitulation, of the original melody. (I highly recommend this clip of Herbie Hancock being interviewed by Elvis Costello, and this performance of Hancock’s classic “Watermelon Man.”) It is in the development section that jazzers will “show off” their chops (and typically have the most fun too).

And here’s where I’m landing these days. Recently, I completed my first screenplay. Now, as a side note, I don’t have any crazy illusions that this might be made into a movie. I wrote it primarily because I had always wanted to write one (I’m a little weird in that way). But in the process of writing the screenplay, I came to understand the theory and model of screenwriting called the three-act structure.

3-act-matrixGenerally, many films are formed, either purposefully or incidentally, in Three Main Acts: (1) The Setup, where the initial plot and characters are introduced, and ending with the first major plot point; (2) The Confrontation, also known as The Rising Action, where the protagonist is faced with a series of increasing obstacles and challenges; and (3) The Resolution, where the final challenge or confrontation is met in the form of a climax and resolution. Interestingly, the second of these three acts, The Confrontation, comprises at least half of the movie, and is also the hardest to write (as I am finding out!).

As I continue to mull over the idea of structure, I find it fascinating that three lines, three acts, three sections, and three movements seem to be a universal axiom. Even a funny joke has three parts to it (e.g., a rabbi, a priest, and a pastor walk into a bar…).

So what does this have to do with faith and art? I have argued, both in my book and on this blog, that the Christian Meta-Narrative is one of Creation, Fall, and Redemption. This three-act story is the character arc of the whole of humanity. (See the video, Entering Into God’s Story, here.)

And suddenly I am struck by the parallels. God establishes creation, light from dark, firmament from deep, man from mud (Exposition/The Setup). In the struggle with the darker parts of our humanity, we sin and fall from our place before God (Development/Rising Action). Finally, God redeems his fallen world and restores it to its original intention, a reflection of God’s glory (Recapitulation/Resolution). It is the story not only of Creation, but more intimately and personally, it is the story of you and me.

Donald Miller, in his book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, says this:

“If the point of life is the same as the point of a story, the point of life is character transformation. If I got any comfort as I set out on my first story, it was that in nearly every story, the protagonist is transformed. He’s a jerk at the beginning and nice at the end, or a coward at the beginning and brave at the end. If the character doesn’t change, the story hasn’t happened yet. And if story is derived from real life, if story is just condensed version of life then life itself may be designed to change us so that we evolve from one kind of person to another. ”

I am realizing more and more that I am somewhere between the end of my second act and the beginning of the third. And I can’t wait to see how it ends. Where are you in your story?


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