My netfriend and fellow writer Stephanie recently wrote:

I recently read in a book that stories and life happen in three acts: wake up, do some work, go to bed; you’re born, you live, you die; etc. This is what my life has been feeling like lately, like I’m just going through the motions…

I really hear her. I’ve been there before myself. It’s funny… the three stages or “acts” in the drama of my life tend to be:

1. Really believe in (or wish to believe in) some model of the world: an ideology, a system, an explanation for this or that human problem…
2. Get disillusioned, or surprised by facts that contradict the model: the lover isn’t so perfect after all, or the political ideology is fraught with problems, or some fact comntravenes the theory.
3. Deal with the reality.

… which is interesting since step 3 involves so many different possible solutions: walking away, staying and fighting the good fight, changing direction, insulating oneself against other step 1s, and yet trying to maintain a little optimism and hope through it all. I’d say that pretty much characterizes my life in general, but it’s become much more transparent to me over here. Huh… I suppose Ben could say more about whether this follows a pattern of Thesis–Antithesis–Synthesis… but sometimes it’s just Thesis–Antithesis–OhcrapIwaswrongabouteverything. Still, even then some kind of synthesis must occur, to deal with the thing in one way or another. At least, that’s the point where things get interesting.

Unsurprisingly, this is exactly the internal plot arc for the two main characters of the novel I’m working on right now. Threes… huh. Then again, I tend to think of things in series. Like the stollen-stollen-abgesang pattern that my old Music History prof Walter Kreyszig used to hammer into our heads, a little. (The phrase above in German apparently just means short-short-long, and is also called the bar form. But one sounds cleverer when using the German, don’t you agree?)

A very famous example is the opening of Beethoven’s Symphony #5: you hear the four-note pattern twice, and on the third repeat it expands into longer melody also built out of repetitions of threes). Then you hear the theme again, with a bunch of repetitions built in threes. And once more, you hear a (very slight) variation on the theme, and off we go. And then what? A repetition of the opening. It’s like this transparently fractally constructed, insane ice sculpture with the fundamental building block being triple-repetitions and variations of a simple four-note structure.

But it’s those bits where Beethoven tacks on a few extra notes, modulates, or sends things off in a new direction that make it music and not just mindless repetitions. (Like that crazy little oboe thing in the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth.) That’s also what makes our stories — the ones we live, and the ones we write — worthwhile, too.

[For the record, I’m not really into Beethoven. I find the music too immediately transparent to interest me much; I like more of a challenge, like John Coltrane (and check this interview!) or Igor Stravinsky (sadly no usable video link for this), or Eric Dolphy. Beethoven’s alright, but not my thing. Lime found my comment amusing, but I think, after all, it’s been two hundred years… if Beethoven’s music is still a serious listener’s challenge to someone who’s really into music, and studied it, I’d be surprised. Playing it is another question, but as for listening, two hundred years is a long time. Hell, thirty years is a long time.]

7 thoughts on “Threes

  1. The three act screenplay:

    I: Get your monkey up a tree
    II: Throw Rocks at your monkey
    III: Get your monkey out of the tree.

    While the Hegelian Dialectic might have some limited applications in the field of literature, I loathe Continental philosophy (and metaphysics in particular) with a passion.

  2. Yeah, I ain’t into Hegel much either, to be honest. As for Continental Philosophy… well, it’s complicated, but my main reaction is often either, “You’re so full of it!” or “Yeah, okay, maybe, but so what?”

  3. If you watch a movie, and it’s 90 minutes, you can set your watch to the structure I outlined in my first comment. If the film sucks, it’s ususally because of problems in the first or second act. It took too long to chase the monkey up the tree, or there were/weren’t too many/enough rocks lieing around to throw at the monkey.

    Two hours is a little trickier, sometimes it takes forty minutes to get the monkey up the tree, and usually a good hour has to be given over to throwing rocks at the monkey.

    90% of the films you watch will conform to this structure.

  4. I should have referenced the book where I first read this. It was called Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell.

    That’s interesting about the 90 minute movie. I never thought about this.

    Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of children’s and YA fiction. Most of what I’ve read subscribes to this 3 part structure. A teacher, about 3 years ago, told me the difference between short stories and novels is in structure. Short stories, according to her, are driven by plot (whether or not it’s a 3 part, I dunno) and in her opinion, novels should explore without any sense of plot. (Obviously, she wasn’t writing fiction with the thought of actually selling books in mind.)

  5. Go Miskatonic! I love Re-Animator – in film or in print. I hear they are going to make a fourth one.

    I’ve found as I’ve gotten older I get less discriminating about what I watch and less patient when it comes to sitting through films. On the one hand I’ll watch anything but I’m also willing to walk out of a movie if I think it’s boring, ugly, stupid etc.

    So I’m not sure if 90% of films such or if I can’t really be bothered to care anymore.

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