I’m not a huge fan of three act structure if it’s talked about as the ONLY structure available to writers or other creators who work with narrative, or – as in this TED talk created by the educator Matthew Winkler – people say that it’s a universal mythic structure that occurs in every culture in the world, and/or that it’s ancient.
It isn’t either of those things.
The structure itself may be very old, but it is first described in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (published in 1949) where he calls it the ‘monomyth’, or ‘hero’s journey’. Campbell salvaged/borrowed the term ‘monomyth’ from a novel by one of his favourite writers – James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake to describe a mythic narrative structure he believed existed in all human consciousness and was stable and consistent across time and culture.
The monomyth structure Campbell describes in Hero enters popular culture, and discussion about narrative (especially in film), when George Lucas draws on Campbell’s work in editing and rewriting his original draft script for Star Wars. Lucas wrote, in a biography of Campbell:
It was very eerie because in reading The Hero With a Thousand Faces I began to realize that my first draft of Star Wars was following classic motifs … So, I modified my next draft according to what I’d been learning about classical motifs and made it a little bit more consistent.
While I think the mythic structure Campbell describes can be interpreted as existing in a range of cultures, I believe it’s a monumental error of judgement to say it exists across all cultures, all times, and that it erupts out of a shared human consciousness. I’m not a Jungian, for a start, but I also believe that such a view is a gross oversimplification that distorts and ignores the uniqueness of the plethora of people, races and cultures within human history.
That said, three-act structure (the modern interpretation of Campbell’s monomyth/hero’s journey) is a ubiquitous roadmap used throughout the Western world, in particular, by writers of all kinds.
Personally, I think it’s one of the roadmaps (or ‘rules’ for writing) that you should study, perhaps even memorise before you head out, and then lose or forget once you step onto the path of writing your own story. When you’ve finished writing, you might even like to use it as a tool for comparison in perfecting the structure that you create. Not a mould you have to pour your story into, but a pattern you can adjust to fit, perhaps.
In case you don’t know about the basic ‘formula’ of three-act structure, here’s a gorgeous animation in which Matthew Winkler explains it, linking the structure to the notion of being a hero in your own daily life.