CHAPTER 1: EVERYTHING, IN THREE ACTS
For some reason, the "3 act structure" appeals to me.
On the base level, the 3-act structure is a very simple model. It goes like this. Every good story can be divided into 3 parts:
The first part is where the "state of the world" is described. The characters are introduced and the problem statement is formulated. Example: boy meets the girl and falls for her, the hero is embroiled amidst all sorts of "filmy troubles" like no job, no money and lots of responsibilities, gets rubbed by the bad guys in some wrong way, something very important to the heroine is absolutely at stake like a relationship, a loved one, career, reputation, whatever and so on. The second act is where the meat of the story, the drama happens. The characters are more revealed through their reactions to the events around them. The good guys become bad guys, the bad guys change sides, things start improving for our heroine who started with a round of bad luck, the boy loses the girl because he listens to a stupid idea from a friend and so on. The third act is, of course, the climax, the ending where the boy gets the girl, the bad guys are brought to justice, the hero finds the treasure or the heroine achieves (or fails) in her quest.
I am sure we all recognize this pattern in most movies we have seen. No matter be it action, comedy or romance, be it a happy ending or a sad beginning, the three act structure is the most popular and commercially successful model of story-telling since the days of shakespeare and beyond.
Now the reason this interests me is that this 3-act model can be extended to not just story-telling but in general, many things with "sufficient complexity" (emphasis on "sufficient complexity"). Be it buying a house, relationships or charting your career track, it can be argued that the three act structure is present. Take any successful project at work, the three acts again could be:
1. SETUP (framing the problem, research, coming up with a design concept or methodology for solution, allocating resources);
2. CONFRONTATION (the whole drama of actual execution, management of resources, the unseen surprises and twists);
3. RESOLUTION (the obstacles are somehow overcome, tying down the loose ends, the product is set for release, wrapping-up)
Lots of things come in 3s: a chess game is discussed in three parts: opening, middle and end games. The cricket batting line-up is called: opening, middle order and lower-order and a run-chase is often seen in terms of opening, middle-overs and slog-overs. I am sure you can come up with umpteen examples this way. The rule of three in writing seems to suggest that "things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers of things". Three, I think, is a cute number that appeals to the mind. It's psychologically-satisfying !!!
Before we go overboard with this, one little disclaimer. To be fair to the more logical, scientific readers out there or the ones who are not in a mood for metaphoric exaggerations, I will admit that there is nothing logical about the three-act structure i.e. nature in no way recommends it. There can be seven acts or just one or two acts and it still can be a great story. May be there is no more to the three act structure except that it is "statistically" proven to be an effective way of narrating a storyline. And we all know, statistics don't mean a thing on a individual basis. So, that's that.
Alright, lets get back to having more fun.
ARE THERE 3 ACTS ?
Now, if most of real life's drama comes in three acts, does it mean that happy endings imply that we constantly need some happenstances that keep propelling us from first act to the second and from second to finally, the third ? Not every story reaches the third act. After all, life being life and a constant valley of tears, not everything we set out to do ends in a success. That is the case where the three act journey is forced to a screeching halt somewhere in the middle. The boy likes the girl. The girl doesn't reciprocate adequate enthusiasm to such advances from him. SLAM.The story ends in the first act. You got a great idea for a product and no one is willing to fund it. SLAM. The story ends in first act. Some stories reach the second act stage drama but the situation is so dashed hammered that the conflicts can't be resolved. The couple breaks up, projects are left unfinished because the funding got discontinued, the families, the cultures, the countries, the societies are thrown into an eternal conflict for the lack of appropriate means or will to resolve the differences. The story dies a sad death with no third act because the events in second act drama were too intense to be resolved.
A good team is where you have people excited in each of the three acts. That's one way we can tell if a project is going to be successful. A job well done is where everyone in each of the acts contributed. We often make the mistake of thinking that somehow who comes up with the idea ("act-1" people) deserves more credit. But that idea won't see the light of the day if not for the managers and entrepreneurs (act-2 and act-3 people) who make sure it is developed and marketed. That's when the story is really complete. IDEAS ARE WORTHLESS. EXECUTION IS EVERYTHING. It's probably why we find people who are good in all the three acts (1. ideas, 2. gather resources, 3. create the product) are the richest and the most successful.
WHAT ACT ARE YOU ?
Being human, most of us are not great at all three acts when we are trying to accomplish something. I am a decent first act guy, and I am good at the third act as well. I start well and the enthusiasm of being close to the finish line excites me. I tend to like first-act activities in any project like research, learning the state-of-the-art, creative stuff, coming up with new ideas and so on. Perhaps, this is why I naturally moved towards a research-type career and away from a standard engineer/designer in charge of running a project. I simply try to manage the second act. The second act stuff, poring over the finer issues, the long hours, fixing everyday problems - the whole grind doesn't entice me as much. I often get caught dismissing second-act activities as "mere details" - although that’s where most of the money is.
Some people have "starting trouble" i.e. they may not be awesome at coming with ideas but once they know what needs to be done, you can trust these people to win the war, finish the project, take care of business. These are great second and third act people. Sachin Tendulkar used to be blamed for not being a match-winner. Nowadays, we all treat him like a God that he is retired but this was back in the day he was still playing. That's because he is a great first- and second-act guy. He sets up a start so good, so good that the victory seems so effortless. That's the beauty of a strong opening line-up. A good "setup" can set an unassailable tempo for the project. Like a good love story begins when the boy and the girl hit it off with a terrific chemistry. That's a strong first-act. The first act is where we need people with a sense of adventure - someone who is not afraid to scurry around, enter the dark, enchanted forest hoping to get lucky. Dhoni and Yuvraj make great finishers - classic late-second act and third act people. The third act people become the most visible heroes too. Just like actors in a movie who enter the scene in the third act of the overall movie making process get all the attention although many unsung heroes right from writers to producers to directors to numerous technicians all make the whole production possible. Well, such is life.
Since I am already speaking like an expert on life, let me go ahead and zing you a crack-pot theory. If your primary skill is :
a. Creativity - You are a first act person.
b. Details, persistence - You are a second act person.
c. Going for the kill - You are a third act person.
At the risk of stereo-typing humanity, let me add that our primary skill doesn't solely decide what we become. All of us know how to raise to the occasion, at least to the extent possible. It's just that our natural skills lie in the domains of first, second or third acts and a task in our "home-ground" act comes easy to us.
CHAPTER 2: FRACTAL STRUCTURE
It's not that there are exactly three acts always in every complex task. For the really complicated projects and story-lines, the three acts can often embedded in a fractal structure. That is to say, each of the three acts are sufficiently complex that they themselves have the three acts and so on.
Like the 7 books of harry potter is so complex that while there are three broad acts of 1. Description of Harry's world, Hogwarts, the whole gamut of relationships between lead characters 2. the dramatic unfolding of events leading to rise in Voldemort's power 3. The resolution of the overall conflict: killing of Voldemort, part of the writers' genius is how they choose to maintain the suspense of the central plot and hence, each of these three main parts have embedded in each of them sub-"three-act" structures with their own intermediate resolutions for intermediate conflicts. Likewise, each act of a really complex project can have their own sub-"three act" structure, their own tension and their own drama which needs to be resolved. For example, if you are building a bridge across a river, the idea phase (act 1) which is the process of designing the bridge of how it will look and what materials will be used etc. itself is such a complex task that it will have it's own three acts involving the bunch of bridge designers arguing and fighting over what's the best way forward. Someone will say, "let's build a concrete bridge" and some one will say, "no let's build a rope / cable stay bridge" and so on. The decisions and conflicts at this stage will have to be first resolved before act-2 and act-3 of financing and construction of the bridge can take place. Even research-stage (act-1 task) must be financed and managed (act-2 task) and the financing (act-2 task) options must be researched (act-1 task) before settling on a decision (act-3 task). I hope you get the idea.
CHAPTER 3: WHAT IS THE BIGGEST THREE ACTS OF ALL ?
If each act of the three acts of a parent complex project itself bears a three-act structure, we are talking of three-acts within three-acts within three-acts and so on. Now, the great sages of ancient India seem to have taken this idea even further. They asked, "What is the biggest three-act structure of all from which everything begins and descends down ?". The answer, they gave, is called "A-U-M-" (ॐ). The most fundamental three-act structure, they explained, is the process of acts of the Hindu trinity: Brahma creates the universe (matter is created), Vishnu "rules" over it for a while (matter disintegrates), Shiva presides over the slow dissolution of matter into shapeless, formless energy (matter in the universe dissolves into a still, slow death) and then there is silence for a while before the cycle begins again: A-U-M, A-U-M, A-U-M …
Every other cycle in the universe fractally inherits this grand 3-act structure of A-U-M which is why it said every object in the universe contains the essence of A-U-M and it is the sound personifying the fundamental vibration of the universe. Our personal life's three-act story is probably in the first act of our cultural generation's 3-act story which is probably in the second-act of our nation's own three-act story which is in the first act of our solar system's three-act story and so on … this infinite fractal of three-acts, stories of organisms within larger plot-lines of super-organisms transcends all the way into the cosmos and beyond. Everything, you, me, all living things, the planet, the Milky Way, the universe all of us are united in a much grander screenplay, the majestic three-act cycle of A-U-M. What a mind-blowing concept ever to have conceived!!!
The richness of our mythology doesn't end there. Since each stage of A-U-M is identified respectively by Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva who represent the three-acts, their respective consorts symbolize and provide with what they need.
(Courtesy: Krishna Sharma)
Goddesses Saraswati, Lakshmi and Parvati symbolize the requirements of the three acts - "knowledge", "resources" and "fulfillment" respectively as we very well recognize. How gracefully a single motif weaves through the deepest cosmic mysteries all the way down to celebrating and describing the elegance of a divine matrimonial bond, simultaneously reminding us of the rudimentary principles in project management. Fascinating how much thought went into these things. Isn't it ?
That is the biggest three-act story we are all a part of. How do you like that?
1. Krishna Sharma and his "Framework of AUM" for all the ideas laid out in Chapter 3 (Although, I changed and probably misinterpreted them a little bit) Thank you, Krishna garu for explaining me these beautiful meanings.
 Having said that, just because it's arbitrary doesn't mean we should ignore it. People fall into this fallacy all the time. People prove that X is arbitrary and draw a conclusion that "therefore, X is not very useful or pointless". A thing can totally be arbitrary and yet be profoundly useful. The measurement of length in meters and time is seconds is purely arbitrary. Alternatively, one might use "feet" or "weeks" to measure length and time to arrive at the same conclusions. The whole point of standardizing anything is if you can get enough people to think in those terms, you create a language and a feel for the concept. May be, we can think of the "three act" structure a less rigorous, less tangible yet a unit of measurement nonetheless.