The disaster is an external plot piece that has the ability to bring your character to the lowest point that will induce character transformation.
The insights from cognitive psychology can help us understand the effects and usefulness of story structures, and this is what I break down in this series. In these articles on story structure elements, I dive into the effects of story on readers and how these structures play a part in that. I also offer suggestions for what writers can do to have the best of both worlds — both the joy of just writing and creating a tale readers will want to read.
Now we’re in the third act. Maybe your protagonist made it through the second complication and is even feeling prematurely triumphant. But it's when true disaster strikes that the protagonist realizes all her mistakes. Better yet if the disaster is brought about by those very mistakes!
Is this disaster truly necessary? Should you destroy your protagonist in the third act?
Why, yes! (Unless you follow a somewhat different, yet valid, path for your protagonist — more on this in a bit!)
Your story’s protagonist needs to hit rock bottom in order to change trajectory. Protagonists are stubborn like that. They will hold onto their inner demons until they have no choice but to realize the truth they needed to learn.
So craft your third-act disaster to bring your protagonist to this point. Make it count! (and hurt…)
How might the disaster be brought about by the protagonist’s own poor decisions and misguided actions? This plot event must have the blasting power to bring your character to her lowest point and force a change.
The disaster is an external plot piece that has the ability to bring your character to the lowest point that will induce character transformation. The disaster takes place at or near the opening of the third act in a basic three-act story structure. It may occur after a false triumph or other trials following the second act complication.
However, this beat might be fulfilled in a counterintuitve, seemingly opposite event: your protagonist is tempted by something too good to be true. In other words, your protagonist doesn’t face a disaster so much as a soul-ripping choice.
Sometimes an actual “disaster” in this beat would probably be preferable to your protagonist because at least it’s a clear threat. When faced with her deepest desire (usually corrupted by the protagonist’s inner demon), your protagonist’s ability to change will likely be even harder.
What’s important to note is that this plot beat fulfills the same function whether it’s instigated by a disaster or desire. In each path, the disaster or desire is presented as an external plot event that kickstarts the more conscious inner transformation of the protagonist.
A disaster — no matter how physical or conceptual — is usually the more common path in stories. We see this path in all three of the speculative novel examples I’ve been analyzing.
However, an offering of the protagonist’s deepest desire — a chance at the very thing the protagonist thinks she needed all along (or, rather, wanted but wasn’t what she truly needed) — is just as disastrous. Through the protagonist’s progress leading up to this event, she’s grown and changed in preparation of discarding her inner demon in favor of clinging to truth. To accept the offer of her corrupted desire, she’s rejecting that change and rejecting the thing that will truly fulfill her.
To overcome the disaster of (corrupted) desire, the protagonist must make an internal change and thereby resist the offer. If done well, the choice presented will be every bit as devastating as a disaster and require substantial sacrifice, bringing the protagonist to the next beat in the plot structure — the doom moment (which I’ll cover in the next post!) — which allows for the moment of transformation.
The chance at a desire so long yearned for but offered after the protagonist has already been through so much and begun a shift in thinking will be so gutting that she can, in a sense, be brought to a moment that feels like her doom even if no “disaster” is involved. So if in your novel you have more of a temptation than a disaster, you may be following a slightly different, yet valid Act III structure.
It just so happens that the three well-known novels I’ve been using as structural examples all follow the disaster path. Desire and temptation factor heavily in The Lord of the Rings, yet The Fellowship of the Ring still uses disaster instead of desire to bring Frodo to a sub-transformation (since in the context of a series, the transformation in any books that aren’t the finale is either a step toward the overall series transformation or a transformation related to a sub-theme of the series). Let’s take a look at how these novels match disasters to protagonists and their fears:
Disaster: Frodo is alone, trying to decide where to take the Ring. Boromir, corrupted by the power of the Ring, attacks, trying to take the Ring from Frodo by force. Corruption of himself and others is Frodo’s deep fear, and Boromir plays that out in a very direct way.
Disaster: Harry loses his companions through the trials protecting the Stone and must continue to the last chamber alone, where he expects he’ll hold off Snape long enough for Hermione to somehow get Dumbledore’s help. It’s such a longshot there’s hardly any hope, and Harry literally walks through the black flames. Furthermore, when he encounters Quirrell instead of Snape or Voldemort, the truth crashes down on everything Harry’s believed about the situation. Worse, Quirrell ties him up while attempting to find out how to get the Sorcerer’s Stone from the Mirror of Erised.
Disaster: Instead of fighting Cato as expected, they’re all pursued by muttations—the vicious, wolf-like beasts created to look like the other tributes. Katniss faces the trauma of killing other tributes and the very real possibility of losing Peeta to Cato. But when Cato falls and is mauled by the mutts, Katniss tries to keep Peeta awake through a long night until she’s forced to shoot Cato out of mercy.
Connect the disaster to the character’s fear. In this way, however grand in scope the disaster is, it will become nice and personal. Really twist the knife.
Ask yourself what all the protagonist's misguided decisions have been leading up to. Why is that so devastating, especially for Protagonist (and not just any poor soul in the wrong place at the wrong time)?
Do some brainstorming to find an external plot event that will bring your protagonist mentally and/or physically low!
What is your protagonist’s biggest fear?
What would be the worst possible thing that could happen as your protagonist tries to reach her goals?
In what circumstance could you drop your protagonist that combines your previous two answers?
Crafting the perfect disaster for your novel’s finale takes creativity, but that doesn’t mean it should be just any epic catastrophe. Most misfortunes are “bad” for anyone. So instead of coming up with a hurdle for the sake of the beat, make it count by targeting your protagonist, specifically. Taking this extra step of tailoring the disaster beat to your protagonist for an extra-hard gut punch of impact on readers.
Categories: story structure
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