protagonist -up tree - rocks

The Rocks Scaffolding of 3 Acts

When it comes to writing a play or a novel, the three-act form of Opening Act, Middle Act and Closing Act is a fundamental structure. Deceptively simple, it has stood the test of time and still works today. Short stories or novels can benefit from this approach.

To actually explain how to go about creating the three acts in a way that provides depth for the reader, there’s an often-quoted mantra that goes something like this:

“In the first act you get him up a tree, in the second act you throw rocks at him and in the third act you get him down from the tree.”

Personally, it is a clear clarification, if I may be allowed a redundant phrase. When you substitute obstacles or problems for rocks, you get the drift of creating tension and conflict in a story.

For this post, however, I wanted to find the origin of the quote as I’ve seen it attributed to local writers, published greats like Stephen King and Ray Bradbury, most often Vladimir Nabakov, and others.

What did we ever do before search engines?

A quick search can throw up many examples and attributions of this quote but one website has investigated the phrase and found its first use appearing in 1897 by an anonymous writer. You can read the research findings here –

Once upon a time, we relied on the exactness of the Encyclopedia Brittanica to be the font of all researched wisdom. The internet has disrupted that model and now I see many quotes badly attributed and promulgated online. Expedience trumps accuracy these days.

Despite the vagaries of attribution, the gist of this is that the phrase encapsulates beautifully the basic construct of a story, especially a short story.

So, when you next sit down to enter that story competition, remember the rocks and the tree.


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