Six Act Structure in Short Stories

Title: You Know They Got a Hell of a Band

Format: Short Story

Released: 1992

Written By: Stephen King

Run Time: 19 Pages

Character: Mary and Clark Willingham

Salutations, storytellers! I was recently asked how the Six Act paradigm applies to structuring short stories and, frankly, I’d never really attempted to analyze short stories.

I have since read through a few (subjective) classics to see how applicable the structure is. There seems to be more divergence from the full length structure in short fiction, which I attribute to the the mediums focus on succinctness and poignancy. This leads me to believe you’re more likely to find the traditional three acts of Setup, Confrontation/Problem, Resolution at the structural core of short stories, without the need (or length) for the character’s progression through the six actions.

While most short stories seem to eschew the six act paradigm entirely, Stephen King’s short story You Know They Got a Hell of a Band  is a good example of a short story that follows the the Six Act structure for the most part, but deviates to an unhappy ending for the protagonist. As such, the resolution of the story in the sixth act seems to only be implied.

You can read it here if you haven’t already.

ACT ONE: DEALING WITH AN IMPERFECT SITUATION

A character in an Imperfect Situation faces Oppressive Opposition as he pursues an Initial Goal. But when there is a Disturbance to his routine, he faces a Dilemma regarding his situation, and must assume a New Role.

Mary is convinced to go on a unmapped trip through the backwoods of Oregon (the imperfect situation) by your stubborn and pushy husband (oppressive opposition) to get to Toketee Falls (initial goal). But when Mary falls asleep and has an ominous dream (the disturbance), Clark gets them lost in the woods and unable to turn around (the dilemma/the new role).

Hook: After snoozing during a road trip, Mary wakes to discover she and her husband are lost in the backwoods of Oregon.

The Imperfect Situation: The story flashes back to her husband, Clark, attempting to convince her to go on a road trip exploring out of the way parts of Oregon. He proves to be stubborn and unrelenting against Mary’s protests until she finally acquiesces. Although they have been married for nearly 15 years, their relationship is tumultuous, with Clark repeatedly failing to heed Mary’s advice and her giving in to his stubbornness.

Initial Goal: Take a backwoods path to Toketee Falls.

Oppressive Opposition: Clark is stubborn and doesn’t listen to Mary’s advice.

Turning Point Catalyst – The Disturbance: Start Time:  Page 2 of 19 (10.5%) – Mary falls asleep and has an ominous dream about a jukebox filled with bloody body parts.

Turning Point One – The Dilemma: Start Time: Page 3 of 19 (15.8%) – While Mary is asleep, Clark comes to a second fork in the road and opts not to turn around. When the road again peters out into a narrow unpaved trail, Mary is jolted awake and Clark finally admits they’re lost. They debate what to do, and Clark, having given up on Toketee Falls and realizing the impossibility of driving in reverse back through two miles of the narrow road, convinces her they should continue on the path until they find a road.

The New Role: Mary and Clark become lost travelers.

Act Run Time: 5 of 19 Pages (26.3%)

 

ACT TWO: LEARNING THE RULES OF AN UNFAMILIAR SITUATION

The character Learns the Rules of an Unfamiliar Situation and faces Incidental Opposition in pursuit of a Transitional Goal. But when he receives a Reality Check, he makes a Commitment to his New Role.

Act Start Time: Page 5 of 19 (26.3%)

Mary and Clark are lost in the woods, (the unfamiliar situation) and unable to turn around on the narrow path, (incidental opposition) as they attempt to get unlost (transitional goal). But when they come across a sign for a local town, (the reality check), Clark insists they drive through the town instead of turning around (the commitment).

The Unfamiliar Situation: Mary and Clark are lost in the backwoods and unable to turn their car around.

Transitional Goal: Get unlost.

Incidental Opposition: The road deteriorates further, with the trail now surrounded by swamp.

Turning Point Catalyst – The Reality Check: Start Time: Page 5 of 19 (26.3%) – They come to a pathed road and a sign for a town called “Rock and Roll Heaven”.

Turning Point Two – The Commitment: Start Time: Page 6 of 19 (31.6%) When they crest the hill, the picturesque, Norman Rockwell town gives Mary the heebie-jeebies. She suggests they turn around and go back the way they came. Clark again argues against her protests and the two drive into the town.

Act Run Time: 2 of 19 Pages (10.5%)

 

ACT THREE: STUMBLING INTO THE CENTRAL CONFLICT

The character stumbles into the Central Conflict and faces Intentional Opposition in pursuit of a False Goal. But when there is a grave Turn of events, he has a Moment of Truth.

Act Start Time:  Page 7 of 19 (36.8%)

Mary and Clark meet the strange locals (the central conflict) who insist they stay in town for the nightly concert (intentional opposition) as they try to pass through town (false goal). But when Mary realizes several of the employees at the local diner are dead rock stars (the turn), she is warned to leave by one of the waitresses and devises an escape plan (the moment of truth).

The Central Conflict: Mary and Clark versus the dead rock stars of Rock and Roll Heaven

False Goal: Pass through the town to Toketee Falls.

Intentional Opposition: When Clark insists on stopping at a diner, the meet several locals who are insistent they stay for the nightly concert.

Turning Point Catalyst – The Turn: Start Time: Page 10 of 19 (52.6%) – Mary realizes one of the waitresses is the late Janis Joplin.

Turning Point Three – The Moment of Truth: Start Time: Page 10 of 19 (52.6%) – The other waitress gives Mary a napkin with the words “GET OUT WHILE YOU STILL CAN” written on it. Realizing Clark is oblivious to their situation, Mary devises an escape plan.

Act Run Time: 4 of 19 Pages (21%)

 

ACT FOUR: IMPLEMENTING A DOOMED PLAN

The character implements a Doomed Plan and faces Self-Inflicted Opposition in pursuit of a Penultimate Goal. But when an unthinkable Lowpoint occurs, he pulls himself together and discovers a Newfound Resolve.

Act Start Time:  Page 11 of 19 (57.8%)

Mary and Clark drive for the town exit (the doomed plan) and are pursued by the undead locals (self-inflicted opposition) as they try to escape the town (penultimate goal). But when they crash into the Magic Bus blocking the road out (the lowpoint) they attempt to flee on foot and are stopped by Elvis Presley (the newfound resolve).

The Doomed Plan: Mary and Clark attempt to drive out of town.

Penultimate Goal: Escape the town.

Self-Inflicted Opposition: When Mary attempts to run out of the restaurant, she brings the supernatural denizen of the town in pursuit of her and Clark.

Turning Point Catalyst – The Lowpoint: Start Time: Page 16 of 19 (84.2%) – They crash into a bus blocking the exit out of town and their car won’t restart.

Turning Point Four – The Newfound Resolve: Start Time: Page 16 of 19 (84.2%) Though Mary seemed resolved to their fate, Clark suggests they run. This rekindles Mary’s determination to escape, until they are confronted by the town’s mayor, Elvis Presley.

Act Run Time: 6 of 19 Pages (31.6%)

 

ACT FIVE: TRYING A LONGSHOT

The character tries a Longshot and faces Ultimate Opposition while trying to accomplish the Ultimate Goal. But just when it seems All is Lost, he makes a Final Push against the forces of antagonism and either succeeds or fails.

Act Start Time: 17 of 19 Pages (89.5%)

Mary hopes they will be allowed to leave the town (the longshot) but they are surrounded by the undead rock stars (ultimate opposition) as they attend the nightly concert (ultimate goal). But when the waitress who tried to warn them reveals the true nature of the town (all is lost) Mary realizes they will be stuck there forever.

The Longshot: Mary hopes that if they sit through the concert they’ll be allowed to leave.

Ultimate Goal: Attend the “nightly” concert.

Ultimate Opposition: At the concert, Mary sees the waitress who gave her the warning has had several of her fingers cut off for it. The undead rock stars are also violent.

Turning Point Catalyst – All is Lost: Start Time: Page 18 of 19 (94.7%) – Before the concert, the waitress who warned them to leave reveals that time works differently in the town, the concerts go on for years, and she has been stuck in the town for at least six years. Mary realizes that “Rock and Roll Heaven” is actually “Rock and Roll Hell”.

Turning Point Five – The Final Push: NA

Act Run Time: 2 of 19 Pages (10.5%)

ACT SIX: LIVING IN A NEW SITUATION

Having accomplished (or failed to have accomplished) the Ultimate Goal, the character is shown living in a New Situation.

Act Start Time: NA

The New Situation: It is implied that Mary and Clark will now spend eternity in Rock and Roll Heaven.

To learn more about six act structure, purchase your copy of “Actions and Goals: The Story Structure Secret” today!

One thought on “Six Act Structure in Short Stories

  1. Diane December 4, 2017 / 7:27 am

    Thank you for all your work on this, Marshall. I appreciate your efforts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *