Plot is about the elements that make up a novel or story or film. Structure is about timing. To the ever-lasting gratitude of most of Hollywood, Aristotle analyzed what makes drama work and came up the three act structure. Why does the Act I, Act II, Act III structure still work after all these years? Many writers and teachers of writing suggest that it’s because it resonates with the way we live: We wake up, we work, we go to sleep–we are born, we live, we die. Humans are drawn to threes, in landscape design, in spiritual symbolism, even in jokes (a Buddhist, a Christian, and a Jew walk into a bar, never just two). Nature likes a triangle. Readers and listeners just innately expect any story to have a beginning, a middle (one wag called it a muddle), and an end. With apologies to Aristotle, this is how it goes: The hero or lead is presented with a problem (Act I); he or she messes around with the problem (Act II); the problem is solved or not (Act III). Western mythology and literature rests on the sturdiest of all shapes, the triangle.
Having just come from a wonderful class with Bhikkhu Bodhi at Chuang Yen Buddhist Monastery in Carmel, New York, however, it occurs to me that the drama of our lives on the twelve factors or steps of Dependent Origination. Basing his classes on In the Buddha’s Words, his anthology of discourses from the Pali Canon, the brilliant and patient scholar-monk led a class that ranged from experienced to beginner (me) through the traditional Buddhist understanding of how we keep the wheel of our karma turning life after life. Boiling it way down, the “dramatic structure” works something like this: Ignorance leads to a stream of conditions, consciousness, karmic tendencies which carry us into this world and forward into the groove of our lives (Act I); we perceive and conscious in a particular way, and inevitably feelings arise (Act II); craving, clinging, and karma are created based on how we respond to our feelings. Based on our particular cocktail of feelings and reactions we come to the end of one life and enter another (Act III). Here, the dramatic high point, the cliff-hanger, the who-saw-that-coming surprise twist can come in the “unconditioned” opening at the end of Act II. When feeling arises, we have a choice about how we respond. The link in the chain that binds us to our habitual, unfree life can be broken right here. No matter what we feel, we don’t have to crave or cling to anything. No more swords or pens or wands. Radical freedom.