I went to the Symphony a few weeks ago. Their focus that night was the baroque, so I spent the evening listening to Bach and Vivaldi. If you’re not familiar with classical music, the baroque style is regular and easy to anticipate, and if you’ve heard one piece by Bach, the others will seem similar. Vivaldi is more exciting to me, and while listening to his Concerto for Two Horns, I was struck by how the standard symphony and the standard novel are similar, not only in construction, but in what the reader/listener expects will come next. Both symphonies and novels originally come from the desire to impart a story to someone else.
While you’re reading, listen to Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Horns and see if you can identify some of the similarities I’m talking about.
Early music ensembles gave rise to symphonies (“agreement or concord of sound,” from the Oxford English Dictionary), which had a variable number of movements, from one to five. In the Baroque period, the “Italian” style was often three movements: The first fast, the second slow, and the third fast again. This died out, replaced by the four movements that are more popular in later classical pieces.1*
The Opera started in the 16th century, and was the combination of music and a story, where the text was called the libretto: literally “small book.” 2 Operas also generally have from one to five acts. It’s easy to see how the theater evolved into movies in the early 20th century, when filmmakers took those same stories set to music and gradually reduced the amount of singing and increased (most of the time) the amount of plot. But they still go together, and I’d even hazard the theory that soundtracks to movies are our most popular modern classical music. As the construction of the movie solidified over the last century, it settled largely into the three act structure.
Back to novels. The novel we know today came about in the 1600-1700’s, with some early works being The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), Robinson Crusoe (1719), and Gulliver’s Travels (1726).3 The Fantasy novel genre could be said to have started with Le Morte d’Arthur in the 1400’s, and Science Fiction with Mary Shelley and Frankenstein in the early 1800’s. 4,5 As both genres developed, and likely since they developed alongside symphonies, operas, and then movies and TV, they also settled generally into three act structures, which has informed how we view media today.
So what’s the three act structure? There are many ways of breaking down how a story progresses: the Hollywood formula (three acts), the seven-point structure, the five-act structure, Scene and Sequel, etc… They are all just tools to help guide the story in the most pleasing and, importantly, expected format for the reader. Remember the baroque music? Once you’re heard one piece by Bach, you can hum along to the others? The three act structure is this same concept.
What does all this mean? Let’s take The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter as examples, mainly because other people have already done this breakdown for me…
In The Lord of the Rings, the first act is when Frodo gets the ring, gets chased by the black riders, and flees, through adventures to Rivendell, nearly dying on the way. In the second act, we explore Middle Earth by traipsing across it, ramping up tension and learning about the ring, and how it turns good people evil, leading to Frodo getting captured by Shelob. The third act is where everything comes together, Frodo and Sam get to the mountain, everyone else battles bad guys outside Minas Tirith, and we learn whether the world will fall to evil, or be saved by good.6
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, we are introduced to Harry and other key players in the first act, learn about muggles and magic, and end with Harry getting accepted to Hogwarts. In the second act, we learn more about the magical world, Harry starts to learn things at school and fit in, and ends as he learns of Voldemort and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The last act is Harry and his friends, at great peril, descending to confront Voldemort himself and keep him from getting the stone. Who will win? Who knows?7
So let’s compare. The first movement of a symphony is exciting, generally fast, and hooks the audience into wanting to hear the themes repeated and brought to a resolution. A book’s first act is the hook and inciting incident, the discovery, introducing the world and characters to bring the reader in.
The second act, or movement, is generally slow. In the symphony, it bridges the first and third movements, and explores new themes. In a novel, it’s the slow section, where the characters encounter their antagonists, develop, and go through try and fail cycles.
The last movement of a symphony is again fast, exciting, bringing the audience in for the final conclusion, often finished abruptly with a crash of sound. In a novel, this is the climax, where the characters are in the most peril. It seems like the villain may prevail, and the heroes’ lives hang by a thread.
Did you hear the similarities in Vivaldi’s concerto? It’s intriguing, isn’t it? It’s one way we as a society (and specifically a Western society in this case) have programmed ourselves to expect what’s coming next in our media. This is why the hero’s journey is still popular. It’s familiar. It’s expected. We know what’s coming up, and even if we don’t know the exact words, or notes, we can hum along.
So if you read Science Fiction and Fantasy, go check out a concert. Your local symphony will love you for supporting the arts, and you may even enjoy it.
And if you already like both SFF and classical music, go check out my new book The Seeds of Dissolution. It combines music-based magic, aliens, a little bit of steampunk, and a threat to the safety of the universe…all in a three act structure.
*Notes : yes, I was lazy for this and largely cribbed from Wikipedia