The three act structure has become ubiquitous. We enter with the character into a normal world, get our footing just in time for the second act to blow it away, and then bring the two world back together in the finale.
In Ready Player One, this progression is very clear. We begin in the stacks, journey into the game world, and by the end our protagonist is the master of both.
For fantasy in general, it isn’t unusual for these three parts to be different physical locations. The farmboy goes on a quest and becomes king (farm, countryside, castle). The alien crashes on earth and joins society (home, hiding at home, out on the town).
Case study: Aether
For my “normal” world, I want to create a small town in Missouri named Acorn. It’s a bit obvious that this is going to be the “seed” that contains the story’s infancy, but programmers are Bad At Naming Things, so I’m going to stick with it for now. It’s not a word I expect to pop up a lot in my story, so later on I can do a find-and-replace pretty easily if a better option pops up.
To start this phase out, I like to put down my pen and daydream. I want to imagine myself in my worlds just going about my day. I want to shut my eyes and walk the town, and see…
There’s the tree I climbed as a tyke, to my mother’s horror and my father’s pride. I walk past the stream where I launched paper boats, and over the bridge where I found a nest of baby snakes – very much by mistake. Not far away, the gravel of the General Store parking lot has gone thin. It’s more tamped earth than stone now. Nature pushes shoots of grass up through the chalk, patiently reclaiming the land that men thought had been conquered. Behind the Gennie, I can hear people gathered to discuss the week’s news over a beer… or a few, judging by the cacophony. The Gennie’s owner, Parker, grins as he trades a tenner for two bottles and change. He leans against a pile of random-cut wood that his young clerk, Ethan, stacked against the back wall of the shop. The quickly dwindling pile is all that remains from the cleanup after last month’s tornado.
Even though Acorn is a “real” village, I don’t want to assume that everyone is familiar with what life is like there. I’m going to want to identify those things that will ring true for natives and evokes some emotion in non-natives, too.
Things like how fast a goose can chase you when you’ve ticked it off. Or how high a gravel road seems to be after it has been graded, and how deep that ditch is that runs on both sides of it. Or how much it hurts to get bitten by a mad goose after you’ve lost your footing on fresh gravel and fallen into a ditch.
So let’s take a vacation in our worlds. I’ll daydream a night out, or a day at work. Where do my friends and I go to have fun? What’s our drink of choice? What options did we pass up, and what do we think of the people who do those things instead?
In the process, we learn a lot about ourselves, too. Like comedians, we start to recognize those strange things we do and say, and weave them into our acts to entertain the audience.