TAP012, What is Three Act Structure?
I’ve been thinking about where I should take The Indie Authorpreneur Podcast from here. I’ve decided the next logical step is to move forward discussing outlining techniques and writing the first draft. But, before we can discuss these elements of writing, I need to share with you the basic elements of story structure. Understanding the basics of story structure will help make outlining a little easier. In light of this, I’ve created another audio mini-series, just for you.
How will this mini-series work?
I’ll record a series of short episodes every week focusing on the three-act structure and its various elements. This means each separate element will have its own episode. I want you to be able to use these episodes as reference tools as you write and outline your stories.
TAP012, What is Three Act Structure?
Why three-act structure?
Why three-act structure and not four-acts or five-acts or the hero’s journey? Most stories that we read or watch observe the three-act structure. This is especially true of screenwriting. We naturally tell stories using this type of structure on a day to day basis. Every story that we tell has a beginning, middle, and an end.
The three-act structure also helps you control the pacing of the story. The reason why I like three-act structure is it reminds me of a curve graph where it’s all building towards a certain point, drops off, and resolves itself at the end. It makes sure that you’re not just having a bunch of action scenes. It ensures you’re putting in character development. This type of story structure makes sure you resolve everything in the end and not leave anything hanging.
Which leads me to the final benefit of the three-act structure; It’s a great tool to use if you’re just starting out and learning the craft of writing. You don’t necessarily have to use three-act structure all the time. But while you’re still learning how to tell a story, it’s good to use this as you outline, write your first draft, and revise.
Three Act Structure
In screenwriting, the three acts are called setup, confrontation, and resolution. I like this terminology because for me it describes what needs to happen in each of the three acts.
So act one is naturally the beginning of the story. This focuses on the who of the story, the problem. As a screenwriting phrase, I shared earlier said, it sets up the story. Act one is usually the first 25% of the story. This percentage isn’t set in stone. You do have a bit of leeway with how long the act one should be.
But keep in mind, the story should take precedence over the structure. If your act one is 28% of the story, that’s okay. Just make sure that you do hit a few of the necessities that you need to cover in act one. So focus on, is the story compelling? Is it moving the reader forward to the next act? If it isn’t, if it’s lagging, then you probably need to cut back in some way in that first act. But first, focus on telling a great story. This three-act structure is to be used as a guide to help you tell a story that’s compelling, that’s paced well, that keeps the ready moving forward to the end.
A Side Note:
I just want to point out that I will go over these elements of story structure in greater detail in the upcoming episodes, but right now I want to give you a macro-view of story structure.
The Story World
The first thing you need to do in act one if you want to follow this three-act structure is present the story world and the characters. You need to set up a rich and interesting world and characters that the readers can relate to, in order to pull them through to the rest of the story.
In act one you need to establish the tone the reader can expect for the rest of the book. Tone tends to have a lot to do with the genre of the story. You will get different types of tone depending on the genre. So you’ll get a different tone if you’re writing a cosy mystery than you would if you are writing a hard-boiled mystery, they’re very different. One has a lighter tone, and the other ones can be quite gritty. So they’re two very different types of tone that you would need to establish in the first act.
One of the easiest ways to get a reader connected to a character is to introduce their ordinary world and then create an inciting incident. So an inciting incident, just in a nutshell, is something needs to happen to disrupt the ordinary world of the protagonist. Creating this problem after you created a little bit of a bond between the reader and the protagonist, is what’s going to pull them through to the story. If you do this well, they will want to figure out what happens next. This should compel the reader to continue on the middle of your story.
It’s at this point that you need to introduce the opposition as well, in whatever form it may take in. There’s no point setting up a character and a world and having an inciting incident if you don’t show the opposition. The opposition doesn’t necessarily need to be a person. It can be the environment, government, religious organisation, or even a spiritual being. A lot of religious thrillers will have one person acting, and they unleash this spiritual being, and that then becomes the antagonist or the opposition in the story.
It’s important in the first act that you introduce the opposition in whatever form it takes. If you’re writing a mystery, you need to keep the murderer a secret, that’s obvious. But, you do need to present some opposition to your protagonist to create that conflict, because without someone or something opposing your character you don’t have much of a story. You could have internal conflict, but you won’t have that much of an external conflict.
The Act One Problem
At the close of the act, you need to present this problem. The act one problem is what propels your protagonist toward the core of your story and into the second act. You need to set up the first act in such a way that the second act makes sense. The first act is a natural springboard to your second act.
Act two is the middle of your story. It’s where the final confrontation is set up, and a series of battles between the lead and the opposition occurs. It’s where the protagonist struggles. As I said, it’s the middle of your story, so it does cover a huge chunk. It’s twice as long as your first act. It’s about 50% of your novel. Again, as I said with the first act, this doesn’t have to be exact. At the moment I’m revising Immunity, and the second act of Immunity is 53% of the novel. It doesn’t have to be exact. The story is more important than getting all of these percentage figures for the structure correct.
Give the Reader a Reason to Care
In this second act, you need to deepen the character relationships. This is what keeps the reader caring about what is happening in your story. Just a side note, it depends on who’s going to read your story. If your story is intended to be read by women, these character relationships are what’s important. Whereas, men tend to remember more plot-based parts of the story. I’ve read a few of the Lee Child, Jack Reacher novels, and what I remember most from those stories is the relationships he has with the women he meets along the way, with the other police officers and people in the town. This is what I remember most. I remember the character moments more than anything else.
Understand Your Reader
But if Roland were to read the same story, he would remember a completely different set of things. He would more remember the events that led to the resolution of the story. Whereas I read the first Lee Child novel and I can’t remember the actual plot of the story. Now that I’m here talking about it, I can’t remember it, which goes to show, because I’m female I tend to remember the character relationships more, and this is what keeps me caring.
It’s important that you understand what the different sexes gravitate to as they read a story. You need to keep this in mind. But, you still need to deepen the character relationships no matter if your audience is for men or women because the plot’s not going to make too much sense if you don’t have strong characters who interact with their environment and the people around them.
Struggle and Fail Cycles
Just like act one was a setup for act two, act two is the setup for the final battle that will wrap things up in the end. This event occurs in act three. But, we need to lay the groundwork in act two for act three to make sense. The protagonist needs to struggle and fail over and over again. This is sometimes labelled ‘try-fail cycles.’ The protagonist needs to learn valuable lessons needed to defeat the antagonist in act three. So you also need to make sure that these try-fail cycles are for a purpose, they’re not just trying and failing, and then they don’t use any of this information that they’ve learnt in act three.
Usually, during these try-fail cycles, they will reach the midpoint of the story. This is the point where something unexpected happens and changes the worldview of the protagonist. They essentially learn their plan will fail and they need to regroup and make a new choice.
The Act II Disaster
As act two transitions into act three, this is usually at the 75% mark of the novel. This is when the biggest disaster usually hits in your story. This is the moment where everything goes wrong for the protagonist, and it is the lowest point in the story. It’s like the curve graph dips before going up again and then down.
This disaster can be the result of actions taken earlier on in the second act to correct the numerous things that go wrong for your characters. Quite often the protagonist will do something because this went wrong. This will take them on a path to somewhere different, somewhere where they didn’t expect. The Protagonist is at this point where the reader thinks, “Oh, this isn’t going to work out.”
Elements of Realism in Story
The reader needs to get a sense that it’s a huge possibility that the protagonist may not get what they want. This is sort of true to life. You don’t always get what you want. That’s a possibility in life, and I think it needs to be true of the stories you write. You need to give the reader a real sense that they’re not going to get what they want. No matter how your story resolves, they need to reach a low point for the ending to be satisfying.
The third and final act is the resolution of your story. It usually takes up about 25% of your story. Again, this isn’t an exact science. Just focus on the last quarter of your story being the big resolution. In this resolution, your protagonist takes the problem to the antagonist. The protagonist puts their new plan into action using all of the lessons learned over the entire course of the story.
Act three needs to build to a climax, which is essentially a final showdown between the antagonist and the protagonist. This is sometimes referred to as the hero at the mercy of the villain scene. This terminology comes from the hero’s journey. So the core conflict of your story needs to be resolved at this point, so that act three builds to this final climax. This first section of act three is the climax. It builds to this scene where you’ve got the hero versus the villain. In this scene, the core conflict needs to reach a resolution.
After this, all the loose ends need to be tied up. These loose ends are usually subplots. Just as another side note, when you do write your first draft, if you do outline your story, you will notice that even when you outline and revise your outline, there will still be loose ends that you’ve forgotten to resolve at the end. You’ll have to go back in revision and make sure these loose ends are tied up.
Writing A Series
But if you’re writing a series, it is normal to leave a subplot hanging. This subplot will need to build and reach a resolution in a future book. This is what I’m doing with my James Lalonde series. There is this is a tiny subplot in Immunity that is left hanging. It builds upon the next book and the next book after that. It reaches a point where James finds closure in the end.
The Stories Ending
The ending of your story needs to give the reader a feeling residence. The reader needs to leave your story thinking about what your story means in a larger sense. You need to leave the reader thinking. This is the concept of theme and giving your story meaning.
The theme is something you don’t have to add into your story purposely. In his book ‘On Writing,’ Stephen King says the theme is something that evolves as you write and you constantly rewrite your story. This is true. I’ve seen as I’ve revised Immunity. I’ve noticed there is a theme coming up in the story that I never intended. As people will read your story, they will get something different from it. So you can’t purposefully say, “This is the theme of the story. This is what I want my reader to get.” Because each reader will get something different, and that’s okay.
So, that’s the basis of three-act structure. If you’re interested in doing further reading, then I highly recommend Plot And Structure by James Scott Bell. It’s the one book that I’ve kept coming back to, time and time again. I do have a lot of books on my bookshelf that talk about plotting and structure and dialogue and all of those writing things. But this is the one book I keep coming back to time and time again. The reason for this is, there’s just something about this book. James Scott Bell does such a great job of really explaining the three-act structure in terms that are simple. He focuses on the reader experience. James Scott Bell doesn’t focus on the mechanics of it. He does a bit, but it’s more based on writing a book that the reader will enjoy. I recommend you read this book.
As always, I have to ask, are you struggling with story structure? I want to hear from you. Let me know by sharing your experiences or leaving your questions in the comments section below.
In the next episode of The Authorpreneur Podcast, I will discuss how to write a great structural hook for your novel.
Thank you for listening, reading, commenting and sharing with such enthusiasm.
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I’m Amelia. I write Mystery Novels under the pen name A. D. Hay. And, I’m the author of Missing, the first book in the James Lalonde series. On this blog, I help new writers to finish their first draft, prepare their manuscripts for professional editing, and when they get stuck in the first draft phase or are confused about the revision process. Right now, I’m editing and preparing my soon to be published mystery novels, Duplicity, 24 Hours, and Immunity for publication.