Three-act structure

Day 28 – Writing the Third Act

31 Days to Plan Your Novel

Novel writers seem to be torn over whether or not the three-act structure is even relevant to their craft. I like it because it keeps my writing organized and gives readers a well-understood trajectory that makes books easier to read. But mostly, I use it because it works for me. If it doesn’t work for you, I’d love to hear how you organize your narrative. I love to hear how other writers approach a story.

Regardless of your style, I would argue that all writers have an act three, or at the very least something organized like an act three, because it’s where your story gets wrapped up.

The third act is typically the shortest of all the acts. Nothing new is introduced – it’s all about resolution and your protagonist finding some kind of equilibrium. While she may not get exactly what she wanted exactly the way she wanted, your protagonist achieves her goal.

The act opens with a twist or a confrontation that is the catalyst to the third-act conflict – this is the big battle, or the final psychological hurdle – your protagonist’s last (and greatest) test. In many stories, there is only one option for resolution, and it’s your character’s lack of choice that ultimately forces them to go a certain way, resulting in a major change in that character.

After the conflict is resolved, a scene that readers have been waiting for usually follows. In the Hunger Games (because apparently that is the only book I have ever read – are all my examples from it?) this is the scene where Katniss and Peeta win together. Readers have been waiting for it and it makes them feel good.

The third act closes with a sense that life will never be the same. This is the concept of new equilibrium. Katniss gets to go home, but there is a sense of menace looming, and we know that it’s not going to be like it was before she left. Despite these changes, the story has come back into balance, and the dramatic questions readers had at the beginning of the story (will she survive? will she and Peeta fall in love? will the Hunger Games end?) are ultimately answered.

31 Days to Plan Your Novel

Every October, hundreds of bloggers gather at The Nesting Place to write for 31 days straight on a variety of different topics, teaching and encouraging and offering tips and tricks to make life easier.

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Day 26 – Getting Through Act II

31 Days to Plan Your Novel

Act II is where everything happens. It’s the longest part of your story, and it’s the part where your protagonist and the characters that surround her are really tested. Some writers love this section – the creative momentum from beginning the novel is enough to carry them through the big climactic scenes. Others hate it because it feels like its. never. going. to. end. Not because the story is boring, of course, but because it can be hard to get to the scenes that naturally lead to the climactic finish in Act III.

When outlining Act II, keep your subplots in mind, and make sure you spend some time on their development as well as that of your main storyline. Subplots that adhere to a three-act structure as well hold their own dramatic tension and keep the main part of the story from getting stale (this can be a boon for writers who have trouble with Act II).

31 Days to Plan Your Novel

Every October, hundreds of bloggers gather at The Nesting Place to write for 31 days straight on a variety of different topics, teaching and encouraging and offering tips and tricks to make life easier.

Day 23 – The Inciting Incident

31 Days to Plan Your Novel

The Inciting Incident, also known as the Catalyst, is the first major turning point in a story. It is what takes the world before the story and turns it into the world after the story has begun, and it’s what gets your plot to move.

By now you should know the answer to these questions:

  • What does your protagonist want?
  • What will prevent them from getting it?

The inciting incident is usually what answers these questions, establishing the premise for your story. Let’s use The Hunger Games as an example – the Inciting Incident in this story is when Katniss is selected to participate in the Hunger Games for her district. This is, quite literally, a point of no return for this character. She can’t back out, and must go through the Games in order to get what she wants. The selection for the Games is the event that starts the whole story.

So, what is the event that starts your story?

31 Days to Plan Your Novel

Every October, hundreds of bloggers gather at The Nesting Place to write for 31 days straight on a variety of different topics, teaching and encouraging and offering tips and tricks to make life easier.

Day 22 – 7 Elements in Act I

31 Days to Plan Your Novel

The first act of your novel is where your readers will be introduced to the major characters and learn about the problem that the protagonist will be faced with. Most of your subplots will be introduced, and all will be at least hinted at. If it doesn’t get a lead in your first act, it shouldn’t turn up in your story at all.

So, your first act should introduce the following seven basic elements:

  1. Main Characters – All of these obviously don’t have to be introduced in the first five pages, but all major players should appear for the first time in the first act.
  2. Setting – Where is your story taking place? In a novel, there are frequently several different locations, and if travel is going to happen, this change of setting should be noted somewhere in the first act, even if it doesn’t happen until later. For example, if your protagonist, normally from the backwoods of Wisconsin, is going to end up finding themselves in New York in Act Two, talk about the upcoming trip and change of setting in the first act.
  3. Atmosphere – What is the tone of your book? What is the pervading feeling amongst your characters? Is there a lot of tension? Are you writing about a utopia or a dystopia?
  4. Time – When is the book happening? Make sure your audience is aware of this – don’t write a book that takes place in the Victoria Era and forget to indicate the lack of motorized travel and constrictive clothing until the end. You don’t have to devote pages and pages to this, a simple, “I was born in the fourth year of Victoria’s reign’ will do.
  5. A routine or way of life – More time needs to be devoted to this if you are writing out of time or culture. People writing science fiction or high fantasy will have the most words dedicated to this, but establishing a routine helps reader’s identify with your characters no matter where they are, and also creates something to be shaken up with the inciting incident, so this should be introduced as early as possible.
  6. Backstory – Do not. Never. Don’t even think about writing forty pages of exposition. You will murder your novel in cold blood if you spend time writing out how the characters got to be where they are before the current story began. Unless you are writing your novel in flashbacks, stick to the present day. That said, it’s important for backstory to be revealed because it can provide valuable insight into your characters’ motivations. Hint at it. Gesture to it. Have something remind a character of a particular life-changing event. Pace the revelations throughout the first act and force yourself to keep them under 150 words if you can.
  7. The antagonist – Your protagonist may not actually meet the antagonist face-to-face until later in your story. They may not even know who the antagonist is. But somewhere in the first act, you need to point readers in that direction. Suggest a darkness building, or a cosmic conflict, or something. What you don’t want is a first act where everything is going the protagonist’s way, only to ruin it all halfway through the book.

Remember, everything that happens now is setting up what happens next. So you have to know what happens next.

31 Days to Plan Your Novel

Every October, hundreds of bloggers gather at The Nesting Place to write for 31 days straight on a variety of different topics, teaching and encouraging and offering tips and tricks to make life easier.

Day 21 – Your Novel in Three Acts

31 Days to Plan Your Novel

Now that you’ve spent three weeks free-writing your novel, we’re going to start outlining. I use a three-act system that is based on what Alan Watt discusses in The 90-Day Novel: Unlock the Story Within; a fantastic resource that I’m not getting paid to recommend.

Over the next week or so, I’ll be discussing each section of the narrative arc with more detail, but for now, this is what you’re working with:

Act I – Introduces your characters, location and problem. Your protagonist is faced with a problem, something happens that sets the story in motion, and finally, your protagonist commits to their goal.

Act II – Your protagonist suffers and struggles. They may think they have achieved their goal only to realize they have not (a false sense of victory) They recommit themselves to their goal.

Act III – The climax. The protagonist achieves their goal (it may not look exactly the way they had envisioned).

As you work through your plan, I recommend writing in pencil. Just because you’re in the outlining process does not mean your story has lost the will to change.

31 Days to Plan Your Novel

Every October, hundreds of bloggers gather at The Nesting Place to write for 31 days straight on a variety of different topics, teaching and encouraging and offering tips and tricks to make life easier.