Three Act Structure

There are, of course, an infinite number of ways to write a book. In these articles I’ve been outlining how I do it, because that’s what I know to write about, but there are no binding rules, no arbitrary guidelines. That said, there are some structural… suggestions that can benefit almost any writer. Stories can have more impact when they follow a basic architecture. Even here there are variations. I know people who stick to the twelve stages of the Hero’s Journey. I know writers who like five act structures, because that was good enough for Shakespeare, dammit. Personally I work with the three act structure, which is the simplest and, I think, the most effective.

You can think of three act structure as the beginning, middle, and end of your story. Or the setup, the buildup, and the punchline. I like to think of it this way;

ACT I: Oh, look, I’m in a forest.

ACT II: Oh, no! I’m getting lost in this forest!

ACT III: Oh, look, there’s a way out of this forest.

Perhaps I should elaborate.

Act I of any story is the shortest. Sadly, it also has to do the most work. This is going to make up about 25% of your total word count, but it needs to do the following things: establish all the main characters of your story, as well as the setting, pace, and tone. Establish the problem of the story, as well as the stakes (what happens if the problem is, or isn’t resolved). By the end of act one your protagonist must be stuck on a path that leads to a final conflict. That can mean that the evil mustachio-twirling villain has kidnapped their boyfriend. It can also mean your hero has realized they have a drinking problem, and they’re headed for rock bottom.

Act II is the longest act, the most fun, and absolutely, without question, the most dangerous. Act two is where you develop all your clever ideas, where your protagonist tries out various solutions to the problem (none of which, of course, work). It’s where you have room and time to explore the setting and build character arcs and do all the fun parts of writing… and if you make a misstep, your story will go right off the rails. Act two is a time of steadily increasing tension, modulated with (occasional) moments of relief. All that exploring you’re doing? Imagine a maze with one exit, and all the various paths through the maze MUST lead to that exit, even if they wind a little bit. It’s way too easy for something to go wrong in act two which then sabotages the most important act…

Act III is longer than act one, but shorter than act two. It’s the most laser-focused of your story’s sections and often the easiest one to write–although, perversely enough, it can also be the thing that kills you. When act three begins the die is cast. Your protagonist knows (or thinks they know) how to solve the problem. They have good, compelling reasons why they MUST solve the problem. The stakes have never been higher. The protagonist works at nothing else past this point–they will sacrifice anything to resolve the story. The antagonist (whether you have a bald, cat-stroking villain or a natural disaster like a mudslide) is moving steadily toward an easy win and they have every reason to be confident. Then the magic happens. Somehow (you’d better know how) the protagonist gets the better of the antagonist in a surprise twist and the world is set to rights. Yay! Then you can have a denouement that’s as long or as short as you like (I prefer super-short), and you’re done.

Of course none of this happens by magic. You need to outline your story (if only in your head) before you start writing. You can save yourself a lot of trouble that way. There’s an old bit of writing advice I’ve found to be almost universally true: if there’s a problem in Act III, it’s a problem with Act I. Go back and look and you’ll see you didn’t set something up properly.

I’ll add two corollaries to this chestnut. First: If there’s a problem in Act I, it’s a problem with Act III. If you have trouble making your protagonist believable (could a four year-old really build a rocket to escape the Mars-beasts?) it’s because they’re the wrong person to face down the big antagonist at the end of the tale. If the setting feels off or boring, it’s because it’s too small to hold the ending.

And finally: if there’s a problem in Act II, it’s because you’re writing the wrong story. Act II is for exploration. Often times, you can explore so far you find yourself in a completely different story–maybe the story you really wanted to write in the first place. If this happens, don’t despair! Either go off and write that story instead… or put it aside, somewhere safe, and go back and find where your act II maze got side-tracked, and fix it!

Plot: The Melodrama Pile-Up

What’s the difference between a soap opera and a Greek tragedy? Both are fictional stories about the suffering of likeable, or at least attractive, heroes. There is an inevitability to their plots–they’re not necessarily formulaic, but everyone can pretty much see where things are headed. Neither of them promises nor delivers a happy ending.

Yet Greek tragedies are held up as being among the finest examples of literature. Soap operas are often derided as trash stories fit only for the most bored and jaded consumers.

I can tell you a soap opera is more dynamic and harder to write than a tragedy. They require bigger character ensembles, more modulation, better pacing. A tragedy is all about sustained affect, a car driving downhill as fast as it can. A soap opera is a rally race, where you need to plan for each stage, every sharp turn well in advance. So why do we roll our eyes when Laura goes into another coma, or Stavros burns down the children’s hospital… but applaud in respect when Oedipus realizes he’s married his mother and then stabs out his own eyes?

Both forms serve the same function: to make you feel pity. The downfall of the characters is unearned, or at least regrettable. The tone is somber, reflective, and bitter. Both forms rely heavily on mood and atmosphere. What separates them is focus.

The story of Oedipus is ridiculous and tawdry, but it’s one story. The play-goer or reader can’t get away from this one man’s journey. On the other hand a soap opera is crammed full of tales of woe. Every character has their own downward arc, and in the best soap operas no one story is valued more highly than any of the others.

When tragedy is singular, and rare, and highlighted, it feels real and strong and relatable. When tragedies are piled atop one another, they suffer from comparison to each other and they become melodrama. Another coma? Another burning hospital? Another husband hypnotized into sleeping with his wife’s younger sister? It becomes self-parodying, often farcical.

When you plot out your story you need to think about how the reader will react to each element, each beat. You need to know how far you can stretch their willingness to feel for your characters. Focusing in on a single character’s misfortune is a powerful tool. It’s tempting to give every side character and extra their own deep, sorrowful backstory, but all that does is dilute your protagonist’s suffering. If everyone is sad, no one’s sadness means anything. If one man is miserable while the world around him is singing in joy, the contrast alone is enough to make him sympathetic.

This isn’t to say that a character’s crisis has to be simple. Complications will arise from your inciting incident, the stakes will pile up, the plot will thicken. And it would be unrealistic to have everyone other than your main character be happy all the time. But focus in as best you can. Drill down on one person’s story at a time. The tighter, the more laser-like in intensity your plot becomes, the more powerful the drama.

Pacing: Good News and Bad

Pacing might be the most important skill a writer can develop. Pacing is the tempo of your story, the sense of time passing, the sense of things happening in a smooth, organic order. Pacing is everything.

Pacing is crucial to plot. It’s how you build suspense–how you make your reader care about what happens, and how you get them to hang on every cliff with you. It’s how you make it feel like your characters earned their victories and how they climb back from failure, one painful inch at a time.

Pacing is crucial to characterization. A protagonist’s arc is entirely dependent on pacing. Go too fast and it feels like they couldn’t possibly have learned all those life lessons overnight. Go too slow and it feels like they’re spinning their wheels, willfully refusing to learn anything.

You keep the reader turning pages with pacing. Your ending only feels satisfying if the pacing was right. So how do you master this vital skill?

Well, there’s good news and bad news. The bad first: there’s no good formula for it. Ignore all the books about screenwriting that tell you what beat should happen at what minute of the movie. That only gets you so far. You need to get a feel for pacing, an intuitive sense of when to speed up and when to slow down. It take practice, and patience, and trial and error. I’ve always said the best way to learn how to write a good book is to write ten bad ones, and this is exactly what I was talking about. Good pacing comes from experience.

But I promised you good news, too. And for once I’m going to admit, there are two easy tricks that can really help with your pacing, and make your story a dozen times better, like, instantly.

The first is modulation. I see this going wrong all the time in bad books, and I feel it’s something that every writer should learn on day one. It’s super easy. Just never do the same thing twice.

If you have a scene (or a section, or a paragraph, depending on your form) of heavy action, the very next scene should be slow, quiet, and personal. Maybe the protagonist needs to go home and lick their wounds and talk to their besty on the phone. Slow it way down. Conversely, after a long scene of dialogue–do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars. Have something big and dramatic happen. Or give us a lush, stylistically beautiful scene of setting description, with no spoken words at all.

This gives your reader a chance to switch gears. Time to synthesize what they’ve learned. To catch their breath after the big gasp moment. It makes them feel like time has passed, even if plot-wise both scenes happen simultaneously. The tension drops, or mounts, at just the right time.

The corollary to this, though, is you can never let any element of your story disappear for too long. I’m sure you’ve read a story where the character opens the safe and finds a ticking time bomb… and then we cut to three scenes of the scientist talking to the president about string theory. What the hell happened with the bomb? Your readers will wonder if it blew up off screen. They’ll feel like you’re pulling a fast one on them, which breaks them right out of the story. No, modulation means creating a rhythm. It means alternating between two stories at once, maybe one quiet and personal, one loud and world-changing. Bad news again: even modulation, simple as it is, takes some skill and some finesse.

I promised a second trick, and it’s one it took me years to learn. When in doubt about pacing, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the answer is to slow things down.

It’s understandable. You want to get to the good stuff, right? You’ve got this amazing story to tell, you want to gallop right to the finish line and not look back. Which is good, it’s great that you’re so excited about what’s going to happen. But if you move too fast, your story will feel cheap. A book should never feel like just a bulleted list of events. This happened, then this, and then we learned that, which made the hero do this… you might as well be writing instructions on how to put together an Ikea bookcase.

If your plot feels mechanical and rote, like the characters are just going through the motions… or conversely, if your characters feel limp, like they’re too generic to actually have a sense of personality–pump the brakes. Take time to take stock, to explore the world you’ve created, a little. Let life flow into the story. Let it unfold naturally, and at its own pace, and it will reward you.

Just don’t forget to modulate. As soon as you blow the readers’ minds, give them a chance to catch up. Not for too long, though. That time bomb is still ticking down, the width of a scene away.