In this section, you’ll discover the relationship between scenes and acts, you’ll learn how to identify and create acts, you’ll also learn the role of acts in the wider structure. Once complete, you’ll be able to identify scenes and acts in your own work. You’ll also be able to edit any novel to provide a viable act structure.

What Is An Act?

So far we have seen that a story is the overriding situation faced by your characters and that the story is made up of scenes. These scenes are story points that take place at a set time and location and see, through conflict, a value change for the main character.

We now turn our attention to the role of acts in novels.

The best place to start is to forget all you know about acts from studying Shakespeare at school and start from scratch.

As with scenes, let’s start with a simple definition:

An act is a series of interrelated scenes.

It is really that simple: an act is a collection of scenes. However, this is a dangerously simplistic way to see acts.

As with a scene, an act has a wider role in the storytelling process and contains its own narrative value. In short, the scenes within an act will come together to tell one distinct part of the story.

Let’s return to our made-up story about the guy at the train station trying to rescue his daughter. You might decide that the story consists of three main acts (more on this later). The purpose of the first act is that the main character learns what he needs to do to rescue his daughter. The second act’s job is to show the main character’s attack on his daughter’s captures and her rescue. The third and final scene sets out to show their escape to safety.

In this example each act has a role in the wider narrative:

  • Act 1: The kidnap.
  • Act 2: The rescue.
  • Act 3: The escape.

However, as you might have guessed, it gets a little more complex.

The More Complex Definition

In the scene section of this course, we delved into the concept of values. These were universal experiences that could be positive or negative (loss/possession, love/hate, bravery/cowardice etc.). It turns out that value also plays an important role in act theory.

If we apply the value concept to acts we produce a more complex definition:

A series of scenes that peak in a climax, which causes a major reversal of values.

We are still looking at a series of scenes that are grouped into a meaningful order. However, we are now adding a new level.

Let’s start at the end and consider the ‘major’ reversal.

The scenes that you have written should all now have some level of value change. However, considered in isolation, these will tend to be minor changes. The trick with an act is to group the scenes in a fashion that results in a MAJOR value change. This major change will come at the end of the act, normally in a single scene that we refer to as a ‘climax scene’.

One thing to remember here is that scenes see minor changes and acts see major changes.

If you know the major change for a scene and have an awareness of the climax scene that will occur, the scenes prior to this can all contain minor value changes that build towards this climax.

For example, if you know a climax scene will require your main character to defeat the bad guy in a fist fight. It is easy to conceive of a number of scenes in which minor value changes occur, all in relation to the main character’s knowledge of martial arts. The final climax scene sees the major reversal with the main character defeating the bad guy. The major reversal being undefeated to defeated.

Let’s return to our guy trying to rescue his daughter and look at the first act with this new information…

In Act 1 we know that the daughter is kidnapped, and the main character learns how to rescue her. The climax scene will be the main character discovering the location of his daughter and formulating an escape plan. The major value switch is knowledge with a jump from not knowing the place of capture, to knowing the place of capture. We can also now see how the scene where he gets the gun at the train station is a minor value change (no gun/gun) but also part of the wider narrative arc of the act.

The Role Of Acts In Structure

The theory behind acts and their role in structure is critical and complex. We will examine the role of structure in more detail in the Understanding Novel Structure section, but at this point, it is best that you have a brief understanding of the topic.

The vast majority of modern storytelling follows one of two main structures:

  • The three act structure.
  • The five act structure.

The three-act is by far the most common, the easiest to understand and the simplest to apply to your own writing. In essence, it consists of a start, middle and end, with the climax to the story coming at the end of Act Two. The example of the guy with his daughter is a very basic three act structure.

The five-act is a more complex version of the three-act. Though it provides a more multi-layered and often more satisfying story, it is more difficult to understand and apply.

Editing Acts

When it comes to editing, the first step is to identify the act structure of a novel. If you are self-editing and have written the book without an act structure then you will need to start from the beginning. In this situation, it is suggested that you follow these steps:

  • Decide on the basic act structure for the book (three-act is probably best).
  • Write a brief summary of each act, include the major value change and outline for the climax scene.
  • Make a list of the scenes you have already written.
  • Place each scene into a relevant act.
  • Any scenes that do not have a natural home can be deleted.
  • Consider if scenes you’ve written need rewriting.
  • Make a list of new scenes that may be needed.

If your book has no act structure or you are editing another person’s novel, then the approach is a little different. The act structure will often only become clear once you’ve read the novel. In this situation, the best approach is to record the scenes and to assess how they fall into the wider act format.

One aspect that is worth repeating is that, in most cases, your novel will be written to a Classical Design. This means that a basic three act structure will probably be the most suitable approach.

Biting The Bullet

One problem that editors will face is that the writer may be resistant to formatting their novel into what they see as a formulaic structure. I have spoken to many writers who feel that applying a three act structure to their novel would constrain the story.

Act structure provides a story with one very important element – narrative tension. A well-structured novel will have a natural start, middle, and end. It will also have narrative questions that are opened early in the story and concluded at the correct time. This pulls the reader into, and through, a story. You will find that without this natural tension novels will quickly become stale and boring.

It must also be considered that for many writers the three act format is simply a jump off point. Once this basic framework has been formulated, it is possible to apply it in a loose manner. It may be that a writer is straying from the format, with additional scenes, which are not required for the three-act format but give the reader the ‘freedom’ to tell the story. This is great. The important thing to remember is that the loose application will give enough narrative tension to provide the framework to engage readers.

Finally, true experimental anti-structure novels are extremely rare. Most experimental novels are variations of the minimal approach. Unless a writer is intentionally writing an anti-structure novel, traditional act structure will be a benefit.

Exercise

  1. Determine the main acts for your novel. One way to do this will be to identify the major value changes. As a rule of thumb, you should be looking at three or five acts.
  2. Return to your scene document, created in Example 5, and group each scene into its appropriate act.
  3. Ensure that each act has a suitable climax scene. You may need to write a new one. You may also find that once this exercise is complete you are left with scenes that have no natural home and need to be removed – be brave!