In this section, you will discover the way in which you can build natural momentum into your writing. You’ll learn about the Quest Theory and how this can be applied to your projects. You’ll find out about the Point Of No Return and how this combines with the Law of Conflict to create engaging stories. Finally, you’ll find out how to avoid producing ‘formulaic’ story structures.

A Little Reminder

Before we delve into the ins and outs of act design let’s just take a moment to recap. In the first section of this course, you discovered that scenes and acts were intimately linked. A scene was a string of actions that occurred in a set place, where a minor value change occurred. You also discovered that scenes could be collected together into acts. An act is a collection of scenes, which ends in a climax that sees a major value change.

At the start of this section of the course, you were introduced to the inciting incident. You found that this was an event, which forced the main character to react and, ultimately, resolve. Once the inciting incident had been set into motion, the rest of the novel is the main character’s journey to resolve this incident.

Up until this point, we have been pretty vague about what constitutes ‘the rest’ of the story. However, in this section, you’ll discover that with careful act design you can provide a framework for your storytelling that will help create engaging and exciting novels. You’ll also find out that there’s a number of concepts that you can apply to your act design, which helps add structure to your story telling. Once again, the information you will discover in this section has been taken from the wider three act structure. It has been separated out to allow you to make changes to an already written novel that will not require you to rewrite the entire novel.

The Quest Theory

It has been argued (see David McKee’s book Story) that when considering Classical Design all plots can be boiled down to one very simple plot – the quest.

The quest plot goes something like this:

An event creates change in a character’s life and forces them to react to resolve the situation. They are set on a ‘quest’ to resolve the problem, in the process being forced to overcome some level of conflict.

At first sight this may appear to be an overly simplistic assessment, but on closer examination, we can see it holds some water.
As you will discover, the Quest Theory is just a summary of the three act structure. However, for an editor looking to ‘fix’ a story without making major structural changes, the Quest Theory opens some doors.

The Point Of No Return

As we have seen from the Quest Theory above, all Classical Design novels have the same basic narrative arc. This allows us to make a further insight.

For a novel following Classical Design, the reader will see a main character that is forced to take action to resolve a situation. At first, the level of action (and the conflict they encounter – more on this later), will be minimal. However, as the character faces disappointment and increasing conflict, they are forced to take increasingly drastic action.

As this situation develops, there comes a point at which it is clear to the reader that low levels of action will not be sufficient and major action is required to resolve the problem.

For example, let’s go back to our detective trying to catch his killer. Perhaps the clues in the opening half of the book lead them to an address. The detective turns up to arrest the killer, only to find a note taunting the detective. At this point, the reader realizes this will not be a simple case and some drastic action is required.

This moment is called the Point Of No Return.

In fact, to be more accurate, this is the first Point Of No Return.

It is not unusual for a Classical Design story to have three or even four points of no return. At each point, the main character will have increased the effort required to resolve the problem and at each time they will be prevented from succeeding. Therefore, as the novel progresses the main character becomes increasingly desperate, upping the level of effort required at each step of the story.

One thing to note here is that at no point should the main character take a step backward. Once an action of a certain level of effort has been carried out, each subsequent level of action must be of an equally, or ideally, greater level.

The above statement is actually more critical than it appears.

In many novels that seem to ‘sag’ in the middle sections, it is often because they are not following this rule of progression. Your job, as an editor, is to ensure that at each point of no return the level of effort being presented is increasing. However, this is no easy matter. It takes great skill from a writer to plot and write a story that has a believable level of increasing effort. In fact, for many novels, it is the writer’s skill and imagination at creating the points of no return that produce great novels.

What Is Conflict?

This is not the first time you have come across the concept of conflict and in this section, we will look at how conflict is used to help tell your story.

In section 1.3, we learned that there were three levels of conflict.

  1. Inner: This is a protagonist’s internal thoughts, feelings and belief system.
  2. Personal: This is the protagonist’s relationships with friends and family.
  3. Extra personal: This is the protagonist’s relationship with society as a whole.

In the context of act design, conflict is simply a situation that exists that stops the main character from reaching the resolution to their problem. This could be a serial killer trying to hide from the cops (personal), an underprivileged teenager trying to get into university (extra personal) or an ex-forces private detective trying to battle his own addiction with a drink (internal).

All novels contain at least one level of conflict, though most will contain all three, to some extent. However, there tends to be one overriding conflict that dominates the story.

The Law Of Conflict?

We now come to one of the key concepts of act design – The Law Of Conflict.

In the section above we talked about the importance of moving the plot forward with the main character seeking to resolve their problems with increasing levels of effort. The Law Of Conflict as a new level to this design.

It tells us:

Nothing can move forward without conflict.

The Law of Conflict is the backbone of storytelling and it is the principle that can be used to create engrossing novels.

Readers are instinctively fascinated by conflict and its effect on characters.

When I first started my writing career, I worked with the bestselling writer Terry Deary. He’s famous for the Horrible Histories series and has sold millions of books worldwide. I once asked him if there was a key to writing great stories. His reply was this:

“Readers don’t care about events; they care about how people react to events.”

In essence, this is the Law of Conflict. In practice, we can summarize this new law as follows…

Your main character will be faced with an incident that will alter their circumstances and force them to react. They will have to overcome increasingly difficult barriers (conflict) to resolve their problems.

Is this formulaic?

Well, yes but this is only the skeleton of the story. The flesh comes in the imagination and creative powers of the writer as they plot out each step of the journey.

Using Conflict to Add Complexity

In the previous section (2.2), it was suggested that applying a rigid formulaic approach to your writing might create a predictable story, and, to some extent, this is true. However, there’s a way to disguise the formula, whilst still producing engaging story lines, and that is by using more complex conflict.

We saw in 2.2 that conflict contains three elements:

  1. Inner: This is a protagonist’s internal thoughts, feelings and belief system.
  2. Personal: This is the protagonist’s relationships with friends and family.
  3. Extra personal: This is the protagonist’s relationship with society as a whole.

We also suggested that one of these elements will be more prominent than the other two. However, this is not always the case. In fact, the key to great storytelling is to have all three levels of conflict playing equally important roles.

Let me give you an example:

In Lord Of The Rings, J.R.R Tolkien uses all three levels of conflict to great effect. In fact, it is the interplay of these levels of conflict that makes the book a classic.

  1. Inner: We see Frodo battling with his own mind to stop the power of the ring engulfing him. Throughout the book, he must continually overcome his own feelings to reach his next goal.
  2. Personal: The Fellowship of the Ring is the group of friends that must travel together to destroy the ring. The interplay between these friends, and their differing desires, is a constant theme throughout the story.
  3. Extra personal: The story describes the character’s journey through Mordor and their fight against a dark enemy.

At each step of the book, with each obstacle that must be overcome, Tolkien layers in all three levels of conflict. This creates memorable and engaging scenes.

As a writer, you must look to be creating believable levels of conflict at all points in your story. You must be creating situations that look to exploit as many levels of conflict as possible.

As an editor, your role is twofold. Your first job is to look at what is already in a story and see what conflict elements you can tease out and look to emphasize. Your second job is to see what is missing. Look to see where conflict is lacking and think of ways in which it can be added to enhance the story.

The Momentum of Acts

When you are writing you are looking to create ‘momentum’ in your story. This is the feeling of the story’s acceleration to the climax and then deceleration to the final chapter. The way this momentum is created is via scenes and acts. Each scene will contain a minor value change, which builds up to the climax in the final scene of the act where a major value change occurs. When combined with the narrative arc of the story, it creates a natural momentum.

It is possible to create a story based on a single act that will present the reader with a single major value change. This is most often seen in short stories. The two-act story is also possible, with two major value shifts, these tend to be seen in short plays or perhaps one hour long TV dramas. However, for a novel, the three-act structure, with three value changes, is the best approach.

This means that a Classical Design novel requires three keys scenes:

  1. The climax of Act 1 (the inciting incident).
  2. The climax of Act 2.
  3. The climax of Act 3.

This is a basic overview and leaves out the complexity of sub-plots, which have their own act structure and protagonist, but there’s one more element worth considering: the false ending.

The false ending is a narrative trick in which the reader thinks the story is over, only to be surprised when the real climax appears. This is not the easiest narrative trick to pull off, but can be effective. For a false ending to work, the false climax should come either at the climax of Act 2 or just before the climax of Act 3. In both cases, the reader will feel the protagonist’s issue has been resolved, only to discover there’s one more twist.

In the next section, we move away from the technical aspects of act design and focus on understanding the three act structure.


  1. Examine your novel and attempt to identify the three levels of conflict.
  2. If you are unable to see all three, then consider how you can add other levels of conflict.
  3. Assess your novels ‘points of no return’. If you have none, consider how they can be created.
  4. Look at the obstacles the main character must overcome to reach their goal. Do these increase in difficulty at each attempt?
  5. If there are no obstacles, look for ways in which they can be added.