In the final part of this section of the course, we turn our attention to the three act structure. You’ll discover how it can be implemented into your own work and why, as an editor, it is often a great starting point when looking to add structure to a novel.

Why Three-Act?

OK, so we’ve bigged up this bad boy let’s get down to thenitty-grittyy.

The vast majority of plot issues that exist with books come down to the lack of plot structure. When you hear complaints such as…

  • “The book was slow.”
  • “I got bored in the middle.”
  • “I was a little confused at times.”
  • “I wasn’t happy with the ending.”
  • “I didn’t really care about the main character.”

The chances are the book lacks narrative drive, a problem that can be fixed with a decent structure.

Let’s add to the mix that we have already established that the vast majority of novels are written to a Classical Design. This plot format lends itself perfectly to the three act structure. In fact, most of this section is about being able to edit a book without having to tell the writer to rewrite into a three act format.

This is a big thing for an editor. I will often come across a novel that has a great story but lacks any kind of structure. I don’t want to tell the writer to scrap the book and start again. Therefore, the best approach comes down to finding a way to enforce a structure with the least amount of work.

If these reasons were not enough to convince you that you should be using a three act structure, here’s two more humdingers. The first is that three-act is, by far, the simplest structure to understand, apply and edit. It fits naturally to a reader’s ‘understanding’ of story and has a familiar narrative arc (start/middle/end). Finally, there’s loads of support for the three act structure. It is no secret to serious writers and you are only a google search away from a plethora of articles and support.

Writer Beware

In section 2.3, you discovered that the three act structure was by far the best and simplest writing structure to apply. However, it is not all rainbows and unicorns, there is a dark side.

Not everyone is a three act convert, as with all things, you will soon discover dissenting voices on the Internet. One of the most prominent belongs to James Bonnet (Writer’s Store). In his article, he suggests that writers should avoid the use of three act since it is not a natural storytelling format. This argument is problematic since many writers believe that it is a development from Aristotle’s work on story (Wiki). However, for me, the biggest flaw in his argument comes down to his alternative which is, in essence, a two act approach. Still, I’ll leave you to make up your own mind.

The next thing to consider is that three act is not the only kid on the block. In fact, many writers will suggest that a five act structure is a better, more complex, storytelling tool. In fact, I suspect that they are correct. The five act was good enough for Shakespeare and can still shake a wooden sword at the three act. However, as a writer looking to shift into the world of editing, I’d suggest that you start with the three act. The reason is that the five act is a more complex model, which, in essence, does the same job as the three act.

One complaint that is often leveled at the three act is that it is for screenplays and films. To be fair, this is a valid point. It is true that the three act gain prominence through its successful use in Hollywood films. However, modern readers are more filmatic in their tendencies and, on the whole, are more conscious of this filmatic structure. This means that if you are looking to write novels readers will be able to engage with then three act is a good starting point.

One thing to consider is that many writers will use the three act as a jump off point only. It is very common for a writer to come up with a story and map out the rough narrative arc with a three act in mind. They will then manipulate and diverge from this structure as the novel is written. The result is that, as an editor, you need to be open minded. You need to see the difference between an intentionally unstructured novel and a novel that has started life with structure but moved away as the writer has developed the plot.

In the coming sections, you will discover the ins and outs of the three act structure. Please be aware before you start that the structure presented here is a kind of middle ground. It includes all of the key elements and can be successfully applied to a novel as it stands. However, as you research the structure you will soon see that there are versions that are far more complex, as well as far more simplistic. It is up to you, as a writer/editor, to find a comfortable middle point from which to build.

The Three Act Outline

 

In the figure above you can see the diagram for a pictorial view on the three act structure. This consists of three basic elements:

  1. Set Up: This is sometimes called the exposition. This is Act 1. It sees the story being introduced to the reader and ends with the inciting incident. This is about 25% of the novel.
  2. Confrontation: This is Act 2. It sees the protagonist overcome a number of obstacles of increasing difficulty. It ends with the climax, which sees the inciting incident being resolved. This is about 50% of the novel.
  3. Resolution: This is Act 3. This sees all of the loose ends being tied up. It tends to be, at most, about 25% of the novel.

In the following sections, we will look at each of these three elements in more detail.

Set Up

The setup is the first act in the three act structure. This act has two primary goals. The first is to set up the story. The second is to present the inciting incident.

The structure of the act is like any other. It contains a number of scenes, each with a minor value reversal, and a final climax scene (in this case the inciting incident), which is a major value reversal.

The setup is the amount of story that is required to establish the character’s ‘normal’ way of life, which will be challenged by the inciting incident. The amount of set up required will vary drastically and is genre specific. In other words, some genres need more set up. You will need enough set up to allow the reader to establish the normal and develop some level of connection with the protagonist. For example, if your novel is set on an alien world, where things are drastically different from ‘our’ world, then more set up will be required. You will need to ‘show’ the reader the ‘normal’ before it can be changed. As discussed, the shorter the setup the better, since the inciting incident will hook the reader into the book.

The end of the act will bring the inciting incident, which will see the main character forced to act. There circumstances will be altered and they will be left with a problem that requires resolution.

As a rule of thumb, Act 1 should be no more than 25% of the overall novel. As already stated, the length will be dictated by the amount of set up required.

In section 1.6, we suggested that a typical length for a novel will be about sixty scenes. This means that you are looking at Act 1 containing, at most, fifteen scenes.

Confrontation

The second act is often called the ‘confrontation act’. This is the act that is open to the most interpretation and experimentation. The outline I’ve explained here is one that will work and can form the backbone to your understanding. As you read more, you’ll discover people like to throw in twists and other wonderful plot devices. However, this explanation is staying true to the scene and act theory we’ve detailed in this course.

The act contains a number of scenes that lead to the final climax, in which the problem is finally solved. One aspect, which often confuses writers, is that the climax to the story comes in Act 2, not Act 3. Act 2 is the meat of the story and by the time you leave the bulk of the plot has already unfolded.

Act 2 will see three or four obstacles (Points Of No Return) presented for the protagonist to overcome. Each of these obstacles will be more challenging than the last and will require more effort from the protagonist than the last. They will also be driven by conflict from at least one of the three levels. Once overcoming the final obstacle, the reader is presented with the climax scene, which sees the protagonist resolving the inciting incident.

Act 2 is the biggest act in your novel and will, typically consist of, at least 50% of the story. This means that for a sixty scene story, thirty of them will live in Act 2. Please note that it is very common for a novel to have a short Act 1 and Act 3 and an extended Act 2.

Resolution

The final act is called ‘resolution’ and sees the loose ends of the story being tied up as the reader is guided into an emotionally satisfying conclusion to the novel.

As with the other acts you will see a number of scenes leading to a final climax scene. The main difference with the final act is that the scene’s focus (and final climax) tend to be on closing the narrative loops that were opened in the previous acts. By this I mean that you will see scenes resolve all of the narrative threads and sub-plots.

The final climax is not a resolution to the inciting incident, this occurs at the end of Act 2, but a resolution to the whole story. The major value change will normally focus on the theme of the story and will provide the reader with the emotional resolution they desire.

The length of Act 3 will vary, depending on the level of resolution that is required. However, it tends to be no longer than 25% of the novel. It is not uncommon for Act 3 to be short and it will vary from genre-to-genre.

Final Word

As we discussed at the start of this section, this is a very rough outline to the three act structure. The aim of this section is to give you (writer/editor) a rough skeleton on which to build your novel. The three act structure is a commonly understood format and there is a seemingly unending supply of resources to help you gain a deeper understanding.

If this is the first time you have considered using a formulaic structure in your work, then here are a few points to consider:

This will be enough:
The outline that has been presented in this course will be enough to get you started. One thing you will quickly discover if delving into this topic in any detail, is that three act tends to be most strictly applied to screenplays. However, don’t let this fool you. It is true that novels have more freedom and that you can use a more loosely applied format. However, the structure is still there and still provides the skeleton.
Read:
You will easily be able to find resources that will expand your knowledge of the three act structure. Just a quick Google search will reveal a plethora of options. If you want to know more about using the three act, then I suggest you start reading. However, a little word of warning. The subtleties in applying the three act are up for debate and you will find many people that are happy to argue the toss over the smallest detail. Your best option is to read, understand and then apply in a way that works best for you.
Experiment:
Don’t be frightened to experiment. If you are self-editing and you decide to apply an inciting incident in the first quarter of the book and then resolve this in the final quarter of the book, as long as you do it with some level of thought, it will improve your book. As an editor, try to be creative and experiment with the way the book is written; see if you can develop the conflict (or add new levels of conflict) or come up with new obstacles. Stop seeing the story as a story, but as a set of scenes that can be whipped into shape.
Other Options:
Never forget that three act is not the only boy on the block. In fact, there are multiple other storytelling formats that you can apply. The most obvious is the five act structure. You can think of this as a development from the three act. It is a more satisfying format for the reader, but more difficult to use well, for the writer. Yet, that is only the tip of the iceberg. If you want to get serious about structure than start looking into the many additional options. If you are considering editing as a career, then this is something you will need to tackle sooner rather than later.

Exercise

  1. Split your book into a string of scenes, each with a clearly defined minor value change.
  2. Identify the three main acts of the story with the major value change for each act.
  3. Work your scenes to fit the three acts.
  4. Ensure that you have a strong inciting incident in Act 1, a resolution in Act 2 and a final smaller climax in Act 3.
  5. Ensure that you have at least three Points Of No Return. These are obstacles that must be overcome with an increasing level of commitment from the main character.