Back in April Chris Eboch did a guest post about “Suspense Versus Surprise.” This Sunday morning she is back and offering her thoughts on the “Three Act Structure for Novelists.”
Three Act Structure for Novelists
by Chris Eboch
To celebrate the release of my new book, You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, I’m sharing an excerpt from a chapter on Three Act Structure.
There’s no magic formula for writing a fabulous book. But there are formulas that offer guidelines for constructing a satisfying plot. Scriptwriters have long used the three act structure handed down from theater, with additional “turning points” as guidelines for when high and low moments and surprises should hit. Various resources identify and name turning points differently, but here’s a basic list of the most important ones:
- Act 1 (the first 25%): Introduction of the character and situation.
- The Inciting Incident/Catalyst (in the opening pages): Something that introduces a problem or goal for the main character.
- Plot Point One/Act 1 Break (about 25% of the way in): The point of no return, when the character embarks on the journey (physical, mental, or emotional).
- Act 2 (the middle, from the 25% point to the 75% mark): The character tries to solve the problem but faces escalating obstacles and rising stakes.
- Midpoint (in the middle of Act 2, at about the 50% mark): A moment of seeming success, but it may twist the story in a new direction or raise the stakes.
- Plot Point Two/Act 2 Break (at the 75% mark): The moment when failure seems inevitable.
- Act 3 (the final 25%): Wrapping up the story. Things may continue going downhill, and/or the hero(es) may develop a new plan, leading to the ...
- Climax/Resolution: The big final scene where the character ultimately succeeds or fails.
My brother Doug Eboch, writer of the movie Sweet Home Alabama and a scriptwriting teacher, says, “These ideas date back to Aristotle; they’re not some new Hollywood formula. Three Act Structure is really just a way to talk about literary concepts. So, for example, the first act is the section where we set up the character, their dilemma and the stakes; the second act is where the character faces increasing obstacles to that dilemma; and the third act is where we get the resolution.”
Following this format doesn’t mean the result will be perfect, but, “If you understand the concepts, they can help identify and solve problems in your story, or even prevent problems from occurring in the first place,” Doug says. “Think about acts and turning points as a way to organize your story and make sure you stay on track.”
Many authors find three act structure helpful when writing books, although they may not focus on structure at the beginning of a new project. Some wait until the revision stage and use three act structure to make sure they have a solid, well-paced plot. Personally, I like to thoroughly brainstorm and outline before starting a novel. Matching scenes on the outline to traditional turning points is a way to identify weak spots or to discover when important plot points are happening too late in the story. This allows me to add complications or shift scenes around before I start writing.
Tools, Not Rules
Whether you start with plot structure or consider it only after a couple of drafts, checking your work for turning points can help ensure the story feels well-plotted and satisfying. But that doesn’t mean you have to force a story to fit the “rules” precisely.
“It’s more important to understand the concepts behind the structure than to take a fill-in-the-blank type of approach,” Doug says. “Sometimes people focus on the idea that the act one turning point should happen on page 28 [in a screenplay, which is typically 110 pages]. But the reason we bother identifying an act one turning point at all is that it’s the place where the hero takes on the problem and gets locked into the story. Without that, there’s no tension because the hero could just walk away at any time. It’s far more important that the act one turning point fulfill those requirements than that it fall on a certain page.
As a scriptwriting teacher, Doug has many chances to see what works and what doesn’t. “Many beginning writers get into their story too late. Often, they don’t introduce the problem until the act one turning point and don’t trap their character in the story until the midpoint. Again, this comes from not understanding the purpose of the beats.” Those students are satisfied to find a big event at the appropriate place – even if it’s not the right kind of event.
It’s not enough to have something happen, just because you need a turning point. “Many beginning writers have major events happen at the turning points that are unrelated to each other or even the main character,” Doug notes. “[Turning points] are not simply twists for the sake of having a twist; they serve a bigger structural purpose. All the turning points should be related to your main character and main story line and to each other. And each should be the result of the main character’s actions and choices. So even if the second act turning point involves the villain getting the best of the hero, the villain should be taking that action in response to what the hero’s done before. The turning points should grow out of what the character wants in the story and what obstacles stand in the way of that goal, including internal obstacles.”
This article was adapted from a chapter in my new book You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers. Check out the book for more advice, much of which works for authors writing for an adult audience as well!
Let’s Schmooze is Doug Eboch’s blog on Screenwriting.
Chris Eboch/Kris Bock ©2015
Chris Eboch writes fiction and nonfiction for all ages. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers and Advanced Plotting. Learn more at www.chriseboch.com or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog. Sign up for her workshop newsletter for classes and critique offers.
As Kris Bock, Chris writes novels of suspense and romance involving outdoor adventures and Southwestern landscapes. In Counterfeits, stolen Rembrandt paintings bring danger to a small New Mexico town. Whispers in the Dark features archaeology and intrigue among ancient Southwest ruins. The Mad Monk’s Treasure follows the hunt for a long-lost treasure in the New Mexico desert. Read excerpts at www.krisbock.com, sign up for the Kris Bock newsletter, or visit her Amazon page.