|By Antonio Litterio
Is your story running out of control? Is your character development less of an arc, and more of a ramble? Save time and keep your plot on track, no matter how many threads it has, by finding out how to apply the Three-Act Structure to your work.
I started out as a pantster—writing novels free-form, with no overall plan. A dramatic scene would come to me. I’d think about it until I’d developed characters and a plot. Then I’d write the first three chapters, followed by the last one, to make sure every loose end was tied up. After that, I’d go back and fill in all the gaps. That worked well, but what sounds like a fast process turned out to be slow in the end. Making things up as I went along meant lots of re-writing and refining. Sometimes I’d have to discard days of work when it didn’t fit with the revised storyline. Often the finished manuscript and my original synopsis might have been talking about different books, with only names and places in common.
I needed to get organised. The 2014 RNA conference put me onto Scrivener. You can find out more about that here.
Once I got the hang of using this package, I could see the Three Act Structure (which has been used for centuries to create novels, plays and other works) fits in perfectly. The Introduction, Action and Conclusion model provides a skeleton you can build on and articulate, by breaking the action down into small segments.
I haven’t turned into a dedicated planner overnight, plotting every move my characters make right down to the last cough and sneeze, but it’s definitely easier for me to keep my first draft on track these days. In turn, this saves a lot of time, which I devote to polishing my full manuscript.
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I’ve created a template on Scrivener which includes divisions within the basic Three Act Structure. Most are self-explanatory. You don’t need to write scenes for all the headings—in fact, it would be a very bad idea to follow this template down to the smallest detail. In trying to fill every box, you’d end up producing the literary version of a painting-by-numbers, rather than your very own Mona Lisa.
As you write, you’ll find some sections will merge. The order will change, and the lines between some will blur. You might want to skip some altogether, or change the order within the acts. Do whatever suits you, within the basic story arc of scene setting, followed by action and rounded off by conclusion.
Here are the basic headings I work with:
ACT ONE—This introduces your story world and characters, and sets up all the drama to come.
Scene setting: The trick is to drip feed information about the who, where and when of your story. Don’t drop it in lumps. Personally, I like to start with a bang, such as the “shark attack” in His Majesty’s Secret Passion.
Inciting Incident: A stranger comes to town is a classic opening. You could also use an accident, a letter, or a misunderstanding.
And So…For every action there’s a reaction, as Isaac Newton said. Keep that in mind as you move forward, heaping up troubles and questions for your characters to confront.
What happens then? Don’t forget to add variety to the ups and downs in your story. Give your reader time to catch their breath, and reflect on what’s been happening.
Pressure Builds: Once you’ve got your characters up a tree, throw rocks at them.
Force: As you make things worse for them, they are forced to take more action
Plot Twist/Revelation We know where we are, and who we’re dealing with. Or do we? Throw in another development to increase problems for your hero.
George M. Hill Company, Via Wikimedia
ACT TWO—Action stations! This act should make up the bulk of your story, powering it along with increasing drama, and working on the tension.
All Change: This is the point where Alice has gone through the looking glass, and Dorothy isn’t in Kansas any more. There’s no way back. They’ve got to create a new existence, and fresh ways of thinking.
Learning: Your characters get to know their new world.
Back And Forward: Draw contrasts between their old life, and the new rules they are learning.
Tension Builds: Foreshadow future disasters. In The Lord Of The Rings, Gandalf rages at Pippin for doing something as simple as dropping a stone down a well. We're told that’s not a good thing to do in a place like the Mines of Moria, but we don’t know why. Yet…
Breathing Space: The contrast of action and peace. Your readers and heroes can all take a rest, but just when they least expect it—
Bang! More trouble arrives, and it’s big.
Action Your hero throws themselves into the situation. This is a fight to the death, either physical, mental, or both. It takes all their resources and ingenuity to cope.
Reapplication: This is it: hero must make one last huge effort, and dedicate themselves to getting the ultimate prize of true love, treasure or whatever else you’ve dangled in front of them. This means death—or glory!
ACT THREE—This is the climax and conclusion of your book. Everything has been building towards this point.
More Trouble/Another Crisis: Things are getting worse and worse.
The Black Moment The point when a romance seems doomed, all projects are heading for disaster and there is (apparently) no way out.
Hidden Powers The hero delves even deeper inside themselves to draw on resources they didn’t know they had.
Last Big Push toward reconciliation, or the final battle.
And Finally… It’s all over.
Look Around: Characters take stock of their new story world, relationships and their changed understanding of themselves.
Climax: the big reconciliation, or reveal.
Resolution: This is the place to give your characters their Happy Ever After moment, or let them announce their determination to stride forward into Book Two of a series. At least give them a satisfying conclusion.
There are lots of possible variations on this basic layout, but this one has worked well for me. It’s the way I kept Sara and Leo heading for their happy ever after in His Majesty’s Secret Passion, despite all their troubles, and reversals on the way.
Do you plan, or write freestyle? How do you fancy working in a different way?
There’s a signed copy of His Majesty’s Secret Passion on offer for a comment picked at random after 16th February.