Working with a Three-Act Structure

A #Balticon55 panel. You can find the last 30 minutes of the panel on the BaltimoreSciFi youtube channel.

The panelists were as follows: C.D. Brown as moderator, Meg Eden, Ryan Van Loan, and C. L. Polk. The notional description of the panel was as follows:

The three-act structure has been the standard in Western storytelling for millenia. How can we create innovative, exciting work in a format the audience is expecting? How do we make the middle part powerful and lasting when most of the attention-grabbing moments are at the beginning and end?

What is the Three-Act Structure?

The three-act structure is a method or pacing used in many forms of storytelling, from before humans could write.

At the most basic level, it breaks the story as a whole down into three main sections — or ‘acts’. (More complicated versions show even more breakdown.)

  1. The Setup
    • The introduction: This is where you introduce the characters and the world
    • The Inciting incident: what triggers the main character to step out of their day-to-day life and face the plot of the story.
    • The Reaction – What the inciting incident triggers the main character to do.
  2. The Confrontation – While soggy middles are common, mixing up emotional growth with progress toward the main goal can help.
    • The character overcomes an obstacle, but ends up in more trouble
    • Repeatedly
    • Until the main character hits their low point
  3. The Resolution
    • The main character heads toward the climax
    • The main confrontation of the story takes place (sometimes with a twist. Try to avoid a deus ex machina)
    • The resolution

So, do you have to have your book outlined with all of these plot points before you can write? Of course not.

Where Do You Start Your Story?

Some start with: an interesting character who lives with an interesting situation and has an interesting problem due to an interesting “internal screwup”, with an interesting trait thrown in there for flavor. With world building working like creating a gaming world — only with trade-offs instead of game mechanics.

Some start with just a character’s voice, with an image or sense of who they are and their setting. Then, the writer works out who that character is fighting against. And the ongoing character development leads to a moment in Act-3 that the character couldn’t have achieved in Act-1.

Some start with: an interesting character and situation — often triggered by questions the writer is struggling with or problems/memories the writer can’t get over. All of that creates tension/unresolved conflict and elements of a character for the writer to connect to.

As a note: all stories need world building, be they fantasy or the world of chess players. Even with stories set in the so-called real world, not all of your readers may be familiar with the realities of the culture and setting you place the characters.

Creating The Turning Point

There are many different approaches to creating that turning point, and variations on the philosophy that a writer uses to bring the main characters there.

  1. The main character is trying to fix the main issue in a way that won’t work.
  2. The consequences of a ‘small choice’ earlier comes around to bite them in the butt
  3. They are confronted with a massive new issue

In Western writing especially, we like to see pro-active characters, so, having the consequences of the main characters actions inspire the low point, and the character growth show them the way forward tends to be most fulfilling for our readers. And fulfilled readers leads to better reviews.

Revision

As I said before I got into this, not all of the three-act structure has to be planned out in the beginning. If you’re not a plotter, don’t worry about it when you write your story.

But. That doesn’t mean you should ignore it completely! When you go to revise your story, using this structure as a road map can help fix a lot of pacing issues.

Some writers take their revision time to create tables for each chapter, showing pacing, plot points, and conflict, etc.

Some use the revision as time to make sure all of the plot points are driven by the theme — (but be careful. Too theme driven, and you might turn into an afterschool special. Readers don’t need to be clobbered over the head to find your theme.)

Plus, there’s always the language editing — making sure the phrasing and word choices fit your world, making sure to differentiate different character’s dialogue, etc.

Conclusion

The three-act structure may seem like teachers trying to reduce writing to a formula, but it doesn’t have to be used that way. You can use it as lightly or as strictly as you’d like, but the trade off for steady pacing and keeping your readers engaged is often worth it.

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