The 3 Act Structure
(Today’s post on the 3 Act Structure is an excerpt from The Plot Thickens:21 Ways to Plot Your Novel.)
THE 3 ACT STRUCTURE is one of the most popular ways to plot a novel or screenplay. It’s the backbone of countless novels, TV shows and movies. It keeps the story moving, the reader turning pages and box offices busy. In its simplest form it consists of three parts:
Of course, much more is involved. Your daily trip to work has a beginning, middle and end. Hopefully, it’s uneventful, but boring isn’t what you want for your novel. Let’s re-label the three parts into:
Much more riveting, isn’t it?
Let’s look at each of these in depth.
ACT I of the 3 Act Structure—THE SETUP
Act One establishes the mood, voice and setting of the story through the hook. It’s where the protagonist is introduced in his ordinary world, and then BAM! something happens, an event (and it must be an event) forces the hero into making a commitment that thrusts him into a new situation, usually for the worse.
In Act One, all subplots, major and minor characters, goals and motivations are introduced. The stakes are set, and the reader is clued into the fact we aren’t in Kansas anymore, Toto.
Act One points toward the climax, foreshadows the climax and, if it makes sense, mirrors the climax in a neat bookend.
It ends with the Inciting Incident, the Event that changes everything.
Act One, simply, is where the action starts and when the antagonist commits to the goal.
ACT II of the 3 Act Structure—THE CONFLICT
The journey begins. Emotionally or physically, the protagonist will not be the same as he was when the story started. After being propelled into making a decision, usually after a period of refusal or hesitation, the protagonist reacts to the new situation. New knowledge is gained through the achievement of small goals, constant setbacks and deepening conflicts. The protagonist must overcome greater and greater obstacles, and complications arise one on top of another.
The pace quickens, tension increases and suspense rises, all of which involves the reader deeper into the story.
In Act Two, the stakes are higher, not only for the protagonist, but also the antagonist. The protagonist’s pursuit of his goal should cause conflict to the antagonist, and vice versa. They need to constantly push each other, forcing retaliations that culminate in the climax.
Before the climax, all subplots should be closed out and all questions answered.
By the time the protagonist reaches the climax, he should feel lost, stripped down of all defenses, emotional and physical, and spiraling out of control.
ACT III of the 3 Act Structure—THE CLIMAX
Act Three is the focus of your whole book. Everything from page one has led up to this scene. This is your big finish when good triumphs over evil, the guy get the girl and the sun starts to set. But first. . .
Your protagonist and antagonist need to be on center stage. The promise you’ve given your reader for hundreds of pages needs to be delivered. The cavalry isn’t going to ride in and save the day. It’s the good guy vs. the bad guy. Odds are the good guy will win, but nothing is guaranteed, and the reader should be biting their nails in anticipation.
The changes the protagonist has undergone from the beginning gives him the necessary skills to defeat the antagonist. Armed with new knowledge, he fights and wins. The antagonist, however, hasn’t changed, and continues with old paradigms, ending in defeat.
Lastly, give the reader Resolution, the emotional payoff, the catharsis promised. Don’t give into temptation and keep writing. When the story is done, it’s done. The reader doesn’t care anymore. He has answers to his questions, and you’ll cheapen the story by dragging it on.
Your antagonist has gone from the stability of an ordinary world to the new stability of a different world. All is well. Write “the end” and congratulate yourself on a job well done.
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