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Creative Writing Fiction 2018-08-30 00:00

How to Use the Three-Act Structure to Actually Finish Writing Your Novel


Did you know that countless famous stories in pop culture (think everything from Rocky to Harry Potter) share the same plot structure?

It’s true! The secret to their plotting success lies in the three-act structure, which effectively breaks a story into a beginning, middle, and an end. But it’s so much more than that: it gives your writing a framework that directs you while still giving you ample room for creativity and new ideas.

Without further ado, let’s get into it:

  1. Act One: the Setup
  2. Act Two: the Confrontation
  3. Act Three: the Resolution

Act One: the Setup

This is the groundwork act of the story arc. It will:

  • Introduce the cast of characters,
  • Establish the setting, and
  • Set up the narrative expectation in terms of character arcs and character goals.

You will introduce readers to the setting, the main characters, and lay the groundwork for the rest of the narrative. This scene-setting is also called the exposition.

Act One is relatively short, only taking up a quarter (or even less) of the whole novel. However, you shouldn’t underestimate its importance. Towards its second half, there’s going to be an inciting incident — which thrusts the protagonist into the main action and sets the whole plot in motion. The inciting incident is also sometimes referred to as the “call to adventure.”

Now for your first plot point! This will see your protagonist engaging with the inciting incident in some way — accepting the challenge, taking the journey, starting something new, or whatever it may be.

Plot points are crucially important for bridging the gaps between acts, and directly impacting whatever is coming next in your story. Speaking of which...

Act Two: the Confrontation

Act Two is the hardest to plot. If you are reading this, Act Two is quite possibly where you’re stuck! As most things go, however, this Act is also the most important. To put it into perspective, it’s going to take up about half of your entire story.

Many books or films that start well but end underwhelmingly often have a meandering second act that takes a wrong turn somewhere. So — don’t let your writing get linear or too reportive, maybe consider what’s happening to other characters at this point, or shift the narrative in time or place.

First off, we should have rising action. This will include:

  • Solidifying of your character’s story goal,
  • Encounters of some minor obstacles,
  • Character development, especially for your peripheral and secondary characters, and
  • Your protagonist’s reaction and adaptation to whatever is going on around them.

About halfway through the narrative we arrive at the midpoint (surprise!). This sees the main character encounter a major obstacle that prevents them from reaching success — usually right when they are painfully close to achieving their goal.

Examples of this include events like Amy’s best friend Noelle in Gone Girl confronting Nick and forcing him to actively try and save himself, or when Lizzy refuses Mr Darcy’s first proposal (and basically says that she hates him.) The key here is that the protagonist is forced to become proactive in seeking out their goal.

This may bring them to despair and close to giving up, so your plot point two is centered around your protagonist getting past the midpoint, and becoming more active in seeking out their goal. It’s a key plot point for character development.

This then segues into Act Three, where the struggle is renewed, the hero comes back stronger, and the stakes of achieving their goal are higher.

If you’ve sorted out your Act Two — well done! You’re well over halfway, but your work is definitely not done yet....

Act Three: the Resolution

This is one of the shortest acts, taking up about a quarter of your book. However, don’t think that you can get away by just writing, “And then they all lived happily ever after.” This act still has three key sections: the pre-climax, the climax, and the denouement.

As you can see in this diagram of the three-act structure, there is a steep rise of action once we hit the start of act three, and it doesn’t necessarily head straight for a neatly resolved ending.

The pre-climax is where we often experience the most tension. At this point, we are pretty sure it’ll all be okay... but we (along with the protagonist) perhaps underestimated the power of the antagonist. The protagonist will rise up unexpectedly, and ready themselves for...

The climax of the novel, which is where the overarching conflict comes to a head. Whether the protagonist has been battling against another character, has been on a journey, or is fighting an aspect of themselves, we now see the outcome of this struggle. This is the exciting bit! Everything your readers have been expecting, or not expecting, is about to happen. You’ll fulfill any promises made to them, and everything tends to happen in one scene.

Whilst this act doesn’t have to tie things off with a bow (especially if you’re writing a series or the main character is not redeemed), there is still a sense of resolution, also known as the denouement. We see things clearer and, if the protagonist’s goal is not achieved, it is at least redefined. This is the stage where tension is dissipated, and loose ends are tied up. The reader should feel satisfied, clear on where characters stand, and possibly made aware of underlying themes once again. If done well, this act will leave the reader to reflect on character progression and the events of the story.

And there you have it! If you decide to use the three-act structure, you can think of the acts and plot points as your North Star: pointing you in the right direction and allowing you to measure your writing progress. When you reach your final destination and look back, you might even be surprised at how far you’ve come.

Writing a book is hard work, and finishing a book is even harder. But hopefully this post will help you get past the rut you might be stuck in, and finish your beautifully structured novel!

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