Saturday, June 26, 2010

Three Act Structure: Act One

I love reading books and blogs on writing because, in the midst of all the "Yep, I know,  I've only read that a million times", there's always something new to add to my education as a writer. Sometimes it's a really obvious thing that I feel like I should have learned already (or did learn, but ignored).

This week, it's the three-act structure.  Now, I get this - I do. The first act is the beginning, usually about a quarter of the novel; you have to start strong, but this is where you do your setup. The second act is the middle, the bulk of the story - about 50% of your average manuscript. Then the third act, the last 25% of the story, wraps it all up for the reader. Oh, so my story's supposed to have a beginning, middle, and end? Revolutionary stuff, that.

Thanks, But This Isn't for Us: A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing is Being RejectedBut reading Thanks, But This Isn't For Us by Jessica Page Morrell has introduced me to a lot more detail about those three acts, wich makes them seem much more useful to me.  This is a book by a professional editor and writing teacher about identifying flaws in your writing (I'd love to see a sequel, Here's What Isn't Jacked Up In Your Manuscript).

Basically, Jessica Morell gives you a "blueprint" for each act of your story, covering the different aspects that will help keep readers hooked throughout each of the three acts. Today, I'm going to talk about good old act one.

Paraphrasing Morrell: In act one, the protoganist and the other primary characters are introduced, as is their world, that world is thrown into disarray as soon as possible by an inciting incident, and a cauldron is established (i.e. the sitation that keeps the characters coming together for conflict). Act one ends with a crisis, as the MC steps forward into whatever breech has developed from that inciting incident.

For me, reading about the "cauldron" was a big "Oh, yeah" moment. During my first draft of SHARDS OF GLASS, I was having a tough time keeping my characters in conflict by forcing them to encounter each other again and again - there just wasn't a natural way of doing that.  I wish I'd thought about that before I'd come up with some of the more laborous scenes in SHARDS - I should have taken a step back in Act One and figured out what was going to keep all these characters interacting.

And while this description of Act One may read as a touch formulaic, it's a structure that has a lot of give - obviously, these inciting incidents are very different in a mystery (where it could be a dead body) and a literary novel (where it could be an unsettling conversation).

Do you use a definite three act structure in your WIP? Anything you've learned recently that could have made your previous writing go a bit more smoothly?


Jaydee Morgan said...

I've always outlined using the three act structure. It's the way I initially learned and the way that's always worked best for me. I'm constantly tweaking it, but I love using three acts to compose my manuscripts.

Old Kitty said...

Oooooh yes, I've always stuck to the three act structure. For me it's the concrete and posts that will hold up the house so to speak.

I've learned along the way how it's best to introduce the main characters and the central conflict earlier on. Hopefully the reader will be pulled in to read further. I like how you elaborate on this here - thank you.

I so agree with you about learning so much more whilst blogging - as I've done here! Thanks again.

Take care

Kathryn said...

I feel like with all of the books I've read, the stories I've been told, the movies I've seen, etc, that this format is more or less engraved in mostly everybody. While we might not all be able to identify it or pinpoint the exact formula, we see it and we might feel a little thrown off when this formula is altered or ignored. I don't think I spend enough time thinking about the conflict or cauldron as I should, so this is a good reminder for me.

Aubrie said...

Very informative! I can't wait to hear about acts 2 and 3.

Guinevere said...

Jaydee, I think three act is such a classic structure because it works! There are endless variations - alternating viewpoint, non-chronological, etc - so it's not like it's restrictive; but it does provide a structure that I think helps satisfy the reader.

Old Kitty, thanks for your kind comments! I agree, we need to meet the MCs and see the conflict early on - I find for me, where I start the story is so important to how the writing goes. If I start off at the wrong place in act one, I just sort of flounder around. The writing takes off once I find a good place to begin!

Guinevere said...

Kathryn, I agree with you, we just sort of expect the three act structure as readers because that's what satisfies us in a story. Even jokes follow the three act structure, I think.

Aubrie, glad you enjoyed it! I plan to post Act II on Monday - the middle is always tricky, so I'm looking forward to having a discussion about it. :)

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I think I do I think I do.

I thought it was a great book. I love Jessica's other book as well. :)

Piedmont Writer said...

It was so much easier to write before I read all these "writing" books.

I tried to follow a 3-act structure but I always ended up with 5. I don't know why, maybe because I tend to drag things out or maybe I have too many sub-plots that rear their ugly heads.

I can't wait to hear what she says about acts 2 + 3.

Anonymous said...


Katie said...

I've got a basic 3-act plot... unintentionally. I guess it's just the beginning-middle-end idea that's drilled into students' heads from the 5-paragraph essay... I've got Act 1 written and Act 3 rough-outlined... ironically, it's Act 2 I'm struggling with.

Thanks for the book recommendation!

<>< Katie

Chris Catledge said...

I agree with you--3 act is a classic. I look for it in every novel and any movie.

In my MS, I am working on the three act structure. I'm using Dramatica for my outline which is really a breakdown of the three act structure.