Friday, December 21, 2007

3-Act Structure for Novels


All storytelling is built on three acts: the set-up; the main exposition & action; the resolution. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a novel, short story, screenplay, or stand-up comic’s joke –they all have the three acts. Even plays broken down into four or five acts still use the three-act structure to tell the story.

When I plot a novel –and especially when I rewrite after finishing a first draft—the first thing I do is craft an outline that identifies the three acts.

Here’s how I view the elements that make up the three acts:

ACT ONE (aka Part One)
· We meet the protagonist and most of the central characters.
· The major plotline is introduced–either overtly or through foreshadowing. This is the main “problem” or “issue” around which the novel revolves.
· Subplots are introduced to give complexity and variety to the events.
· Often Act One begins with a dramatic moment, or teaser, as a way of hooking the reader’s interest, and then we settle down to introduce our characters and establish the “world” in which they live.
· Good novels start at some interesting point. Have a reason for page one to open the story.
· Begin the process of establishing the reader’s emotional & intellectual reactions to the characters.
o Who is the protagonist?
o Do we like this person?
o Do we care about what is happening?
o Do we care about the relationships that being established?
o What does the protagonist have to solve in order for the book to ultimate conclude?
o Is the problem compelling enough to draw us through several hundred pages?
· The villain is introduced no later than the end of Act One.

· In novels the middle act is generally the longest and involves the deepening & exploration of the central plot themes.
· Character relationships are fleshed out and explored.
· Complications are introduced that will change the direction of the story and begin steering it in unexpected directions.
· Backstory is provided.
· This is the most important act in the drama because you have the two most important structural moves in the story.
· By the end of Act Two things should look pretty grim for the protagonist. It has to seem that what he is trying to do mail fail.
· Act Two ends with a dramatic turn of events.

· This is where all of the plot threads are woven together and drawn tight.
· By the end of act three every major character will have gone through some process of change, for good or bad.
· The world we introduced our readers to at the beginning of Act One is now different.
· Most of Act Three is a race to resolve the story.
· You must resolve the story.
· The good guys don’t always win (though they seldom lose in bestsellers).


HorrorHound said...

I'll have to refer back to this because it will really help me out a lot. Could I ask you a question? I have a villian in my story that's a Hellhound, he uses people as hosts and my prologue starts out with one of the Hellhounds host and then it foreshadowes the persons life, but when the reader comes back to the present, the host's life is shortened because of the Hellhound, then in chapter 1 it goes to a new person and their life plays out from there...would that be a good start to a story?

Stardog said...

I have a post on structure at my screenwriting blog. Hopefully this will be useful.