THE THREE-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).