In my last blog post about writing page turning novels, I touted the use of the three act structure as a useful device some writers use to help create dramatic tension in their stories. I’ve written entire novels myself without realizing I was employing it. Later, I’d look at the story and realize that every element of the three-act structure has been subconsciously inserted into my story. I think this happens because so many stories I’ve read before have followed it. I’ll even go out on a limb to suggest that three act structure existed before anyone knew it existed. It’s a narrative arc that has been deeply embedded in the human psyche since the time before people were writing stories down, when the tales told were legend and myth.
Before I describe the structure, let me clarify one thing that some of you iconoclasts might be thinking: a structure is not the same thing as a formula. A structure creates a framework wherein your characters move within their story. There are some out there who write outside of the common story arc, but most writers, even the great ones, adhere to this ancient narrative form.
Many variations of three act structure can be found on the web, and I encourage you to do some research of your own, but here is a brief outline:
1. The first act sets up your world and your characters. It shows how life is before your inciting incident, which sets your protagonist in motion. Your protagonist, when dealing with this new problem, will be hesitant in some way, but will finally confront a point of no return, where she has committed herself and has no choice but to stay the course.
2. This begins your second act, your rising action, comprised of points and counterpoints between your hero and your antagonist. The second act ends when the absolute worst happens, and all is lost.
3. But wait! Your hero uses her ingenuity and courage, rallies her dwindling resources to do something completely unexpected, and somehow wins the day. This is your climax. Loose ends are tied up, but hopefully not too perfectly, and the reader can finish reading your book then hurry to the bookstore to find more titles by you.
Part of what makes this structure so useful is that it helps the writer keep her characters in charge of the story. You are free to employ the vicissitudes of fate in your plot, but the main pivot points of your story remain in your characters’ hands. This helps hold your reader’s interest, because, in the final analysis, random chance isn’t very interesting. It’s what people do with their circumstances, their choices and their mistakes that makes fiction, and life, interesting.