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Three Act Structure For Novel Writing, by Amy Kathleen Ryan

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.


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Structuring Novel Chapters, by Stephen Emond (graphic novelist)

With Winter Town I thought of each chapter as its own mini story, paying close attention to giving each scene a three act structure and changing the values at stake between the start and finish. A common “rule” you’ll read in writing books is that if a scene starts off positive then end it negative, and vice versa. It’s really the value at stake in a scene that gets changed. Positive and negative is just a very broad way of looking at it.

A good example from Winter Town is in chapter 14. This chapter takes place early on in the relationship of Lucy and Evan, and takes place from Lucy’s POV. What I wanted to show here was Lucy’s inner struggle and inability to fully commit to something. She’s always liked Evan, she’s thrilled to be with him, but she’s self destructive and already picking at the relationship. The scene takes place in the evening when Lucy and Evan leave Evan’s house to walk downtown to the movie theater.

I divided the chapter into three main sections; Lucy getting outside and into a more cosmopolitan hustle and bustle, Lucy and Evan discussing small town life, the city, art and school, and then arriving at the theater where Lucy’s tone shifts.

It starts positive; Lucy finds a strong energy in the night, with people all around her, the downtown lights, she holds Evan’s hand, she kisses him, she can barely contain herself. The lights are reflecting on the snow, the streets are decorated, people are all out enjoying themselves, and it’s a romantic scene as Lucy and Evan go out in public as some variation of boyfriend/girlfriend for the first time.

The “second act” plays with the positive and negative. Lucy and Evan talk about a fantasy life in the city, making art. Movies, comics, teaming up and living off art and love in a creative community. This is Lucy’s dream and Evan’s fantasy. For Evan, it isn’t real. He knows he can’t leave his family, he has plans for school. Lucy doesn’t fit snuggly into his future vision.

The third act and “epilogue” of the chapter has Lucy reeling during the movie, emotional and on the verge of tears, while Evan just watches the movie. Lucy decides that Evan can’t appreciate her or art because he doesn’t know pain the way she does. He doesn’t suffer and his life is too clean and neat. The chapter ends on a negative note as the idea is planted in Lucy’s head that she is going to break his heart.

The constant shifting of good and bad, and light and dark, creates a dynamic flow and keeps the reader wondering what will happen next, and never getting too complacent with how things are. As readers, we truly appreciate the happy moments when they come from dark places and we cringe at the dark material that follows the lighter pieces. Beyond all that, it gives you a guide and purpose in your writing. Are things going too good for your character? Too bad? Try flipping the values at stake, sooner rather than later.


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