Learning and Loving the Three-Act Story
by Erin Brown
This month we’re getting back to basics, so buckle up and let’s rock
the fundamentals! As I’m sure all of you know, a good story has a
beginning, middle, and end. Well, some of you may not know that,
which is the problem we want to avoid; because who wants to read a
novel in which nothing happens? We’ve all been there—reading
something that just goes on and on and on, drifting aimlessly, with
no clear structure. Some call it creativity; I call it annoying.
Some may argue that the three-act structure is a buncha hooey, but
overall, it’s a very effective model to follow when writing. The
three-act structure will usually ensure that you have more depth of
character, a more interesting plot, and an overall more dynamic
novel. It will also keep you and your story focused. . . unless
you’re drunk, then you’ll have to sober up first to focus, even with
this nifty structure (I’m looking at you, Fitzgerald!).
Now let’s get to it. The three-act structure is as follows:
The first act/beginning: This is when you, the talented writer,
establish your characters and setting. You also write their
situation. What are these crazy yahoos up to, and where? This act is
also when you establish your first plot point or a dynamic incident
that thrusts the main character from his or her normal life into a
contradictory situation that carries the rest of the story. You want
to establish an obstacle that your character must face and overcome.
Let’s use a classic novel (and movie! Yes, screenplays are stories!)
as an example. The Silence of the Lambs is a classic, and
almost everyone reading this has read the novel or seen the movie.
And if you haven’t, I say, “Really? Really? Come out from under that
rock and join the living!”
In Act 1, the dependable Clarice Starling is going about her
business, training at the FBI Academy and looking like Jodie Foster,
when she’s asked to go interview Hannibal Lector, your
run-of-the-mill serial killer and cannibal, at a “hospital” for the
criminally insane in Baltimore. So you’ve got your main character(s)
established here, your setting, and the first turning point. Yes, a
meeting of the minds with an incarcerated cannibal definitely counts
as a “turning point” in one’s normal life. This is also Clarice’s
call to action: use Lector’s knowledge to find Buffalo Bill, another
serial killer preying on women.
The second act/middle: This is often the most difficult act to
write. The second act contains rising action, tension, and conflict.
All the juicy stuff! Here, your characters are trying to solve the
established problem, and usually find themselves in even more
difficult situations. The stakes are raised. Your character must
learn new skills in order to overcome the turning point/conflict,
which ultimately changes who they are. Using our Silence of the
Lambs example, Clarice
engages in quid pro quo with Lector,
finds a severed head (and who hasn’t, really?), learns that Buffalo
Bill has kidnapped a senator’s daughter who “rubs the lotion on its
skin,” negotiates a transfer for Lector, learns about coveting,
follows clues, and generally gets herself in really hairy situations
again and again. She learns about not only Lector and Buffalo Bill,
but about herself. “Have the lambs stopped screaming, Clarice?”
equals personal character growth. The tension is mounting! Now it’s
almost time for the climax! At the end of the second act, a plot
point occurs in which the
protagonist appears beaten or lost but something happens to turn the
situation around. The hero's goal becomes reachable. This is when
Clarice (and the reader) thinks the FBI is closing in on Buffalo
Bill in another location and she’s just engaging in the random
questioning of a man in a small town, who, as she soon realizes, is
the real Buffalo Bill!!! Oh my God, Clarice is on her own! The
FBI is wrong! Who can save her as she faces the killer? Can she save
The third act/end: This includes the climax and resolution. This act
shows how the character succeeds and/or becomes a better person.
Spoiler alert!! Alone, Clarice hunts down Buffalo Bill in a
tension-filled scene of epic proportions and rescues the senator’s
daughter. She’s grown stronger and overcomes personal demons; she is
given an award by the FBI and is also contacted by Lector, who has
escaped from custody after biting a guard’s face off (typical prison
escape). He gives her props for solving the case and says he won’t
come eat her face off, which is really the highest honor she can
achieve. Lector then wanders away to chew off another face, and we
assume that Starling goes on with her fruitful career in the FBI.
All is well in Cannibal-land.
By using the three-act structure, you will find that after laying
the basic groundwork, your plot points and characters will grow from
this simple, established structure. Your goal is not to shackle
yourself, but to follow an effective organization in order to let
your creativity blossom in a way that will allow the story and
characters to grow and unfold in the most entertaining way possible.
Now go forth and write your three acts. And keep the face-chewing to
More Author Articles...
Erin Brown worked as an editor in New York City for
over eight years. She recently left Manhattan to start her own
freelance editorial business. To learn more about Erin, visit her
website at www.erinedits.com