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:

1)     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.

2)     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 herself? 

3)     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 a minimum.

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

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