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Friday, January 29, 2021

What You Should Know About the Three Act Structure

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Story structure is a useful tool for developing and writing a novel.

The first time I learned about story structure, it felt as if the sky had opened and truth crashed down upon my head. There was a format for writing a novel? Why hadn’t anyone told me about this?

I embraced it wholeheartedly, and have spent my writing life learning as much about it as I could. I love structure, and love seeing how different writers use it and adapt it to their processes. I’ve fiddled with mine over the years and improved it, as well as totally mucked it up (these things happen).

My favorite is the classic Three Act Structure. I find it the easiest to use, and the most flexible to adapt to suit a writer’s needs.

The Three Act Structure gives you a solid framework on which to hang (and write) your novel.


This is useful for any writer, but it’s especially useful for those new to the process. New writers haven’t always learned all the turning points of a plot, or how to craft a strong story arc, or what classic story moments go where. Without such guidance, their novels either grind to a halt around page 100, or ramble on much longer than they should.

Here’s how the Three Act Structure can help you keep your novel under control:

A big-picture structure format gives you hard plot goals to aim for while writing. Even if you're a pantser, structure formats can help during revisions when you have a first draft done and want to make sure all your plot points are working right. Jami Gold did a great post on this, using Blake Snyder's "Save the Cat" beat sheets.

How Story Structure Works


A story structure is like a line drawing in a coloring book. How you overlay your story (color in the lines) is up to you, but the structure provides guides and boundaries to help keep you focused on the picture you want to create.

Some writers fear that using structures will create a formulaic novel. If you follow them exactly and take them literally, then yes, that could happen, but the strength of story structure is to let it guide you and remind you of the important story elements of a novel. The moments are metaphorical or symbolic, and they suggest types of situations to aim for.

Even when a story follows them exactly, if done well, readers don't even notice. The novel feels tightly plotted, not predictable. Every story you’ve ever read has used structure, often the Three Act Structure, and you probably didn’t notice unless it was done badly.

Many writers have broken the Three Act Structure down in a myriad of ways, but it unfolds basically like this:

Act One: The beginning, where it all starts.


Act One is roughly the first 25% of the novel. If focuses on the protagonist living in their world and being introduced to the problems they need to solve. Something about this life is making them unhappy, but they’re not yet ready to do anything about it. They might not even be aware of the problem, but they feel unsatisfied in some way.

Then they’re presented with an opportunity to change their life, and they either accept the challenge, or try to avoid it and get dragged into it anyway.

By the end of the first act, they’re on the plot path that leads to the climax of the book.

Everything is this first act familiarizes readers with the world and characters and sets up the problem the book is going to spend the next 75% trying to resolve.

I use the words "sets up," but this is different from setup. This first act is NOT about explaining what readers "need to know" to understand the story. The story should jump right into the action and have something happen, and that something will lead the protagonist to the inciting event, which is where the protagonist takes the first step onto the plot path of the core conflict.

Act One is all about showing the protagonist's world (life, dreams, issues, etc, as well as the literal setting) and lets readers see the problems and flaws the protagonist needs to overcome to get what they ultimately want (the goal and point of the novel).

In essence, it's where you say "See how screwed up this person's life is? This is what they have to fix before they can succeed."

(Here’s more on Struggling to Start Your Novel? Here's What Makes a Good Beginning)

Act One typically contains three key plot moments:

The Opening Scene


This introduces the protagonist, the opening scene problem, the setting, the rules of the world, any critical traits or details readers need to know, etc. Something is happening that will draw readers in and allow them to get to know (and like) the protagonist.

(Here’s more on Open Up! Writing the Opening Scene)

The Inciting Event


This offers an opportunity to change or fix what’s wrong in the protagonist’s life or world. The protagonist is uncertain whether or not to take advantage of this opportunity, but eventually they do, either through their choice or from outside forces acting upon them.

The inciting event forces the narrative (and plot) onto the core conflict of the novel. This is the moment when you say to your readers, "Here's what the book is going to be about."

Even if the problem is going to get bigger later, the seed of the conflict the plot needs to resolve will be right here. The protagonist might not see the bigger picture yet, but you know this is point when things change for them. Had they not experienced this situation, then the plot would not have unfolded the same way.

(Here’s more on Story Structure: The Inciting Event)

The Act One Problem


This problem transitions to the middle of the book and gives the protagonist something to do (a goal), and a choice to make. It’s the first major step once the protagonist is on the path to the core conflict. It’s also where the stakes are significantly raised for the first time.

The choice this problem presents is the big plot moment here, and the protagonist must choose to act to move the plot forward, otherwise they can feel like a reactive protagonist (and you don’t want that). Greater forces could have gotten the protagonist here, but they must decide to move forward on their own.

Choosing to act will force them out of their comfort zone (normal life) and into an unfamiliar (and often emotionally scary) situation. But this step into the unknown is vital for their goals, both the external plot goal and their internal character arc goal (if they have one).

This choice is what officially launches the middle, which is why Act One ends with the discovery of a problem or issue that needs resolving. It’s essentially, “Oh no, something bad has happened, what should we do about it?” What the protagonist does launches Act Two.

(Here’s more on Story Structure: The Act One Problem)

Act Two: The middle, where the good stuff happens.


Middles make up roughly 50% of a novel. The protagonist leaves what’s familiar to them and undergoes a series of challenges that will allow them to get what they want. They struggle and fail repeatedly, learning valuable lessons they’ll need in Act Three to defeat the antagonist.

Good middles show this struggle and growth, and braids together the plot and subplots, smacking the internal and external conflicts against each other.

Each clue, discovery, and action, brings the protagonist closer to the Act Two Disaster that sends them hurtling toward the climax and resolution of the novel.

They’ll start off with some level of confidence, sure of their plans, but as things spiral out of control, they’ll become more and more uncertain and filled with self-doubt until they’re forced to consider giving up entirely.

(Here’s more on Is Your Novel Stuck in the Mud? What Makes a Good Middle)

Act Two typically contains three key plot moments:

The Act Two Choice


The Act Two Choice is a transitional moment, linking the beginning and the middle. It starts with the Act One Problem, and the choice to act launches Act Two.

The protagonist embraces whatever problem they’re confronted with, and accepts the opportunity it offers to resolve that problem. How they decide to deal with that problem establishes how the plot is going to unfold until the next step on the plot path.

This problem is going to be a big one, because it's what's going to drive your plot for the next 25% of the book until the midpoint. It'll be the first major piece of the core conflict puzzle. In most cases, it ends in failure, because the protagonist hasn't yet learned the things they need to learn to be victorious.

The Act Two Choice frequently launches the protagonist’s character arc as well, because their flaw will be their weakness during the middle of the novel. They’ll struggle and fail, not seeing what they need to do to become the person they want to be.

Essentially, this is where the protagonist says, “Okay, here’s what I’m going to do to fix this,” and then slowly comes to regret that choice as it starts to unravel and everything goes wrong.

(Here’s more on Story Structure: The Act Two Choice) 



The Midpoint Reversal


The Midpoint Reversal occurs in the middle of the novel. Something unexpected happens and changes the worldview the protagonist has had all along. Their plan no longer works or is no longer viable, and things have to change. This choice and creating a new plan is what sends the plot into the second half of the middle, where things start to get worse for the protagonist.

A good Midpoint Reversal will also raise the stakes, even if they were high to begin with. It often adds a level of personal consequence that wasn't there before, or reveals a secret (or problem) that was hidden. Sometimes it requires a sacrifice, be it a personal belief or an ally. Sometimes it's all of these things at the same time.

This moment will also be strong enough to carry the plot from the middle to the 75% mark (the next 25% of the book) and the beginning of the climax.

(Here’s more on Story Structure: The Midpoint Reversal)

The Act Two Disaster


This Act Two Disaster hits around the 75% mark of the novel. It's the moment when it all goes horribly wrong for the protagonist, and is often the result of them trying to fix whatever went wrong at the Midpoint.

The big plan to save the day fails miserably and the protagonist is worse off now than they’ve been the entire novel. The stakes are raised yet again, and it all becomes too much for the protagonist to handle.

Often, whatever lie the protagonist has been telling themselves all book is stripped away, forcing them to see the truth, however harsh.

If the antagonist has been a secret or a mystery, this is often when their identity is discovered, usually with devastating effect. Even if the antagonist has been known all along, new information is revealed about them to make the task the protagonist faces seem insurmountable.

Two additional plot moments occur at this time:

The All Is Lost Moment: When the protagonist gives up hope and feels that winning is impossible. This leads to…

The Dark Night of the Soul: Where the protagonist hits rock bottom and reevaluates what they know, think, believe, feel, and what they’re going to do about it.

In cliché speak, the end of Act Two is the darkness before the dawn. It all becomes too much and the protagonist feels like giving up, but finds the strength to carry on. They realize the only way to succeed is to face the problem head on and do what they’ve been scared to do all along.

(Here’s more on Story Structure: The Act Two Disaster)

Act Three: The end, where it all gets real.



The ending is the last 25% of the novel. The protagonist decides to take the problem to the antagonist. They’ll use all the things they’ve learned over the course of the novel to outwit and defeat that antagonist.

Both sides battle it out, and the protagonist wins (usually), then the plot wraps up and readers see the new world the protagonist lives in, and the new person they’ve become after undergoing these experiences.

The final battle with the antagonist doesn’t have to be an actual battle, just two conflicted sides trying to get what they want. 

The protagonist gathers themselves and any allies, and challenges the antagonist. There is often a journey involved, either metaphorical or literal, as a final test.

(Here’s more on Does Your Novel Just…Stop? What Makes a Good Ending)

Act Three typically contains three key plot moments:

The Act Three Plan


After digging deep down and finding the emotional strength to continue, the protagonist puts a new plan into action, using everything they’ve learned over the course of the novel. They finally know who they are and what they’re supposed to do, and they set off to accomplish that.

The plan is usually ambitious, clever, and unexpected, even though it also feels inevitable. This is what the protagonist and the supporting characters were meant to do all along.

The plan may or may not be revealed to readers at this point. Often the actual details are kept secret, even though the general idea is mentioned to help drive the plot forward.

The plan doesn’t have to be something that will actually work if you want to surprise the protagonist in the climax and force them to think on the run. What’s important is that the protagonist thinks it’ll work.

Once the climax starts, plans can fail and the protagonist can have to revise in a hurry to succeed.

(Here’s more on Story Structure: The Act Three Plan)

The Climax


The Climax is the final showdown with the antagonist. The protagonist faces whomever or whatever has been making their life miserable for 400 pages, and because they’ve learned XYZ over the course of the novel, they win (or lose spectacularly if that’s the type of book you’re writing).

The protagonist often realizes something vital at this time, and this was what was missing in their life all along. Whatever happens, the core conflict problem is resolved.

The Climax typically has one last increase in stakes, making this final battle matter on a bigger and more personal scale. It’s not uncommon for this rise in stakes to happen after a twist or surprise.

(Here’s more on It’s Over: Getting Readers to the End and Making Them Glad They Came)

The Wrap Up


The Wrap Up is the denouement—the happily ever after, or the burning apocalypse if that's how you prefer it. It’s what the protagonist is going to do now that they’ve resolved the problem.

In essence, the final scene says, “Yes, there was a point to this novel and here it is.” It gives readers a sense of closure and reassurance that the novel was worth their time.

(Here’s more on Writing the Ending: Tying Up All the Loose Ends)

A good story structure guides writers to a strong plot, without writing it for them.


What makes any plotting structure so valuable as a tool is that these elements can be anything you want them to be. The structure is just a guide to strong storytelling, and knowing where these solid, proven turning points fall can help you decide what events need to happen to get the most out of your own plot.

Story structure also helps you find holes in your plot and places where the stakes might need to be raised. If you notice the protagonist never fails, that's a red flag that you might not have enough at stake or enough conflict driving the plot.

If you notice your protagonist never makes a choice to drive the plot forward, that indicates a reactive protagonist and a weak narrative drive (and likely a weak plot as well).

You might also realize you don’t have a solid character arc that allows your protagonist to grow (if you use a character act).

How you write the scenes and problems encountered in any story structure are all up to you.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five (or more) minutes and lay out your plot over this structure. Are you hitting the turning points when you should? Is anything out of whack? A little variation is normal, but if your Act One is half the book, that’s a red flag you have too much setup.

If This Structure Doesn’t Appeal to You, here are Five Other Common Structure Formats:


The Hero's Journey: Joseph Campbell's 17-step myth structure that outlines the journey a mythic figure (hero) undergoes on an adventure.

Michael Hauge's Six Stage Plot Structure: A variation of the Three-Act Structure that focuses on six critical elements of a plot. This one is also connected to his internal character arc structure.

Blake Snyder's Save the Cat Beat Sheets: A screenwriting format that uses 15 beats (or turning points). It's been adopted by novelists everywhere because the same basic rules apply to novels.

Joyce Sweeney’s Plot Clock: A structure divided into four quarters with various major turning points on the quadrant.

The Three-Point Structure: A stripped down process that provides an extremely basic framework to keep a story organized, without making it feel predictable or driving you crazy trying to hit specific plot points.

Which structure do you prefer? Why do you like it?

*Originally published October 2013. Last updated January 2021. 

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound

74 comments:

  1. Plot is something I still struggle with. Thanks for this very useful post!!!

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  2. I think I have a decent middle...but we'll see.

    Thanks for explaining the structure so well! I'll have to come back to this post several times!

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  3. Andrea, hope it helps! Knowing the end ahead of time helps a lot as well, since you have an end point to write toward. You don't have to know the exact details, but if you know what "winning" means for the protagonist, you can work backward and plot the steps to get there.

    Rachel, I made a template of of it. I use it for every book and lay my working synopsis into it. Very useful.

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  4. This comes at a perfect time for me, as I'm currently trying to plot out my NaNoWriMo novel! Thanks, this is very helpful :) Now, back to plotting, with a new perspective...

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  5. Tiny1, I love when that happens. The right post for the right writer. These structures will really help with NanNo planning. It'll take some of the pressure off in Nov since you'll have a solid plan to write from.

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  6. Thanks Janice, have reposted this on my writers facebook page - a timely reminder for all of those who are about to undertake NaNo

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  7. Thanks for the breakdown -especially of the final third. That's where I often get hung up.

    On a side-note, it occurred to me (after reading a breakdown of Star Wars: A New Hope in the Hero's Journey plot structure) that the first Pirates of the Caribbean also uses a Hero's Journey structure. (Just thought that's a fun thing to think about.)

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  8. This is EXCELLENT! Thanks for taking the time to break this down into such great detail! As I read, I was both heartened and bummed. I actually have most of these milestones in my WIP, but the pace is wrong, and I'm missing some of the bridges that would make it all a tad less shallow and rushed. I have to shave what are likely info dumps posing as substance and include more true building blocks. This post will be a helpful tool.

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  9. This is great, Janice. I only plot out the major plot points you've mentioned. This is really helpful to stay focused.

    Glad you're focusing on plot this week.

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  10. This is awesome. Now, just have to DO IT! Thanks for the explanation. For my writing students and for me!!

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  11. Catherine, thanks! This would be a lot of help to NaNoers for sure.

    Chicory, the hero's journey is very popular in film, actually. It's probably the second most common novel structure as well. A lot of folks even merge the hero's journey with the three-act structure for a more well-rounded format.

    Deborah, thanks! This is great for revisions for those reasons. First drafts can fall out of our heads, and it's nice to have a structure to help us tighten our manuscripts.

    Natalie, same here. Plotting seems to be high on the list of trouble spots for a lot of writers. Folks here have asked for tips on it, writers I talk to elsewhere have as well.

    Carol, that's always the hard part, right? You can do it! Once you get a sense of how structure works with your process, it gets easier and easier to plot.

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  12. So helpful! I'm starting to plan my NaNo novel and was at a complete loss as to what to do for the actual PLOT! I usually have a decent plan of the major plot points but this year I had an idea for a novel but no idea what would actually happen in the novel. This helped a lot. I wrote all the headings out and filled them in with ideas for each one although I'm still struggling with the mid point reversal. Hopefully that will come with time, but knowing what I'll need to do when I get there makes the novel feel more manageable.

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  13. Janice, as always a great post and very timely.
    I have a question about the Act 1 problem/choice. Does the protag have to choose the right path by the end of the first act? Can choosing the wrong path set her on a course that will later force her to repeat the choice. Early on my character chooses to run rather than take the step to resolving her story problem. This choice literally sets her on a collision course with people and events that will force her to either accept her situation and resolve her problem or run away again.

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  14. Haley, that's great! Some pieces might not come to you until you start writing, and that's fine. Sometimes we only have an inkling about where the story will go, but this type of structure can help guide our thoughts as we figure it out. But your subconscious will be churning as you write, and the midpoint reversal will come to you eventually. Even if it's something you flesh out more on the second draft after you see how the full story unfolds. It's totally okay to fill in parts on the second (or third) draft.

    Lynn, sure, they can be wrong. The point is the choice to move forward that puts them on the core conflict path. Even if that choice is wrong, it leads them one step closer. And if she runs and that's her flaw, forcing her to choose again works well for her character arc. Until she learns to stand and face her problems she can't win. She might take a long time to get there but that wrong choice does ultimate set her on the path she needs to be on.

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  15. As usual, some great insight. Thanks for putting it together. And a good link to that Beat Sheet spreadsheet, which is definitely a useful tool!

    I can see myself visiting this post a few times. :)

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  16. Hey Janice! Thanks so much for focusing on plot this week. This post is right on time, and as always VERY helpful. Now I'm off to fill in the blanks. Wish me luck!

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  17. Hi Janice
    Great post, thanks.
    I've moaned before on here about my lack of plotting skills! I've also mentioned being a pantser, so your idea of using this during the editing stage is an excellent one!
    You've described all three stages as 'typically' featuring three key points. Do you ensure that you feature all of them, or does it change depending on the book? For instance, in my latest, the protagonist spends much of the book running blindly from disaster to disaster, so the planning part of act three never really occurs. He's learnt a great deal, and become someone who can handle the crazy stuff, but still heads to his show down with the antagonist pretty much unprepared, mostly due to the time constraints enforced by the evil dude's plans! I'm not sure it's a loss, but I'd appreciate your thoughts :)
    thanks
    Mike

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  18. Adrian, the beat sheet is quite helpful. I recommend picking up the Save the Cat book s as well if you like the sheet. It'll give you a lot more info on how it works.

    Marti, good luck!

    Michael, there's flexibility in any structure, but even in a scene by scene basis the "beginning middle and ending" format still applies. So I find it very helpful to approach my acts the same way. But I hate to say "YOU MUST DO THIS" when you can structure your novel however you see fit. It's your novel.

    However, if your protagonist is just reacting to events in the climax and not actually driving the plot, that's usually a red flag that you might have a reactive protagonist. Even if things are moving faster than he can keep up with, he should still be making plans and acting.

    And remember, "planning" doesn't necessarily mean sitting around a table with allies and coming up with ideas. It might be one guy taking two minutes to scope out an area and figure out how he's going to break into a building. His planning might be on the fly trying to deal with things as they tumble out of control. Does that help?

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  19. Hi Janice
    That does, and it's very useful, thanks. The challenge now is to keep the sense of pace and action, but give him those moments of proper conscious choice.
    Having said that, I tend to write quickly, and then notice things I've done once I start the edit, so maybe he's planned more than I thought, :)
    Thanks again. What is the thinking behind a reactive protagonist being a bad thing? Is it the sense that readers will find it difficult to relate to someone who doesn't make the choices that affect the outcomes?
    cheers
    Mike

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  20. Michael, a reactive protagonist tends to feel like the story is happening despite them. Like you could take them out and nothing in the story would change because they weren't actually doing anything to make story happen. Plus, if all they do is react, the story can feel aimless and low stakes because there's nothing to be gained. No goal. Low stakes. Stuff is just happening willy nilly for no clear reason.

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    1. I think you described the problem with my current WIP. The only thing my protag is doing is running around the woods getting lost. She's not really engaged in the machinations of the antagonists. This is probably a main reason why the ending isn't working for me either. Oh well! Time to rewrite! :)

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  21. Yep, that makes sense
    Thank you :)

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  22. Thank you for doing this on plotting. As a panster, I am weaker in plotting on paper. It still lives in my head though. I just need to transition to a little more paper. I loved the links to the beat sheet. I am half-way through my WIP and planning on writing for NaNoWriMo to finish. I know I can only accomplish this if I have a solid, firm plan. This is exactly what I needed!

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    1. Awesome! You can always use these during revisions as well. I know a few pantsers who do that and love it. They get the story down how they like to write, then use the structures to help organize and tighter the story.

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  23. This is a little off topic of this post, but I can't get over how great your whole blog is. I've been reading post after post for the past few days, and they've all helped me figure out so many things I was struggling with, especially plotting. No other advice has "clicked" with me the way yours has. Can't wait to keep learning more from you!

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    1. Aw, thanks so much. You just made my day. It's certainly a labor of love for me and hearing it's helping my fellow writers means a lot to me.

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  24. Awesome! Thank you so much for this. It explains the three act method in the details that I need.

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  25. Hey Janice! I was wondering, whats your opinion on the four-act structure suggested by Larry Books in Story Engineering?

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    1. It's a solid structure, very similar to the three act structure (which really is four acts, since act two is broken into two parts), with a solid conceptual look at what happens to move the story from beginning to middle to ending. I think it could really appeal to those who want a little structure to plot, but still want a lot of room to let the story grow organically. It gives you some nice turning points and structure to frame a novel, but still lots of freedom to write.

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  27. Hello! First, thank you so much for all of these articles! I'm having a major issue though. I've been studying the three act structure for a couple of days because my writing has always had this issue of coming up short and thanks to this article, plus some other images, I now know why my writing always comes up so short!

    For the sake of example, I'm going to use this picture as a visual example of what I'm talking about. ( http://www.cod.edu/people/faculty/pruter/film/three-act.png )

    Now, here's my issue. I always have a good Opening, I always know my inciting event, I have a Plot Point 1 Disaster, I have a Mid Point Disaster, a Plot Point 2 Disaster, a Climax, and an ending.

    Throughout all of this, I've discovered that I have this giant area of empty space between Plot Point 1 - Mid Point and Mid Point - Plot Point 2. Some times I'll struggle in the area between Plot Point 2 - Climax, but I can usually come up with something.

    Can you talk to me / write an article about filling in these 3 areas? Thanks!

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    1. Glad it helped!

      I'll be talking about all those points in upcoming posts, though I can certainly cover some of it now.

      The giant empty space is the middle, which is often a trouble spot since it's 50% of the novel. That's where all the story and struggle happens. If you know your major plot points through there, you should have enough to keep things moving. If it's not, that could indicate those points aren't strong enough or fleshed out enough yet to carry the story.

      You might try looking to see what those plot points are doing for your story. The midpoint disaster should be carrying the first half of the middle, and dealing with that disaster should carry the second half and get you to the climax. Plot point one forces the protagonist to make a decision and create a plan that leads them to the midpoint. If you don't have enough steps there, or enough conflict and stakes, that could be your issue. Subplots are also woven through the main conflict in the middle, so if you have no subplots, that could be another issue making the middle feel light.

      After the midpoint, the protagonist will need to come up with a new plan and act in a way that leads them to the end of act two (the dark moment). This second half is all about trying and failing while the bad guys gain the upper hand. It ends with "failure" and things look the bleakest, and the protagonist must come up with a major plan to solve the problem and that will drive the story into the climax.

      Talking about this abstractly can be tough, so if you'd like to email me we can discuss specifics and see what's going on there. My email is under the "contact" tab.

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  28. Thanks, Janice! I've had characters, motivation, and setting for my WIP for a while - but have had no idea what that meant for the plot. Reading this helped me organize all my plot points into a workable structure. It's been incredibly helpful. Thank you!

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    1. Most welcome, I'm glad it helped :) I love this structure.

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  29. just wanted you to know that I returned to this blog again. So helpful, Janice. I love your blog!!!

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  30. This is EXACTLY what I needed!! The perfect thing to get my novel moving fast :)

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    1. Cool! Sending good writing vibes your way.

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  31. Thank you so much for this article. I just plotted my novel with it, and it's clarified some of the details for me.

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    1. Most welcome, and I'm glad it helped. I love this structure. It just makes it easier to see the big picture of the story.

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  32. This is amazingly written and extremely detailed and helpful, especially for beginners. Your blog has become an immensely valuable resource for both my sister and I who are embarking on our first novels!

    When I was at the planning stage of my novel a few months ago now, I really, really struggled with getting my head around the three act structure, as well as how everything else (character arc, conflict, scenes etc) 'plugged' into it. As a graphic designer I have attempted to make a graphic that showed this visually (see http://twincreatives.com/2015/09/27/planning-the-bigger-picture/), and it may or may not be helpful to others in a similar situation. :) It would be fabulous to hear what you think of it and if you have any comments or suggestions!

    Thanks again for the article.

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    1. Thanks, and I'm glad you guys find it helpful.

      Nice graphics! I think they'll be very helpful for visual learners. It breaks it down well and shows the pieces in action.

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  33. I normally dont choose to comment on these but this was so helpful I had to say thanks!

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  34. Hi Janice
    Thanks so much! This has been so valuable that I've been reading, re-reading, taking notes and comparing to my first draft story for literally 3 hours straight! I've also tweeted about how succinct and helpful your article is and emailed a fellow writer with a link. I am such a panster, and this reminds me how important it is for me to plan more. I just can't thank you enough.
    Lou

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    1. Thanks so much! If planning will help you, go for it, but if you're a pantser and it hurts your creativity, it's okay to pants that first draft and then revise with structure in mind. Whatever works best for you. Of course, if you realize a little (or a lot of) structure helps, go ahead and use it.

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  35. I'm finding this really useful, but is there any way that this could be altered to have four acts? I'm just finding that I can't fit as many things in as I would like to, and a lot of it is crucial to the plot. I should add that this is the first book in a quadrilogy, so I'm not certain that every element of this structure will quite work for me.

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    1. Sure. Technically it is four acts, since act two is really broken down into A (the ramp up) and B (the ramp down). Each section is roughly 25% of the novel. You might also look at Michael Hauge's six point plot plan (the link is there), and see if that fits your story better Same basic principles, but it's a little looser.

      And if some elements don't work, skip them. Maybe look at the structure as it apples to your quadrilogy and adjust the turning points from there. Just make sure you also have a solid per book structure as well, since you don't want to leave readers feeling like they got an incomplete story. :)

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  36. I commend you for this article. Cleared the three act structure for me. Well done!

    Love your site!

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  37. Each morning I look in my inbox to see what words of wisdom and help will come from you. I've been devouring your posts and applying them to my vey first manuscript. Yesterday I ordered your book so I can benefit from you experience whenever I need. Thank you.

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  38. Hi Janice. I've been trying to wtite for years but just now I've really put myself on it. Love your post, it is so clarifying. I want to buy your book, that's why I have to ask (bad experiences on this before)... This article about the 3 act structure: you wrote it right? I mean is not just copy paste from another book with a couple of examples... (I ask because the way you explain really connects with my way of learning and by now I've bougth several unuseful books). Thanks so much! (P.S. I guess it does not exist in Spanish, right?)

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    1. Yes, I wrote it, and my Planning Your Novel book expands on it significantly. The entire book is FULL of examples. Every single thing I ask you to do I did myself with three different stories types I uses as examples. For the larger exercises (like writing a synopsis) I only used one just to save on space. :)

      Correct, no Spanish version.

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    2. Thanks so much for your answer. BTW, I asked because I found the exact transcription + translation of your blog (parts of it) in the Spanish blog "excentrya.es" but no reference to you as the author. (I might be wrong since I didn't check the whole blog, hope they have your permission). For reference: the 3 acts structure article.

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    3. Ah. It's possible they asked to translate it and I said yes, but I always ask for credit and a link to the blog in those cases. It's also possible they copied it and translated it without permission. Thanks for letting me know. I'll check it out.

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  39. This is very helpful. Thank you.

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  40. Ok I'm a pantser (and a horribly procrastinating one at that) so I'm not confident enough to finish what I start, I can get from point A to point B just fine, getting from start to finish is another problem entirely. Would it help to make a three 'act' structure within each act of the plot?

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    1. If you're a pantser, an full outline might be more structure than you like, but I think a general plot point outline might help. Try outlining (even loosely) the point a to b per act and see how that works. If you discover that outlining is working for you, do a little more each time until you find the right balance. You might be a mini-pantser, where you like to know the immediate next chapter or two, but you don't want to know the whole story before you write. Outlining a chunk at a time as you guy could work yo keep you motivated and writing without getting overwhelmed or feel the book is "done" just because you know what happens (common with pantsers).

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  41. A very helpful article, thanks. I tend to write from the seat of my pants, but have learned --the hard way-- that following a loose outline and plot structure can save my editing budget down the line. I recently featured a post on my blog with 5 key plotting techniques, which you might find interesting. http://catehogan.com/how-to-write-a-novel-plot-structures/

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  42. Bonnie Alston7/09/2017 12:16 AM

    A thousand thank yous for this article. I found it incredibly useful. I am familiar with the three act structure but somehow your description was clearer and more descriptive and I was able to use it to map out my story line while answering all the questions I needed to address. I was able to take that outline and break it down into chapters and what would go into each chapter. You have helped me immensely. Again, a thousand thank yous.

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    1. Most welcome :) I'm glad I was able to make it click for you.

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  43. Janice, have you studied the five act structure of Menander?

    Aristotle analysed plot into desis (tying) and lysis (loosing up).

    How does a binary give a five act? A French Classics writer came to this answer: the desis-lysis structure is repeated "fractal like" on three levels, giving 8 basic parts.

    Of these, the internal six parts reduce to three acts, because each or the internal three acts is running a desis and a lysis in parallel - as one thing is resolved another thing gets more complex at exact same time.

    1+6+1=8 -> 1+3+1=5

    I have not read his analysis of Menander's plays in full yet, I'd need to read the plays first.

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    1. I have not, but the basic story structure can be broken into any number of acts of sections.

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  44. As I read your Act I, it seems this is in The Hobbit far less than the first 25 %. Act I problem would be meeting the trolls.

    In the Magician's Nephew, Act I problem would be Digs getting to the Wood between the worlds and figuring out how to use the rings, act II would begin when they get to Charn - also less than first 25 %.

    Or am I getting your three act structure wrong, or is it not the applicable one?

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    1. Story structure formats are just guides to help writers, they're not fixed templates. It's not exact. 25% is a general guide, and the problem can come earlier or later. The average modern story has "the beginning" in the first roughly 25%.

      Those are also older stories, and writing styles change over the years. 100 years ago, exposition and a ton of telling and telegraphing were all the rage. These days, those are considered "bad writing." I haven't read either of them in decades so I don't remember enough to know where those moments fall.

      So no, you're not getting it wrong, but not every book is going to adhere perfectly to any structure--except that it will have a beginning, middle, and ending. Maybe those stories have a smaller beginning setup than what's common today, so they're more 15% vs 25%. But the same general structure should still apply, even if the ratios are different.

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  45. Actually, the ratio is not all that different.

    I did a double check.

    Last thing before they get to Charn is on page 49, last page of story is 211, detract 6 from either, since story starts on page 7, 211:43=4.76 ~ 4.77. So, if less than first 25 %, more than first 20 %.

    I'd like to know a bit how you feel about act structure of Prince Caspian. To me, Act II would be mostly what some would term "info dump", but continues to when Pevensies have been shot at by Telmarines and bear has been eaten. So it begins at the point where Trumpkin starts telling his story.

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  46. Hi Janice. I applied the 3 Act structure to my current manuscript, and whaddayaknow, it fits! Whew. Now to apply some of the things we learned at the Florida SCBWI conference. Nice meeting you. Thanks again.

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    1. Yay! Good to know you're right on target structure-wise. Nice meeting you, too!

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  47. Well if you want to look at the best way to set it out, in my opinion, there's a link below to the 'three act structure' table. The beginning should be about a fifth of your novel, and the overall aim of it is to introduce us to the conflict, main characters and story world, and get us caring about your character's situation.

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    1. That's around where the inciting event occurs, so that sounds about right. It's all essentially the same thing from a storytelling perspective, it's just how different writers decide to structure and write it.

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  48. I always learn something from your posts. In my former life as an elementary teacher, I read books to students primarily to get them interested in reading. While I still read for enjoyment, I pay so much more to the structure of what I'm reading.

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    1. It's an occupational hazard as a writer :) Sometimes it's hard just to read for fun and ignore the "writing" part of a book.

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