Find out how to use a three-act construction to put in writing a narrative readers can't put down
If you're struggling to write stories your readers will love, you are not alone. Fortunately, there is a tool you can use to write stories that actually work: three-act structure.
Every story begins as an idea. The work of an author is to translate this idea, in all its complexity, into a story.
Therein lies the joy and agony of writing.
Ideas always feel fully formed in our head, but when we sit down to put them into words, the battle begins. Ideas don't just turn into narrative form, complete with perfect plot points. The ideas resist our efforts and soon the storytelling process becomes torture.
Fortunately, there are strategies out there you can use to overcome the tenacity of an idea and successfully rise to the challenge of writing a great story.
One of the best strategies you can use is the three-act structure.
Why the structure of the story matters (and how the three act structure helps)
The idea of a three-file structure is so widespread that it may seem clichéd and therefore undesirable. But this structure is as important to a great story as wheels are to a car, and no one takes tires for clichés!
In the same way, story structure is perhaps the most powerful – and subtlest – means of creating a plot and telling a story that your readers cannot put down. And not just for novelists. Screenwriters are known for using the three-act structure in their writing process. Above all, screenwriting guru Robert McKee offers an unbelievable depth of the subject in his indispensable book Story.
It also comes in handy that having a great story structure solves most writer's block problems. When we are blocked, we may complain that the words are not coming or the characters are not showing up to us. We see our problems in the fact that we are not able to create personalities or conjure up the right vocabulary.
You are in the process of figuring out how a well-designed three-act structure will solve storytelling problems such as incoherent character development, aimless world building, and more.
If you want to translate your persistent story idea into a workable novel, pay attention to the essentials. Study the structure and use it to plan, draft, and revise your story.
An editor's view of the three-act structure in stories
In his insightful book, The Story Grid, book editor Shawn Coyne shares examples of stories that worked and stories that didn't. Anything that works follows a clear, familiar structure.
Each story can be divided into three parts or acts.
The first act is the STARTING HOOK.
When I sketch the first act of my book, I prefer to call it the "hook".
Because the term “beginning” invites me to write a lot of background history and worldbuilding, things that are not yet very interesting for my reader. We need to excite our reader with an important first plot point, like a "save the cat" scene that piques their interest and refuses to let go.
Notice how the label "hook" forces the writer to think in terms of what readers want. The beginning of your book is not about creating the world of your imagination or making a bold moral statement.
It's about giving your reader an incredible experience from page one.
To do this, you need to determine the status quo of your protagonist and then throw something at him that implies high stakes – something that threatens his physical, psychological and / or professional death – at him. Because of this, the main character must make a decision that illustrates how they will accept their call for adventure.
Without this point-of-no-return decision (at the end of the beginning hook) there is no adventure.
For example: In Suzanna Collins The Hunger Games the reader gets an insight into Katniss & # 39; Life and world in District 12. We also get a clear idea of what Katniss wants (to protect her sister Prim) and how the capital controls the districts with harsh consequences like the Hunger Games.
For this reason, the reader is very interested when 1) Prim's name is drawn in The Reaping and 2) Katniss volunteers as a tribute.
Your readers' time is precious, and there are many forces vying for their attention. For this reason, the first part of your story needs to be devoted entirely to attention, with exciting conflicts, stakes and character.
Act II is the MIDDLE BUILD.
To describe the middle of your book, use the word “build”. In act two, your character arcs get really interesting.
Now that you've set your characters' goals and missions in the first act, it's time to put everything to the test.
Often referred to as "ascending action," the middle build is where you challenge your characters in every possible way. It is important that they take risks and lose – at least temporarily.
Subplots that force the hero into almost impossible dilemmas also become decisive in the middle build. Act two of your story isn't just the middle of the road to the end: it's the necessary turning point at which everything you've set up in the hook has to change, often in ways that startle and make the reader think stimulates The good guys will lose.
So when you think about the middle of your book, remember to always raise the stakes. It is called “Rising Action” for a reason – conflicts should become more risky with each page so that the reader can no longer put the book down.
This death stake (physical, mental and / or professional) is being pushed to its limits.
For example: In The Hunger Games, Katniss is faced with tremendous demands as she prepares for the games. This includes an action that questions Katniss ’worldview in several ways: She has to get people to like her if she has a chance to win the games.
During the Games, Katniss' death stakes (physically) continue to rise. First, Katniss runs from a fight to the middle, where she knows she is no longer allowed to fight, which leads to her death. She drops a tracker jacker nest on The Careers and forms an alliance with Rue, who is later killed while working with Katniss to destroy The Career’s food supplies.
After Rue's death, Katniss goes from a fighter to a rebel. Changing her worldview again, she now teams up with Peeta and eventually targets the real enemy in the story – the capital – when she and Peeta decide to either die (by eating the berries) or win together.
Overall, the middle build is about building up tensions with conflicts (forces of antagonism) that not only offer external challenges, but also establish story events that force the protagonist to change his worldview.
The combination of the internal and external stories that develop into an All Is Lost moment – the lowest point of a character at the end of act two – keeps the reader engaged. If they're engaged, they'll take care of what happens to the protagonist.
Finally, Act III is the END PAYOUT.
Once again, Coyne provides a perfect term to describe how a story should end: Payoff.
During the chaotic work of digging a story out of our imaginations, it can be easy to generalize key moments. This is especially true at the end. It's not bad having an ending in mind when you write, but it can go wrong if the ending you planned doesn't include a payout.
In the middle of the story, an author makes promises to the reader. They come in the form of threats, dangers, hopes and dreams. Usually there are two promises and both are emotional. Now, in the third act, you must keep every promise.
The first is negative:
- Storytelling Promise # 1: The main character of your story has to be ready to lose everything for the goal, and he does.
This is often referred to as the "dark night of the soul" or "point of no return". The hero tries to win and fails, often faced with rejection, abandonment, torture and even death.
But there is a second promise:
- Storytelling Promise # 2: The main character's goal is an important one for humanity as a whole.
When the protagonist overcomes the dark night of the soul and somehow overcomes the point of no return to prevail in an incredible final battle against the villain of the story, the hero acquires benefits of victory that extend to everyone. Because of this, the closing of many books and films is filled with singing, dancing, and general partying. The difficult, painful work is over, all the loose ends are connected, and the vast majority of the world of story rejoices with the heroes by the end.
This is why we love the hero's journey as a story structure. In the end, finding the hero was really about blessing the people as a whole. Those of us who don't have the resources to be heroes ourselves. We celebrate heroes like Captain America in the Marvel films or Luke Skywalker in Star Wars.
In short, this is the "payoff" the reader waits for to read or see the entire book. It is the fulfillment of the story's core promises and its consequences – specifically the consequences of the main character's choices to pursue their goal and the final battles they will have to fight.
The reward of your story is the fulfillment of consequences: the consequences of your main character's choices to pursue their goal.
Many writers make the mistake of forgetting one or both of these promises when writing their ending. So remember:
- Promise # 1: Your hero must suffer the ultimate punishment for trying and failing to achieve the goal
- Promise # 2: Your hero must overcome this punishment and share the blessings of victory with all of society
This classic plot is the beating heart of some of our favorite Hollywood stories. Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Star Wars, The Avengers and many more famous stories implement the hero's journey to capture the hearts of audiences around the world.
This is the moment when the protagonist not only realizes his special gift – or what makes him unique to the story, the character who is the hero – but he dismisses him in a world he accepts as imperfect. Because of this, they are able to defeat their main opponent and grant their wish (or new wish, if that wish has changed over the course of history). If they don't change their worldview, they won't get what they want because they couldn't figure out what they need.
A character's wants and needs (also called objects of desire) go hand in hand. There is no assurance of one without attaining the other.
For example: The rules are changed in The Ending Payoff of The Hunger Games. Katniss finds Peeta and they work together and hide in a cave. Then Katniss risks her life to purchase an ointment that will save Peeta's life, and later Katniss, Peeta and Cato fight in a duel after being chased by mutants.
If Cato is dead, the games will be final if the rules are changed again. But instead of killing each other, Katniss – who understand the truth about the capital and its special gifts (brave, intelligence, daring, which make her all a rebel leader) – and Peeta swear to eat the berries together. This forces the playmakers to call their bluff.
Both Katniss and Peeta exit the games as winners – even if the games, Katniss knows, are not really over yet.
When authors use the three-act structure as followed in The Hunger Games, they produce a story with clear goals and objectives that force a main character to make crisis decisions that challenge and develop their worldview.
The three-act structure drives the plot forward with exciting conflicts and also grabs the reader with strong character arcs that unravel for the reader when the main character reacts and reacts to their external circumstances.
Only when a beginning hook full of setups ends with an honest payout will a story satisfy the reader.
Breakdown of the plot points of each act
You may find that you are defying this structural process when trying to break your story idea into three parts or acts. This is because not every act is the same length.
Also, each act contains its own mini-arc, which usually follows the five elements of Plot:
- Inciting incident
- Progressive Complication (Ascending Action)
- Moment of crisis
- Climatic choice
- Solving the crisis
These parts of your story will also be unequal. Thankfully, Coyne is a student of thousands of years of storytelling and distills the ratios like this:
“The beginning is about a quarter of the story. The middle is about half the story. The end is the last quarter of the story. Are there any stories that 25/50/25 don't break down? Absolutely. But if you took the average of every story ever told, the result would be 25/50/25. "
Here you go. Your STARTING HOOK should be about 25 percent of your story, or 20,000 words from an 80,000-word novel (standard for new writers).
Your MIDDLE BUILD, which of course involves more movement, choice, and escalation, should be around 40,000 words, or 50 percent.
And your END PAYOUT is 25 percent or 20,000 words like it was at the beginning.
Of course, these numbers vary based on the genre you choose, audience, and even if you have an established track record as an author who can sell thousands of books. When George R.R. Martin approaches his editor with a 200,000-word manuscript, the editor will grin like a child at Christmas. But if you did, you'd be laughed out of the room or, worse, ignored.
But Coyne isn't done there yet. Using this arithmetic, you can estimate the number of chapters you should write. How can you guess such a thing?
Quite simply: by writing “potato chips” chapters.
Write “Potato Chips” sections
According to Coyne, a "potato chip chapter" is about 2,000 words long – a simple length that can be consumed in 10-15 minutes.
“If you're about to go to bed reading a great novel and the scenes / chapters come in about 2,000-word chunks, you'll be telling yourself that you're only going to read one chapter. But if the narrative is really moving after you've finished one of those bites, you won't be able to help yourself reading another. If the story is told very well, you just eat the potato chip scenes all night long. "
Within each “Potato Chips” chapter, write a mini-story with its own full sheet. Make sure your character is covering an important plot point that will raise the stakes, increase the conflict, and lead to a turning point.
If you want to write an 80,000 word novel with a target chapter length of 2,000 words, you should write 40 chapters. Broken down even further, your three acts are broken down roughly as follows:
- INITIAL HOOK: 10 chapters
- MEDIUM BUILDING: 20 chapters
- END PAYOUT: 10 chapters
Of course, these are not fixed rules. Your chapter numbers can and should vary based on story details and genre. There is nothing sacred about the number 40 or even 2,000 words. I've read 2,000-word chapters that were absolutely boring, and I've read 5,000-word chapters that got me to the core. It all depends on your pace, style, and the drama of your story.
But as a general guide, a roadmap to writing a story that will delight readers almost every time, these numbers are a great starting point to start planning a book.
What about the five-act structure?
At this point you might want to point out the great British elephant in the room: William Shakespeare and his excellent use of the five act structure.
Scientists have argued whether or not there is actually a difference. Since our definition of structure is based on the decisions, risks and goals of your main characters and not on arbitrary delimitations, the three-act structure is the ideal strategy for you to act. Thus, thousands of years ago in his famous work Poetics, Aristotle outlined the structure of history, and most of his ideas have stood the test of time.
However, if you enjoy planning with five acts instead of three, don't let me stop you!
(Seriously, just write! No analysis paralysis!)
Just keep in mind that the two structures end up being technically identical and not really affecting the final product.
Use the three-act structure to improve your writing!
Don't forget the point of this learning about the structure of stories: To make a story easy to read for your reader.
It's not about impressing anyone or following any "rules". It's about unlocking the DNA that people and great stories share. It's about providing yourself with a useful tool to plan, design, revise, and reschedule if something goes wrong. It's about transforming your story from a “vague idea” into a methodical and conscious work of art.
Wherever you are in your work, take a break to examine your structure. Does it fit neatly in three identifiable "files"? Do these acts follow a five-step plot structure that increases tension and keeps the reader interested?
And are your chapters written with the reader's love of history in mind, ranging from 1,500 to 2,500 words?
These are great questions to consider as you take your story idea and start shaping it into a tangible story.
Try the three-act structure today!
What structure do you use to create your stories? Let us know in the comments.
Take fifteen minutes to think through your work in a three-act structure.
Write a sentence to describe each action: What happens at the beginning of the hook? What happens in the medium build? And what happens in the final payout?
You have no work in progress? Think of what the three acts of a story could be based on this invitation: They both danced around the elephant in the room.
When you're done, share your three sentences in the comments below and leave feedback for your co-authors!
You deserve a great book. That is why David Safford writes adventure stories that cannot be put down. Read his latest story on his website. David is a language teacher, novelist, blogger, hiker, Legend of Zelda fanatic, puzzle maker, husband, and father of two great kids.