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Story Structure: 3-Act Structure

One of the most commonly taught and used story structures in the 3-Act Structure. In this post I’ll break down each act and what should be in it.

Act 1 – The Beginning

Act one compromises about the first 25% of the story and has three main parts.

  • Introduction: The introduction should establish who the main characters are and what their “normal” life looks like at that point in time.
  • Inciting Incident: The inciting incident presents a situation that will prove to be a catalyst for change and which will set the story in motion. In a romance novel, this is usually the meet-cute.
  • Plot Point 1: This first major plot point will introduce the central conflict and present a call to action for the character. The character(s) then react to the inciting incident and call to action, usually accepting the call and setting themselves on the path of the story and character arcs.

Act 2: The Middle

Act two compromises about the middle 50% of the story and contains the bulk of the plot.

  • Confrontation: During the confrontation, the main character faces the first obstacle to achieving his or her desire or goal. In a romance novel this is often something that will prevent a real relationship or keep the main character’s apart, either physically or emotionally.
  • The midpoint: At the midpoint, the main character faces the central conflict in some way. The realization causes a change in the character. This is often a revelation about the self, information about another character, shocking news, reflection on the main conflict, etc.
  • Rising action: During the rising action, the stakes must rise for the main character, building up to the central conflict he or she must face. This is usually achieved through subplots and new information about the central conflict.
  • The second plot point: This is the highest point of tension. It is a crisis that makes the desired ending seem impossible. This should use high emotion to engage the reader and make them concerned for the character. This MUST be believable enough to make the reader think a happy ending may not be possible. This should be big enough that it can’t be resolved easily.

Act 3: The End

Act three compromises the last 25% of the story and contains the worst moment for the characters as well as the resolution or climax and the final ending.

  • Pre-climax/darkest night: In this blackest moment, the character faces the possibly of not achieving their goal during a final clash with the antagonist and deals with the fallout of the crisis The character may realize a new goal that will help them move past the crisis (often alone).
  • Resolution/Climax: This is the final moments of the main conflict where it is resolved by providing an answer to the main problem/conflict. This is normally a single scene, but may extend to several scenes if the resolution/climax is complicated or involves interactions with multiple characters.The main conflict’s resolution MUST be believable and not a simple misunderstanding. The solution should be real and still have an element of risk. The benefits of taking the risk should outweigh staying safe.
  • Denouement:This final ending fulfills all promises to the reader. Make sure to tie up loose ends, answer questions, underscore the theme, in order to leave the reader satisfied.

There is, of course, room to make changes or try new tactics within a 3-Act story structure, but it is still important to make sure you hit all the main elements in some fashion.

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Going beyond familiar story structures

Most of us are familiar with the 3-act structure, the hero’s journey, and the classic structure. They work well for many stories, but occasionally another structure is better suited.

When choosing the structure of your story, don’t immediately go to the ones you’re familiar with

Classic: Consists of 4 main sections.

1) Begin with conflict, or throw the character into a bad situation as soon as possible. This might include a life or death situation, the protagonist meeting two love interests back to back, discovering dangerous secret powers, etc.

2) Nearly all actions or choices make matters worse. Don’t give your character a break through this section. Pile on complications and conflict.

3) The hopeless, dark moment. Convince the reader the story might not end well with deep, emotional conflict that doesn’t have an easy solution.

4) Let the hero succeed. Once you’ve put your character through the ringer, give him the spark of inspiration or light at the end of the tunnel that leads them toward a satisfying ending.

In Media Res: Start in the middle of something.

It doesn’t have to be a gun fight, but it does have to have conflict and grab the reader’s attention. The HOOK is extremely important in this structure. It then follows a pattern of rising action, explanation/backstory, climax, falling action, and resolution.

The Hero’s Journey: Begins with a call to adventure/action.

The MC then meets a threshold where their transformation begins. The MC then faces challenges and tribulations, meeting a mentor and one or more helpers along the way. The MC then faces an abyss/dark moment that symbolizes death and rebirth. They should have some kind of revelation at this point that spurs real transformation and leads to atonement. The character then returns to regular life.

Seven-Point: The seven-point structure is similar to the 3-Act structure

It has added structural elements the writers is expected to follow more closely. It consists of: The hook, plot turn 1 (and introduction of conflict), pinch point 1 (apply pressure to protagonist via antagonist usually), midpoint (MC responds to conflict with action), pinch point 2 (more pressure that makes achieving the goal less likely or harder), plot turn 2 (story turns toward resolution), and the resolution (the climax).

Snowflake: Start with one central idea and add to it.

Once you have your central idea, keep adding more ideas until you have a full plot arc. This structure is based on expansion of a central theme or idea. It starts very generally and becomes more specific as the details are developed. This can be very structured (start with one sentence, expand to a paragraph, summarize each character, etc.) or be approached more fluidly.

Three-Act: Based on Greek storytelling/theater.

Specific plot elements happen in each act. Act 1: Introduce characters and setting, present the inciting incident. Act 2: Introduce a problem that grows more complex as the story progresses. Act 3: Raise the stakes, characters face challenges and growth, protagonist finds a solution.

Disturbance/Doorway: Something disturbs the character’s regular life early in the story.

Doorway 1 pushes the MC further into the story. There is no turning back once it happens. Doorway 2 brings the MC to the final battle. Again, there it no return, and it often leads to disaster before a resolution is reached.

Five Milestones: Focuses on five main plot points and leaves the detail to be more flexible.

1) The setup introduces characters and the world.

2) The inciting incident introduces the main plot concept.

3) The 1st Slap sets the stakes and introduces the larger plot. The conflict is usually external at this point.

4) The 2nd Slap makes everything worse by adding more layers of conflict and barrier to the MC reaching their goal.

5) The climax should be tied to the inciting incident and wrap up the plot arc in an exciting and memorable way. It should then naturally flow into a resolution.

Narrative: Focuses mainly on story and plot.

It is less restrictive on when and where story/plot elements occur. It also uses the Fitchean Curve of crises driving the rising action to the climax, then falling action leading to the resolution. Exposition is limited and the story focuses more on the action and crises.

For some film examples of unorthodox story structures, check out this list!