The Toolbox

The Toolbox: Time to Get Your (3) Act Together

All right, kiddos. So you’ve got a kicking book idea and you’ve written a killer first page.

Now all you need is another 280+ pages and you’re ready to roll!

No problem, right? Wrong. If you’re like most writers, you struggle with planning, plotting, and maintaining tension. Plotting a book is one of the most challenging aspects of writing—and ultimately one of the most meaningful, since plot is what keeps readers turning the pages.

So in honor of our third official PLL Toolbox entry, we figured we’d introduce you to one of our favorite threesomes: the 3-Act Story Structure. Don’t be intimidated by our formal name for it—the three acts are easy to remember. They’re otherwise known as your three best friends: Beginning, Middle, and End! The reason we like to break these down, though, is to make sure all of the elements cohere—it’s the adult upgrade for all of those grade school composition classes.

Thinking of a book in terms of its three acts can help you determine whether your book has enough action; it can also help you decide where the action should go. It’s a way to experiment with your ideas, to tease out the issues, and brainstorm more content. Best yet? A 3-Act breakdown will help you figure out how to make your story hotter, more exciting, more urgent, and generally WAY BETTER!

Sound too good to be true? Read on.

1. Act One, The Beginning:

Act I essentials:

  1. MAKE AN ENTRANCE. Introduce the major characters: the protagonist, any secondary or tertiary characters who will help define the protagonist. These will likely include a love interest (or two), a close friend, some sort of nemesis, and perhaps a few others, like a snooping neighbor or unpredictable sibling or wise elder.
  2. WANT SOMETHING, BAD! Establish the goal: what does the hero want? Note: it’s okay if this goal, this want, this desire, is totally misguided. In fact, all the better! If we all were super mature about the things we wanted, life would be a lot less interesting. Fiction gets good when people start going after things they want deeply, but are profoundly wrong for them. That’s the only way they can learn what’s really right for them! No girl goes for the good boy first. You’ve gotta pursue the bad boy in order to understand what makes the good boy so great!
  3. EEP! THE “OR ELSE” QUESTION. Equally important to the goal, are the stakes: what terrible thing will happen if she doesn’t get to her goal? Why does getting this goal feel like such a big deal? How you can make it an even BIGGER deal? (For instance, perhaps your character believes she must go to prom, or else be labeled a loser. What if instead, not going to prom would also mean getting kicked out of high school…and perishing in a zombie apocalypse?) Always ask yourself: how can the stakes be higher? Is this a life-or-death story? How can I make the essential concerns of the book more literal, more pressing?
  4. D’OH! Nothing’s ever easy in books—if it were, you’d have no story! Establish the central conflict of the novel: what major external obstacle is preventing the hero from getting what she wants in the first place? (Note that an external obstacle is something that exists in the “real” world—a deadly plague, an impassable desert, a vicious mean girl. Internal obstacles—the fears and anxieties that keep the main character from achieving his/her main goal—are also important, but should remain primarily unconscious.)
  5. BAM! You need an actual event to “get the ball rolling.” This usually entails some kind of change, and is known in literary circles as the inciting incident. Think: a cute boy moves to town; a girl discovers she’s growing wings; a deadly epidemic breaks out. Accidents, funerals/death scenes, and shocking discoveries tend to make for great inciting incidents. Always think about how you would show this change in a scene.

Act One should generally stay within the first two to six chapters. Remember, you’re getting the ball rolling, and the idea is to create momentum, not to lolligag around establishing normalcy. While there may be some information we need to learn early on, we don’t want to just read about everyday life—we want to read about drama, intrigue, comedy, heartbreak. We want surprise. We want irreversible actions and unforeseen consequences. So, get us grounded in those first few chapters, and then quickly get us ungrounded and send us flying!

2. Act Two, The Middle

Act II essentials:

  1. TAKE A LEAP. Now that your character has a goal, she needs hurdles. You must depict the main character(s) confronting a series of increasingly difficult challenges on the path toward the thing he or she wants. These challenges are external; but over time the protagonist should slowly realize that her central obstacle is internal, too. Only by overcoming the “internal” obstacle can she triumph over the final challenge. For example: Lizzie is desperate to get to the prince’s ball. But first she must pick lentils out of the ashes/make a dress from rags/go through a haunted forest/sneak past the lions/face down the evil queen in a dramatic confrontation in which she discovers that her grief over her dead father is the biggest thing that has been holding her back all along!
  2. BE YOUR OWN WORST ENEMY. It’s almost always better if the character inadvertently creates her own obstacles, or if the obstacles are somehow inherent to the methods the character takes to pursue the want. Characters doing everything as they should can get boring. Characters making giant mistakes? That then lead them into even stickier situations, that cause them to do even crazier things? That’s storytelling!
  3. NO PAIN, NO GAIN. Make things harder! Raise the stakes continuously. Make sure each hurdle in the book is higher than the previous one, or even more difficult to overcome. If all the major stuff happens first, then your story will decrease in tension. You want to slowly and steadily build tension, not release it. You can also make the stakes themselves—the OR ELSE—worse and worse. Not only will she succumb to a zombie apocalypse if she doesn’t overcome the next challenge, but also her own grandmother is now a day away from turning into one of the deadliest zombies of all!
  4. SHIT HITS THE FAN! You heard us! Too often, this beat is referred to traditionally as the climax, but that word tends to make people think that it should be exciting and fulfilling and satisfying. NOPE! The climax of a plot is when things get the craziest, and the worst! This is the moment that signals the end of Act Two, and ideally it all goes down at a major culminating event, where both the external challenges and the internal challenges should come to a head. Things should look hopelessly difficult for your character here; the reader should be convinced that the protagonist can’t possibly succeed!! The protagonist might finally give up the pursuit of his/her ill-advised goal, feeling totally defeated and ruined. In addition to feeling ruined, it’s good if your main character also ends up broke, injured, or in some other way externally damaged. Funerals (again), prom, a party or major competition the character has been preparing for all along, Christmas dinner, arriving at the destination to which the character has been travelling all along—all of these constitute excellent culminating events. Just think of all the chaos that can go down, all the fights, the regrettable words and actions, the messy confrontations!

If Act Two were represented geometrically, it would look like a series of stairs going up: every time we think that the protagonist is making progress forward, s/he encounters a further obstacle s/he must overcome. The result is a constant heightening of tension. Right at the end of Act Two the character reaches the top of the stairs, only to realize there’s no floor. They come crashing suddenly and immediately down.

 3. Act Three, The End

Act Three essentials:

  1. AHA MOMENT! Now that the protagonist has completely and utterly failed at her mission, the good news is, she’s free to be disillusioned of its importance. This is key! Because now she’s open to alternatives, and she is able to see THE TRUTH that’s been hidden all along! Maybe prom wasn’t so important. Maybe instead, she just had to uncover that the seed of popularity is EVIL and that it was the prom queen who was behind the zombie apocalypse all along!
  2. KILL THE MONSTER. THE MONSTER IS YOU! Now that she sees the truth, she can tackle it head on and defeat it, realizing that she’s had the essential skills to kill it all along, and that the biggest obstacle of all, the meanest monster, was her own internal conflict. (Her desire to be liked! Her guilt over something she couldn’t really control! Her lack of self-confidence! Kill them all!)
  3. A TWIST OF SOMETHING SWEET. Add in a little unexpected twist—perhaps resolve one of your subplots in such a way that helps the protagonist in the slaying of her own inner beast—or, like, have her realize the prom queen’s tiara is also zombie-kryptonite!
  4. REDEMPTION. Time to get all Shawshank on us! Show that the main character has grown as a result of her journey. She has gotten over her internal and external conflicts, and although not everything will be perfect, we know now that she’s gonna be okay, because she believes in herself. The best way to do this is to have her do something meaningful for someone else, or say the thing that’s been impossible, until now, to say. Weddings, funerals (again!), graduations, and quiet reflective moments can all work as ways of illustrating your character’s ultimate change.

10 thoughts on “The Toolbox: Time to Get Your (3) Act Together

  1. Love this, especially the “shit hits the fan bit”. When I write up my plots (into a nifty little three-act spreadsheet because I’m *that* cool) and get to the end of Act 2 and am not entirely sure what’s going to happen, I tend to end up with “shit gets real”. 🙂

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