The Toolbox

Toolbox Lite: How to Get Started On Your Three-Act

Phew! We explained all the essential elements of the 3-Act… Now what?

We like to write out a paragraph about the beginning and a paragraph about the ending first. For instance:

Act One: Jenny is desperate to get off Mars (goal) before the planet explodes, killing everyone on it (stakes), but all the jets have been commissioned by conspiratorial bad guys (obstacle), and her best friend, a cute boy, has recently been injured and can’t travel (heightened conflict, plus introducing important secondary character.) Another thing to know about Jenny? She feels it’s her fault her father died in the Mars mines. She won’t let the rest of her family die, too! (Inner conflict: misplaced guilt.) We open with a major earthquake (inciting incident) followed by scientists reporting that the planet will explode in 20 days (urgency!) We see a scene that shows what life on Mars is like, and Jenny visits the cute guy with the injury, who tells her he would rather she leave and live, than stay with him and die. (Sniff sniff!)

Act Three: Jenny finds some way to face the bad guys, admit her love for her injured best friend, save herself and her family from the destruction of her planet, and most importantly: learn the truth behind her father’s death. It wasn’t, in fact, her fault—it was the conspiratorial bad guys’ fault all along! She is able to let go of some of her guilt and realize she deserves love. They flee Mars (or save it from implosion?), and she kisses the boy. The reader cries and rejoices!

Now we know where we want to start, and where we want to end up. Filling in the middle is the tricky part, and Act Two is always the longest act. Usually what we do here is list about a half page to a full page of bullet points of hurdles that could happen in Act Two: mistakes the character might make, potential twists in the road, possible awesome settings and scenes (e.g. “there’s gotta be some scene where they make out in the Mars zoo and somehow all the Martians kept imprisoned there escape and wreck havoc!”), and so on. Finally, we start looking at which of these elements we think will gel the best, and what order they’d best fall in. You want to slowly increase the drama, rather than blow your wad too early. You never want to make things too easy for your character. Keep in mind that your Act Two will surely evolve as you actually write the book—this document is as much a tool as a road map. It’s a way to play around with ideas and push yourself to get more imaginative. It can be scary to have your character make a giant mistake—but if you write it out in bullet point format first, and place it in the context of your other ideas, you might feel braver to actually go there when you write the book!

The last step? Let it simmer. Take a little bit of time to brew on your 3-Act and talk to people about it, bounce ideas off of them, trouble-shoot questions that arose as you wrote it (like, How do people live on Mars??? WHY is it imploding? What is the bad guys’ motivation?) Remember that some of these questions will begin to answer themselves as you write. If you’re excited enough about the story and your main character, the rest will come.
Finally, never forget this handy little truth about narrative—and life: STORY and INTEREST emerge when we have DIFFICULTY pursuing what we want, and the reward comes not in getting what we wanted but in SELF-DISCOVERY—coming to understand at last what our deepest buried needs are. The 3-Act is our way of setting up that difficulty and figuring out how to reach that self-discovery. The shortest distance between two points may be a straight line, but the most exciting and rewarding path is always the curvy one with unexpected twists and challenges. Enjoy the journey!


One thought on “Toolbox Lite: How to Get Started On Your Three-Act

  1. Great post! In your example above, you state that the story begins with the inciting incident. But what if the real inciting incident starts later, say at the end of Act One which sets up the rest of the book? In my WIP, the protag’s realization that she’s been lied to and set up doesn’t happen until the end of Act One. The rest of the book is her getting revenge and making the bad guys pay for their crimes.


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