This is the second part of a ‘how to’ on creating your own outline with a 3 Act Structure. You can find the first part here, which dealt with getting started and creating Act 1. In this part we are going to work out how to take your story to the midpoint.
To illustrate the process, we are creating an example story as we go along. I don’t promise it’s a brilliant story, but it will illustrate the 3 Act Structure.
Previously, we created endearing bogan siblings, Sarah-Jane and Joe.
For those of you who aren’t Australian, fiction featuring endearing bogans is an Aussie Tradition, like Vegemite and the ritual sacrifices needed to appease drop bears.
We mapped out Act One. In this Act, we decided we will learn about Sarah, a shy receptionist who fears creativity. But Sarah’s life gets shaken up when she finds out her brother Joe has terminal cancer. They both need money. Joe wants the money to win back the love of his estranged teenage son, who now lives with his cashed-up stepdad. Sarah wants the money to pay for some experimental new cancer treatment for Joe. Having discovered the Nobel prize for literature comes with a pretty substantial prize, they decide to write a novel together to win it. How hard can it be?
We also know that by the end of our story, Sarah will have discovered her inner creativity, left her receptionist job to run her own cupcake business, and Joe will have passed away but Sarah will have come to terms with his death and have the novel to remember him by. We know that at the start of the novel, Sarah starts to bake because Joe’s sick and that’s what their mother used to do for them when they were sick. Her initial cupcake attempts are inedible.
Where to next?
What the 3 Act structure looks like
Let’s pause a moment to look at what we’re aiming for.
Here are the classic three acts set out in terms of the space they take up, showing where key events in our story should fall:
We’ve got an idea of key events at the start, the end, and at about the 25% mark.
You will sometimes get advice that you must have key events in your story in the places specified or you will never get published / be rejected / crawl into a hole and die. Is this true?
For novelists? No.
The three act structure is an industry standard for screenwriting. Screenwriters are stuck with pretty rigid running times for their stories (about 100-130 minutes), and this spacing works for them. It gives them up to half an hour to establish and define the characters and central problem (Act 1), about an hour for fun and hijinks as those characters try to deal with the central problem (Act 2), and then up to half an hour for a finale and to wrap things up (Act 3).
For better or worse, novels are not restricted to 100-130 pages (which would be a novella), which gives you a variety of options for spacing your acts if you choose to use a three act structure. For example:
* tell your character’s whole life in 4 parts (childhood, youth, middle age, old age) with each part adhering to a mini 3 act structure;
* a stretching of the three act structure over 300-500 pages, with more complexity (subplots), leisurely detail, and/or intermediate challenges along the way;
* 30 pages or so at the start and end for the first and final act respectively, but a much longer and more complicated middle section;
* a first book which is in 3 acts, but which also doubles as most of the first act of a larger story, as the resolution of the first book raises a new problem which demands a particular course of action (typical structure of a trilogy).
Rather than sticking rigidly to the screenwriting formula, novelists can just take it as a starting point, then see what pacing feels right for their story. If the story is slowing down or getting boring, you either need to shorten that section, or add more complexity and moments of interest within the space you have. If things feel rushed, you either need to lengthen it and expand on some aspects what happen, or simplify what happens within the space.
But for now, let’s use the screenwriter’s structure as a guide to further develop our story.
Identify some information you can withhold from the reader which prevents your character from initially seeing the true nature of the central problem.
You know how I said we had Act 1 worked out? I lied. But it was for a good reason, so bear with me.
In our story, Sarah-Jane knows the central problem she has to deal with from the outset, namely that her brother has cancer. Sure, she could still learn that it’s advancing a bit faster than she thought or something, but her fundamental understanding of the problem is pretty much correct.
This is not going to work.
What is supposed to happen at the midpoint of a 3 Act structure (that’s in the middle of Act 2), is that the character learns something which fundamentally changes the nature of the problem she’s facing. For example, Sarah-Jane could learn that Joe’s apparent cancer is actually the first stage of a contagious world-wide epidemic, and she actually has to save the world.
That could be a midpoint for another story, but not this one. Here that would be ridiculous.
This is where people trying to plan a 3 Act structure come unstuck, because it’s very difficult to think of some fancy new interpretation of the problem that doesn’t completely derail your story. In mystery thrillers, the classic one is that you expose a double agent: the wise mentor your characters were relying on to guide them in solving the problem is secretly working for the enemy. Or dies. Neither of those ideas are going to work in this story either.
In Pride and Prejudice, rather than expose a secret enemy, the enemy is exposed as a love interest (but in a context where a happy relationship seems impossible).
A revelation that enmity is built on sexual tension is not uncommon for a midpoint, but I’m not keen on it for our story. Even Joe and Sarah-Jane aren’t that bogan.
So what then?
The problem is that we’re looking at this from the wrong angle, one where we assume we’ve got the Act 1 locked in. But our first act gives too much information too early.
What Sarah needs to discover at the midpoint is the true problem, which is that her brother is dying of cancer. The story should actually look like this:
Develop a different reason for your character to commit to the course of action you decided on at the end of Act 1.
We now have to rejig Act 1. Sarah-Jane still needs to commit to writing the novel with her brother, but she has to do so for other reasons. Reasons that are compelling but a bit less intense than the real reason we’ll discover at the midpoint.
Because we have already spent some time developing our story, we have some substance to work with even if we take out the cancer. Her brother could still tell her he needs the money to repair the relationship with his estranged son, and that he needs Sarah-Jane’s help. It’s just that we’re going to have to come up with a different reason why she feels compelled to help him, because she no longer knows about the need to raise money for cancer treatment. Again, it’s conceivable that they could just be motivated by the money, but it’s more compelling if there’s an obvious price for failure.
Perhaps Sarah owes Joe. Perhaps he let her borrow a customer’s fancy car to dash to the shops and she crashed it. He needs the prize money for the novel to pay back the loan he had to take out, and she needs to help him atone. In this version, the kick up the bum for Sarah is the car crash.
Now our story looks like this:
You may wonder why we went to the trouble of developing Act 1 if we were just going to completely change it.
It’s true, you could have done the midpoint after Step 1. However, at least speaking for myself, I find the order I’ve used a more organic process for understanding the characters and how they would react. Do whatever works for you.
Develop the first half of Act Two.
At the start of this section, Joe and Sarah-Jane have committed to writing a novel together. Joe is doing it to win back his son’s love and to raise money to pay back a bank loan, Sarah-Jane to atone for crashing Joe’s car and to pay for the bank loan he had to take out. At the end of this section Sarah-Jane will discover that Joe has a more pressing need for the money than bank loan, and a more urgent need to impress his son, because he is dying of cancer.
This means this section needs to accomplish two things:
- the characters should try (with limited resources / experience that lead to as many setbacks as successes) to achieve the goal they think they’re there to achieve; and
- plant clues about the true nature of the problem that will be revealed at the midpoint.
So, for example, on the first point Joe and Sarah might decide to enrol in a writing course, but it is full of upper middle class mummy bloggers who are snobby towards Joe and Sarah-Jane, leading to Sarah-Jane getting into fisticuffs with the head of the PTA in the parking lot, which ends up posted to Youtube. Not a resounding success. Although maybe they write it into their novel.
We know that Joe and Sarah-Jane’s novel is not going to win the Nobel prize, so we don’t need actually need them to believably be heading towards being great writers, just for them to share experiences which will develop their relationship. And in the writing class scenario you create stress on the characters to struggle and react.
With respect to the clues, you need to give the reader fair warning that All Is Not As It Seems, but you don’t want to make the answer obvious, so you need to encourage them towards one or more misinterpretations of those clues.
Maybe Joe’s acting oddly. Sneaking off. Sarah suspects that what he’s not telling her is that he’s on again with his ex, his son’s mother, who Sarah hates. She suspects he really wants the money to win his ex back, and that’s why he’s paying more attention to the sone too.
Mislead the reader early with a detail that supports this theory, eg. Sarah discovers two wine glasses, one with lipstick marks, in Joe’s bedroom. Joe ducks questions about them.
Sarah becomes more suspicious (she pops round for a surprise movie night when Joe said he’d be home and discovers Joe is out, then he lies about it, leading Sarah to wonder why he would lie to her unless it’s to cover up the one thing she’d object to, namely getting back with his ex), and eventually confronts him. He swears he’s not seeing the ex. He doesn’t tell her the real reason, though, which was that he was staying overnight at the hospital for cancer-related treatment. Later she finds out he definitely has seen his ex (not thinking about the fact he would see the mother of his child from time to time, or maybe he had a single drunken shag). She’s furious. She lays out all his erratic behaviour and the lies. Then we learn the real explanation is the cancer.
Given Sarah-Jane crashed his car, we’re going to have to make it believable that she’d be so furious without just being a busybody. So maybe the ex is Sarah’s childhood best friend who Sarah feels only used her to get close to her brother, and who then ditched Sarah’s friendship, and ultimately ditched her brother for an attractive psychiatrist twice her age. That’s an understandable reason for Sarah to worry about him seeing the ex, despite her need to make amends.
In this story, the unfolding mystery of Joe’s erratic behaviour provides the tension which will carry us through to the midpoint. In other stories, the mystery will be much more subtle and the tension will be created more through a sense of how the characters are progressing towards their chosen goal.
We now have a workable outline for the first half of our story.
Was this helpful? Do you have any questions or suggestions?
I hope to get a chance to write up the next in this series of posts soon.