So, you’ve heard of the 3 Act Structure. Someone’s told you it’s a good idea. Whether that’s true is another question. For now, let’s look at what the 3 Act Structure is, and how you can use it to map out a story.
Usually when someone explains the 3 Act Structure, they do so by dissecting a familiar film or novel. The problem with this approach is that it’s hard to replicate when creating your own story from scratch. It’s like giving you a tour of NASA and then asking you to build your own rocket.
When it actually comes to writing your own story, you’re going to have to Macgyver it from two paperclips and some chewing gum you found stuck to the bottom of your shoe.
With that in mind, here’s the low-budget, built-from-the-ground-up process for cooking up three acts when starting from absolutely nothing.
Decide on a Story Concept This means you need a character, setting, conflict/struggle, and an angle. Call it a logline, one sentence summary, or premise, if you like. For example:
A shy girl from the suburbs struggles to write a novel in a month.
I’m going to use that because it’s simple, and I’m guessing most people reading this blog can relate. If you want to develop a story concept you like better, and are not sure how to start, here’s a process you can step through.
Picture your main character at the start and end of the story and ask: What’s changed?
Did she succeed in writing her novel? Perhaps she’s changed internally? Realised that she doesn’t need a novel to make her happy? Or perhaps it’s the opposite. Perhaps she didn’t realise how much she needed to write this novel, and it unlocks part of her she didn’t realise existed?
Perhaps it brought her new friends? A new lover?
Maybe not. Maybe you want to write a tragedy about how a writer was so obsessed with writing she failed to make the most of her last month with her cancer-stricken brother, and does not realise she’ll regret it until it’s too late. Or maybe it’s a bittersweet story, one where they write the novel together, opening up to each other and finally leaving something precious to remember their time together.
The possibilities are endless. You choose whether the ending will be happy or sad. Victorious or tragic. It doesn’t matter, just so long as something’s changed.
In fact, there actually have to be at least two changes:
1) an internal change for the main character, and
2) an external change of their situation.
The internal change means your character develops, that he or she has a Character Arc. The external change means that stuff must happen. Stuff Happening is what fills all those pages in the middle, and the Character Arc gives it the human interest factor.
Here’s what we might come up with for our premise, with internal matters marked with an (I) and external situation matters with an (E):
Identifying what changes between the start and the end of the novel already tells us heaps that we didn’t know about the main character, and identifies stuff that has to happen along the way. She’ll have to start that cupcake business, her brother will probably need treatment, will probably get sicker, and at some point he’ll die, and there are going to be scenes of them writing together.
Structuring your story around changes to the main character ensures your story is character driven. It’s different from just thinking of your plot as solving a problem (eg. there is a bomb and someone must defuse it before it destroys the city).
Picture your character at the start of the story. What is going to happen to kick them up the bum?
At polite dinner parties, this is known as the ‘inciting incident’ or the ‘opening event’, but here at Compulsive Writer we like to tell it like it is, and bum kicking is what it’s all about.
Sarah-Jane could go her whole life being the receptionist of Dullsville. Your job is to be the Reality TV Producer who steps in with a challenge or opportunity that sets events in motion.
Like what, exactly?
Well, you could send in an alien invasion, or have her encounter a handsome bank robber who sweeps her off her feet. These are undoubtedly events which will shake up her boring life, but they are not good choices because they have nothing to do with your planned story. By all means, go the bank robber idea if you love it, but if so, go back to Step 1 and revise to identify changes that might come about as a result of a novel-length relationship with a bank robber.
A glaringly obvious choice here is that Sarah-Jane discovers her brother’s cancer is terminal. Glaringly obvious to you, that is, not to the reader, as they do not have a copy of the outline that we wrote in Step 1. All they get is: “Poor Sarah’s brother has cancer… what is she going to do?”
Kicking your character up the bum should happen early. On the first page, if you like, but at least in the first few chapters.
Brainstorm how your main character(s) will react to the inciting incident and why.
What would Sarah-Jane actually do? We don’t know a lot about her yet. We know she likes baking. Maybe she’d soothe herself through a flurry of baking.
What else? She’d probably visit her brother. That’s good. We need to bring him into the story early cause he’s a major character, and this is the time to flesh out the kind of people your key characters are and how they relate to each other. Given that you really have two characters responding to the cancer situation, you might want to think about how their reactions could differ, as this will highlight their personalities and generate conflict.
For example, maybe Sarah-Jane is new-Agey and her brother wants trusted science only. Or perhaps she wants him to go for one more round of chemo and he’s had enough. Or maybe he’s a blokey bloke who doesn’t even like to think about doctors.
Picture your character’s house, living arrangements, wardrobe, job, and manner of speech. What would fit with their different reactions to the cancer? Alternatively, what do the places and characteristics you imagine tell you about the kind of reaction they’re likely to have?
Has something happened to them in the past that affects their reactions? Don’t get distracted with random backstory, stick to incidents which changed your characters in a way that matters to the present dilemma. For example, if Sarah-Jane is new-Agey thanks to a hipster ex she has not quite got over, that might be relevant, because it affects what solutions to the cancer problem she presents and why. The fact Sarah-Jane had a cat named Blossom when she was six is probably not.
Think too about introducing other elements that will be important throughout the story – like the cupcake shop. How will that start out?
Maybe Sarah starts baking in response to the cancer because that’s what their mother did for them when they were ill, and she wants to fill that mothering role for Joe (he has a name now). She’s new at it, so maybe her baking is terrible. How does Joe react to her rock-hard cupcakes? To the ones where she accidentally grabs the salt and uses it in place of sugar? Perhaps he builds her confidence and endears himself to the reader by unfailingly eating them without complaint, no matter how rubbish they are.
You can do your brainstorming by jotting down dot points, drawing mind-maps, bouncing ideas off a friend, writing snippets of scenes–whatever works for you.
Decide how your character will resist, then commit to a particular course of action for dealing with the problem as they now understand it.
Finding out about the cancer is a problem, but your characters can do anything about it, from moping in their rooms to jumping off a cliff. Walter White chose to start manufacturing meth.
That’s not what Sarah-Jane and Joe are going to do, though, because becoming ruthless drug barons did not feature anywhere in our Step 1 vision. (Remember, you can change your mind at any point, but you need to go back and revise Step 1 to fit etc).
Your notes for Step 1 are the clue which will lead you to the answer. Our notes say that we want our characters to decide to write a novel together, and that somehow this will lead to a cupcake business. All we have to do is work out why. Why do any of these things in response to a cancer scare? Why together?
Here’s a first option:
Joe, a mechanic, tells Sarah he wants to write a novel and he wants her to help him. He can’t touch-type and she can. Also he envisions her helping creatively. Notwithstanding it’s the wish of her dying brother, she’s too underconfident about her creativity to like this idea. Eventually she agrees, but maintains she’s strictly there to type and bring the cupcakes.
That commits Sarah to a course of action, one she feels daunted by, but to me this does not seem quite right. There are a few problems: a) it’s too open-ended a challenge, there’s no way to really tell if she’s failing or succeeding, and b) it requires the characters to already have the insight to realise the novel will help them bond, which gives them less room to grow.
The course of action your character commits to should:
* be challenging
* have stakes (a price for failure)
Why? Because then the reader can invest in caring about the problem and keep track of how well they’re doing, creating a sense of progression.
To add some stakes into our scenario, let’s say Joe’s writing the novel for a competition with $100k prize money (where is this writing competition and how can I enter?)
That’s a lot of money, but I don’t think it’s compelling. Money’s just money unless you really need it, and what does Joe need it for? To pay for something on his bucket-list? To raise money for treatment? Hmmm…
Ok, here’s a second option, building in stakes and challenges ahead:
Joe, a mechanic, is estranged from a teenage son who now lives with his mother and her wealthy new partner. He desperately wants to be able to pay for special things for his son before he passes away from cancer. He has discovered that the Nobel prize for literature pays 8 million Swedish Krona, and is convinced he can win it. How hard can it be to write a novel? He wants his sister Sarah to help him, given her superior touch-typing skills. For her part, Sarah also agrees the plan is feasible, but she doesn’t agree the money should go to her spoiled brat of a nephew. She wants Joe to spend the money on a fancy new treatment for cancer available overseas. She helps him in order to try and save his life. Also, she insists on bringing him cupcakes, which she’s baking cause their Mum, who’s no longer with them, used to do this for them as kids when they were sick. They’re terrible cupcakes, which she and Joe both know, but she feels obliged to keep doing it anyway.
Much better. Although I’m starting to think that Sarah-Jane and Joe look more like this:
And that’s ok. Your story can and will evolve through this planning process. That’s half the fun!
Now we have a specific course of action and a specific price for failure. As you can see, the plan your characters come up with does not have to be a brilliant one, it just has to be convincing that they would choose it. As a bonus, we already have some fodder for conflict between Joe and Sarah-Jane from the start.
Give yourself a pat on the back, you’ve just got the bones of Act 1.
Let me know if anything was confusing or if you have any questions. Comments always welcome!