Creating a 3 Act Structure From Scratch (Pt 1)

mcgyverSo, 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.

You, at the end of this process. Also Sarah-Jane. But we'll get to that.
You, at the end of this process.  Or just eating delicious cake pops.  Also Sarah-Jane. We’ll get to her shortly.

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.

Step 1

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):

3 Act Structure Start EndNawww.

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).

Step 2

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.

Sarah-Jane, hating her boring corporate life

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.

Step 3

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.

Step 4

Decide how your character will resist, then commit to a particular course of action for dealing with the problem as they now understand it.

This solution is not for everyone.

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:

bogan Sarah-Jane and Joe
Joe and Sarah-Jane, staying classy.

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!

Next Up: Midpoints, Why is Act Two So Long, and Other Important Questions.

From Vague Idea to Story Concept

Let’s say you want to write a story about a topic that interests you.  Let’s say you’re mad about motorbikes.  How do you start developing that idea into a story?

Here’s a process I find works for me.

Brainstorm scenarios where your idea features:

a motorbike race, a road trip, a mechanic’s workshop, motorbikes in space, motorbike wolf hybrid robots, a single motorbike in a remote village, designing the world’s first motorbike…

Don’t censor yourself because you think a scenario is too boring or too ridiculous.  A boring idea is only twist away from interesting, and a ridiculous idea is only some careful thought away from unique.

For each scenario, think of a few different versions of the idea:

Give yourself permission to throw in different characters and settings and reasons for the scenario taking place.  Push the idea to new places you hadn’t previously considered.  Ask: What if?


Let’s take our motorbike race…

* at elite competition level

* in the schoolyard

* between two geriatric ex-bikies

* across 1950s New Zealand

* bounty hunters pursuing the last witness to a mysterious crime

You will find some ideas grab you more than others, but don’t settle on one just yet.

Google for real stories:

Copeland_stoomfiets_1894One of the first concepts we came up with was ‘designing the world’s first motorbike’, which must have actually happened at some point somewhere.  Some quick Googling leads me to Wikipedia, which says:

In the 1860s Pierre Michaux, a blacksmith in Paris, founded ‘Michaux et Cie’ (“Michaux and company”), the first company to construct bicycles with pedals called a velocipede at the time, or “Michauline”. The first steam powered motorcycle, the Michaux-Perreaux steam velocipede, can be traced to 1867, when Pierre’s son Ernest Michaux fitted a small steam engine to one of the ‘velocipedes’.

This is already an interesting setting, with potential characters and setting and even conflict (What did the father think of his son’s innovation?  How was the business viewed in Paris at the time?  What was their competition?)

Flesh out your favourites:

For at least three ideas, figure out the following details to give you an idea of what it would look like as a story:

  • a specific setting
  • a main character (or characters)
  • conflict
  • an angle

You should be able to do this in a sentence or two.  For example:

A geriatric bikie learns his old rival is doing a ride across Canada for charity, and despite a heart condition is determined to race and beat him.  The story is narrated by his daughter, who has come home to live with her father after her recent divorce.


Eveningstar is a wolf who was captured and mistreated as a cub.  She is sold to a sadistic man who experiments with animals and robots in a cabin in the woods, where he keeps Eveningstar caged, transforming her one piece at a time into a bionic creature, half wolf, half motorbike.  Through her eyes we see her gain strength and intelligence until she is able to escape and take revenge.

Reality check

You’ve got your concepts fleshed out enough you can glimpse how they might look as stories.  You’re excited to get going.  But before you invest too much of yourself in this new project, here are a few useful questions to ask:

Is this the kind of story I will enjoy writing?

shutterstock_145156063If what you really want is to write a high-octane ride, revelling in all the latest motorcycle technology, then the 1860s blacksmith is not going to work for you.  On the other hand, if the thought of delving into the everyday detail of 1860s Paris excites you (and perhaps the possibility of some on-location research) then that’s the story you want to pick. You’ll be spending a fair bit of time with the story, and you’ll need some pleasure to balance out the hard work.

Does this story meet my writing aims?

You may not have much specific other than ‘I want to write’, but you may have a specific goals for your writing and how you fit it into your life.

You might be aiming to write short stories for a magazine that requires a very particular kind of concept or word count.  You might want to write a story that will appeal to the same audience as your other books, or alternatively to write something that is completely different from your last project.  You might be trying to complete NaNoWriMo.  You might love trilogies of fantasy doorstoppers, but do you really have time to complete 600 000 words?

Is this the kind of story I’m happy to put my name to?

You may have a BDSM motorcycle erotica scenario on your list, and you may be the kind of person who is happy to proclaim from the rooftops that BDSM motorcycle erotica is your thing, in which case, write away!  But the truth is that most of us don’t just write for ourselves.  Our writing is a little bit about sharing ourselves, and we don’t envision spending a lot of time doing something that we have to hide from our friends and family, or from the world.

If your writing deals with controversial or painful topics, it will make people feel things, whether you like it or not.  Are you happy to become the poster boy or girl for what your novel says?  Does your story push a particular world view or showcase particular stereotypes, and is that what you want to do?

Sure, great writers sometimes say brave and difficult things, but not every controversial story is an act of bravery.  Some of it’s just thoughtless or randomly offensive.  Be honest about whether you want to be EL James in this Twitter Q&A?

el james twitter


You probably know which of the ideas most excites you, but if all excite you equally – you just have to choose.  You could roll a die or flip a coin, or you could even just challenge yourself to write a little of each one and see which flows.

And that’s it!  How have you developed your ideas into stories?  What made an idea click into a story you just had to write?

Feature images by Shutterstock / Docstockmedia and Ruslan Grumble and Michal Vitek.  Image of historical motorbike from Wiki commons here.

7 Questions Guaranteed to Improve Your Opening Chapter

Does your opening feel lacklustre?  Just a bit off? It’s not the general subject matter.  It’s how you frame it.  Some writers can make you beg to read about paint drying, while airlines manage to turn mid-air disasters into something so boring you cannot be bothered to watch the safety demonstration.

Here are six questions you can run through to help you pick what’s missing:

1) Does the opening pose a dramatic problem?

Describing the furniture, even if it’s really, really interesting furniture, runs the risk of the reader tuning out. If your main character is trying to stop the furniture from being removed by a debt collector, you can describe the furniture and have a dramatic problem.

2) Is there a clear opening conflict or just a vague inner need?

‘Bob is trying to commit suicide’ is an opening conflict (the conflict is implied in the situation – calm, peaceful people tend not to be suicidal). Bob is sad (and wants to be happy) is an inner need. Inner needs can fuel whole books, as characters try various strategies to get those needs met, but they are not specific enough to provide a good entry point into the story. Test question: Is the only problem posed one solved by self-insight and long-term counselling, or are there more immediate solutions?  If you’re ringing the therapist, your conflict is too vague.

If I need to develop an inner need into a more specific conflict, I consider the following questions:

a) Why does my character feel this way? What
happened to get him/her to this feeling?

b) What particular solution to the problem is my character trying right now?

c) What will failure / success mean (for the character and others)?

I try to find answers to these questions that are interesting and specific, and that’s what triggers an opening conflict scenario. If my answers to these questions are a) ‘oh everything really’, b) ‘moping about and hoping for things to get better’, and c) ‘not much’, then I probably need to think harder.

3) Is the problem particularly revealing of my main character?

To convey the personality of a character, don’t just show a problem, show your character handling the problem.  They can handle it well.  They can handle it badly.  It doesn’t matter.  The way they handle the problem will connect the reader to who they are.  I promise you, John the Tax Accountant handles a bank error in his favour in a completely different way to John the Veteran Pensioner skimping and saving for his retirement, which is different again to John the Millionaire Playboy, and far removed from John the Seven Year Old Monopoly Champion.

4) Is the problem typical of the setting and tone of my story?

Think of a movie trailer.  It doesn’t have to grab everyone, but it has to grab the right people.  If it’s a trendy romcom, the trailer needs truckloads of Jimmy Choos.  If it’s the next Saving Private Ryan, someone better be holding their dying friend under a hail of bullets.

Books don’t have trailers.  (Or, at least, they rarely have trailers that anyone watches or with production values higher than a depressingly average Powerpoint presentation.  But that’s another topic.)

The point is: Your opening is your trailer.

It’s your sample on Amazon and it’s what people flick through at the bookstore when they’re browsing the shelves.

Tricky, huh?  Cause in an opening chapter, you don’t get to just cut together all the highlights of your novel to a killer soundtrack and flash up some selectively quoted reviews.  You have to construct a scene which gives the right impression.

Think of the opening to an Indiana Jones movie.  Indi isn’t sitting at home reading the newspaper, he’s in the middle of snatching some crazy relic from an ancient site guarded by questionable stereotypes of some non-Western culture.  Basically, the gist of an entire Indiana Jones movie is distilled into the opening scene of an Indiana Jones movie.  That’s what you’re aiming for.  But if that’s too tough, think about what your novel as a whole delivers: Is it romance?  Action?  Mystery?  Horror?  Family drama?  Comedy?  An exotic world?  Zen meditations on life?  Whatever it is, give us a glimpse of that in the opening.

5) So I should go with that dubious prologue?

No!  OMFG no.  No.  No.  No.

If you’re asking this question, you know in your heart that no matter how neatly that prologue reveals that backstory, opening with the History Of Everything That Came Before is an unpopular choice.  I’ve been there.  I’ve written that prologue.  I’ve cried with frustration when removing it.

Here is the golden rule of prologues: Does the prologue clearly set up the main character and a specific problem they have to solve?

A good sign that you can chance keeping a prologue opening is that the main character actually appears.  You may get away with having them appear as a baby (think Harry Potter), provided that the events of the prologue cause a specific problem for them in the novel, rather than just being something that happened once.  The main character in a previous incarnation worked for Robert Jordan in The Wheel of Time.

In some crime novels, it is acceptable to start with a prologue showing the crime being committed or discovered, without the main character making an appearance, but that is a particular quirk of that genre.  It works because the reader already understands what the dramatic problem is for the central character (can they solve the murder?) before that character appears.

In other words, if you look at the questions above, you have to nail both Questions 3 and 4 to get your opening to work.

6) Can I summarise the problem in an intriguing visual (or sensory) snapshot?

shutterstock_139382126This sounds like a bonus icing on the cake question, but it’s actually crucial.

Your opening is the doorway for the reader into your story.

The essence of fiction is that it’s a vicarious experience.  This is literally true.  When you watch someone eat chocolate you start salivating, and when you see someone slam their thumb in a door, you wince.  This is because your brain fires up in nearly the same way when you watch something happen to someone else as when it happens to you.  It’s thanks to mirror neurons if you’re getting technical.

If your writing does not offer a vicarious experience you have an essay (or maybe even a technical manual), but you don’t have fiction.  Only ignore this question if you are writing for a more experimental, literary audience, and have some good reason to leave your reader in a state of sensory deprivation.

In an opening we need to make the reader’s mirror neurons fire with a sensory experience that is inherently intriguing, even when briefly described.  If your opening problem is too complex, the interest of your opening will be opaque or buried in boring exposition.

This works:

Bob’s wants to kill himself.  Your snapshot is a man looping a noose around his neck, the rope rough against his throat.

This, not so much:

Bob wants to kill himself because the intergalactic counsel of the High Priests of Voldoon rejected his funding proposal for a military ultraweapon that can link wormholes, thereby creating the possibility of mining a unique substance only available in a distant galaxy which might enhance human consciousness and which Bob wants because it was the dream of his ex-lover whom he foolishly broke up with.

If your opening has intergalactic funding proposal problems, pick off one or two elements that capture the conflict without the backstory.  For example, you could have a devastated Bob tearing up paperwork (his rejection letter) in front of the ultra weapon.  But then have Bob’s actions speak for themselves by giving Bob an immediate problem to solve in that scene (eg. he flicks a switch and the ultra weapon starts to count down).  Don’t fall into the trap of having him potter about aimlessly while you tell us what the ultraweapon does, the structure of the Galactic Council, his memories of the ex.

7) Have I followed my character’s focus?

Every piece of writing starts with a single word, but how do you know which one to choose?

You know everything about your character.  You know what they had for lunch, the quarrel they had when they were five, and every sensation they’re experiencing in that moment.  What is most important to start with at that moment?

The answer is: whatever your character would focus on in that moment.

When your character enters the room, do they notice the priceless Egyptian vase in the corner, the picture of the family on the desk, or the annoying clicking sound made by the unbalanced fan?  Maybe they inventory the surveillance devices and escape routes?  What your character notices is illustrative (or should be illustrative) of who they are, their immediate goal, and what they value.  You don’t need lengthy explanations as to why.  Less is usually more when it comes to exposition and baiting your reader.

If your character keeps floating away to long flashbacks or explanations of context, check that your opening actually has a good dramatic problem (see Questions 1 and 2 above).  If you become overwhelmed trying to convey a more complex scenario, think about whether you should change the scenario.  Remember, galactic funding issues aside, a dinner party with 12 key characters in a cluttered room is your worst nightmare.

Describe exactly what your character notices, then describe what they notice next, and so on.  Do not describe anything they don’t notice.  It’s that simple.

Did these tips help you?  Do you have any strategies for writing a good opening chapter?  I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments below.

Image by wavebreakmedia on Shutterstock.

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