Creating a 3 Act Structure from Scratch (Pt 2)

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.

Recap

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.

bogan 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:

3 Act Structure So Far

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.

Step 5

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.

No one believes this is Sarah-Jane.
This is not Sarah-Jane and does not fit in our story.

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.

mr darcy proposes
Also not in our story. Sadly.

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:

3 Act Structure so far v2

Step 6

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.

muscle car crash
Uh-oh.

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:

3 Act Structure so far v 3

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.

Step 7

Develop the first half of Act Two.

3 Act Structure v3 SA

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.
shutterstock_164761121
Knows she’s better than Sarah-Jane.

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.

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.

shutterstock_191758673
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.

walterwhite
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?

shutterstock_198169034

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.

Or:

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

Choose

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.

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