Anyone who reads fiction regularly will realize that there is an established structure to the plot narrative. You may have heard of the three-act structure, and the seven-act structure, but overall these are both based on the some fundamentals: one is just longer!
This is, of course, not the only way you can structure your novel, and there have been some very creative variations on the theme, but when starting out as an author and learning the art, having a structure can help keep the plot on track.
The traditional three-act divides the story into three parts:
First Act (the Set-up):
This first act should establish:
- Who: introduces the main character
- Where: establishes the world/setting, and what is the neutral (ie: “normal”) for the character.
- Inciting Incident: this is the event that causes a disruption from the character’s normal life and indicates that life may not be the same again.
- For example: in Harry Potter, the inciting incident is Hagrid’s arrival, announcing that Harry is a wizard
- At this point, if the character were to ignore the inciting incident, their life would remain in the “normal” and there would be no story.
- What the inciting incident is for your story will depend on the genre of the story: For a mystery, it could be the finding of a body, or the client approaching the protagonist with the case. For a romance, it could be the first time that she sees him and decides that he is The One. It can be dramatic, or subtle, but ultimately will change the protagonist’s life and set it on a different course.
- First Turning Point: sometimes known as the “point of no return”, this is where the protagonist accepts the inciting incident, which will alter their life irrevocably. At this point, they cannot return to the period of normalcy without suffering in some way (socially, physically, emotionally). It also sets up the situation that needs to be resolved by the conclusion of the story. It makes the end of the First Act.
- For Harry, this is when he first enters Hogwarts.
How long the first act should be is determined by the length of the novel and the genre. Crime thrillers are quite likely to begin with the inciting incident, whereas a literary or fantasy novel may spend more time in setting the scene. Some authors may choose to have the character reject the incident, or may make it more difficult for the protagonist to accept it – think of how many times the Dursleys foiled Harry’s attempts to get his invitation. But generally speaking it should not be drawn out too long, lest the reader become frustrated and set the book aside.
Second Act (Rising Action):
The second act is the longest act, comprising of approximately half the manuscript.
in the second act:
- Midpoint: The protagonist attempts to deal with the situation, but fails and/or makes matters worse, because they do not, yet, have the skills or knowledge to deal with the situation.
- The protagonist must attempt to address the skills that will help them succeed. In Harry’s case, he’s learning magic, and making allies. In a romance, the protagonist may be fighting against self-doubt and their own insecurities. In a mystery, the inspector is collecting evidence and studying the clues that will help them solve the case.
- Do not make things too easy for your character. When they are facing an obstacle, even success should have ongoing, possibly worse, consequence. Always think, will my character succeed? “Yes, BUT…” (there’s another problem) or “No, AND…” (things get worse).
- Tension should keep rising. Use subplots and character relationships to help hold up a saggy middle.
- Second Turning Point: The tension is at its highest level, and the protagonist must make a decision that will – whether they win or lose – change their life forever. It is similar to the First Turning Point, except the cost for failure is much higher.
Third Act (Resolution):
This is the final quarter-or-so of your book, and the point in which you want to keep the reader fully hooked ad leave them satisfied.
- Climax: everything that protagonist has learned and all the obstacles they have faced can help her deal with the main source of conflict.
- Twists: any sudden reveals or twists to the plot should be “surprising but inevitable”. As a dedicated reader, I’ve found that if I spot a twist early in the book and it culminates to be the actual, I feel cheated, but if I unravel it 2-3 pages before it is revealed, then I feel satisfied (and clever). You do not want to leave the reader thinking, “Huh? How did that happen?” but “Of course! Why didn’t I notice that?”
- Character Development: your character now should no longer be the same person they were at the start; the events of the story have helped reshape them.
- Denouement: Untangling the more knotted parts of the story, and revealing (some of) the secrets and tying up (some of) the loose ends. If your story is in a series, you should always leave a few questions unanswered for the reader. Even if it’s not part of a series, it’s always fun to leave some of the “what comes next” to the reader’s imagination.
The three-act structure is frequently used in screenplays and theater. Next time you are watching a movie, see if you can identify the:
- Inciting Incident
- First Turning Point
- Second Turning Point