The Classic Three Act Structure

I’ve only been writing seriously for a couple of years and during that time I’ve been trying to work out what I’m good at and how I should approach it.

As part of my consideration of novel writing I’ve come across the age old “plotter or panster” argument. The difference being between someone who plans their novel out before writing it and someone who starts with a blank sheet of paper and just keeps writing until they’ve finished.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m neither, or to be more precise, a hybrid. I like worldbuilding, and developing characters. I like knowing roughly where I’m going and having an idea of what my structure is. But I don’t like to have everything planned to the tiniest degree. I attempted the snowflake method once and I got bored before I’d even started writing the thing.

In terms of novel structure, what seems to suit me is something simple. When I see complicated analyses of pinch points and critical moments and plot turning points, for me it sucks the life out of the story. I appreciate that many people find such an approach helpful, but it’s not for me.

The structure that I prefer is the very basic three act structure. I first came across this ten years ago or so, in one of my semi-serious but abortive novel writing attempts. It was expressed as follows:

Act 1 : ends in first disaster
Act 2 : ends in even worse second disaster
Act 3 : resolution

That particular novel never worked out, but the structure stuck in my head as something useful.

So recently, I’ve been doing some work on The Lannerain Chronicles (the series I hoped to build from the worldbuilding work I did on this blog) and have begun to consider this structure again.

My initial rendering works, but isn’t terribly sophisticated. But I don’t want anything too fancy or my brain will hate me. The point of a three act structure is to create rising tension in the plot arc punctuated by unfortunate events. The events also affect character arcs. So I imagine if you have more than one main character they could each have their own structure.

Here’s my revised Three Act Structure:

Act 1
Establish the main character(s) and their relationships
Establish the world in which they live
An incident/event occurs which affects the life of the main character(s)
A dramatic situation/disaster arises

Act 2
The main character(s) attempt to resolve the situation
The situation worsens
The main character lacks the resources/skills needed to deal with the situation
The situation gets as bad as it possibly can

Act 3
The main character(s) try once more to resolve the situation having identified the resources/skills needed
A climax is reached on which everything depends
The situations are resolved
The character(s) adjust their lives accordingly to the new status quo

You will see varying interpretations of this structure around, but I think the above will suit my needs for now. Its basic but gives the bare bones.

I do wonder if creating stories to a structure hampers inventiveness to some degree, but on other hand it does help one to avoid waffle, info-dumping and digressions. And it’s a tried and tested formula.

Let me know if you find any particular structure helpful for novel writing.

10 Comments

  1. Rebecca N. McKinnon

    November 20, 2015

    “I do wonder if creating stories to a structure hampers inventiveness to some degree, but on other hand it does help one to avoid waffle, info-dumping and digressions. And itโ€™s a tried and tested formula.”

    For me, I was so used to seeing this structure as a reader that I naturally gravitated to it when I wrote my first novel without even knowing that I did. I only ever outlined the thing after 50,000 words were already on the page, and when I did, I noticed that the best parts of my novel fit into that structure and the worst parts deviated from it. It was extremely refreshing to me.

    If you’re looking for a more complex three act structure, I used Janice Hardy’s. http://blog.janicehardy.com/2013/10/how-to-plot-with-three-act-structure.html

    • magicwriter author

      November 20, 2015

      Thanks for the link – I love Janice’s blog x

  2. Cassiopeia Lancaster

    November 20, 2015

    When I started writing, I’ve always been a plotter, but as time passes by, I realized that there are times I’m also a pantser.

    I’ve also used the three act structure with my other novels, and I’ve also used a different structure for my other stories.

    One of the ways that work for me is different things work for my different stories.

    Great post, very helpful and easy to understand.

    • magicwriter author

      November 20, 2015

      Yes there’s no one method that fits all stories. I like the way that the three act structure is quite sparse so it can be interpreted in many different ways.

  3. Cleo

    November 20, 2015

    I haven’t finished my first novel yet. Up to the third act, then realized that I needed to go back and do some heavy revision before getting the resolution and I’ve been slowly chipping at it for weeks. I was a little discouraged because I’ve only really gotten a little under 30k words in about three months, then I started reading interviews from my favorite writers and some of them took fifteen *years* to write their favorite novel.

    I guess that, like most things, writing a novel is about persistence and patience. In the meantime, I started a pantser project that I’m sharing with friends because sometimes, it’s nice to write without having a defined goal in mind.

    • magicwriter author

      November 20, 2015

      Yes, patience and persistence are definitely key! I like to have more than one project on the go so I can switch when I run out of steam on one.

  4. Dustin Fife

    November 25, 2015

    This was so succinctly organized. Love it.

    I started out a serious plotter and have slowly di(pro)gressed into more of a panster. I often know where I’m going, but how to get there? That’s where my pants come in ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • magicwriter author

      November 25, 2015

      Thanks! Interesting … as my journey is taking me the other way, from pantser to plotter!

  5. Jason Bougger

    November 30, 2015

    I’m that way too. If I have too many details of a story planned out in advance, I get bored writing it. It feels more like I’m writing a term paper instead of creating a story. But I also do try to have some sort of structure in my plot as well. So when asked “planner or pantser?” Hybrid is the answer for me.

    • magicwriter author

      November 30, 2015

      Yes, despite the arguments that rage, I think a lot of people probably fall into that middle ground!

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