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:
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
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
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.