As writers, we can get swept up in the plot and subplot(s) of our stories and books. So much so that we might forget to check and make sure that all our plots and subplots actually have beginnings and endings that make sense.
And of course, the last thing we want is to leave things hanging—so we have to go back and fix them.
But that can make our revision process a long one that requires a lot of metaphorical heavy lifting.
That's where the three act structure comes in! It's a classic structure, but as Rhonda Douglas tells us in this episode to kick off Season 2 of The Resilient Writers Radio Show, it’s not one that should be dismissed. Using the 3-Act structure can ensure our stories are complete AND save us more work in the revision process. Can we get an Amen?
Don't worry—this episode may be about the three act structure, but we have more than three useful tips for you!
Here's a sneak peek:
[02:22] But often we get to the point where we think, “you know what? I'd really like to work on a book.”
[04:02] I think of this structure as being classic like a Chanel suit. It's just so well constructed, it can take you anywhere.
[08:50] Why does it matter that your character achieves their desire?
[11:00] Eh, I don't know about that. I think that we are making art and so we can be a little more fluid.
[12:09] This is really important. That moment of choice is critical. And it's gonna save you.
[13:44] If we avoid that, we can end up with a passive protagonist. We can end up with a flat story.
[15:36] I'm not a fan of the super detailed outline because in my experience, what we want to do is we wanna figure out all the problems with our book before we write it. We want that comfort.
[17:49] It's classic, it's tried and true, and it can help you get all the way to the end of an amazing first draft of your book…
Well, hey there, writer. Welcome to the Resilient Writers Radio Show. I'm your host, Rhonda Douglas, and this is the podcast for writers who want to create and sustain a writing life they love. Because—let's face it—the writing life has its ups and downs, and we wanna not just write, but also to be able to enjoy the process so that we'll spend more time with our butt-in-chair getting those words on the page. This podcast is for writers who love books, and everything that goes into the making of them. For writers who wanna learn and grow in their craft, and improve their writing skills. Writers who want to finish their books, and get them out into the world so their ideal readers can enjoy them, writers who wanna spend more time in that flow state, writers who want to connect with other writers to celebrate and be in community in this crazy roller coaster ride we call “the writing life.” We are resilient writers. We're writing for the rest of our lives, and we're having a good time doing it. So welcome, writer, I'm so glad you're here. Let's jump right into today's show.
Rhonda Douglas: Well, hello there. Welcome to season two of the Resilient Writers Radio Show. I'm so excited to be back with you for this season. We have some amazing writers lined up for this season. I'm gonna be interviewing, and also doing a few solo episodes. And I’m just really looking forward to connecting with you again over the next 12 episodes.
Today, I wanna talk a little bit about structure. So in this season, we're gonna talk a little bit more about writing a book, whether that's a novel, or a book of short stories, or a memoir or, you know, whatever genre you're working in. Taking on a book-length project is something that eventually comes to most writers, right? We may love getting a short story in a lit mag, and sharing our poetry with our friends and family, or reading it out loud at an open mic. But often we get to the point where we think, “you know what? I'd really like to work on a book.” So this season we're gonna spend a little bit more time talking about books.
And so today I really do wanna talk about structure. And specifically, I wanna talk about the three act structure. This is the classic, like, literally classic, structure, that we can use to organise a book that works. We get quite stressed about structure, don't we, when we're working on a book. Our biggest concern is, “oh my God, this book isn't working, what am I gonna do?”
And often that question is about structure. And, we work on a draft for a long time. A book-length project—particularly if you're doing a novel, even a novella, in any genre, maybe a memoir—it can take years, it can take a long time.
We don't wanna find that we get to the end of our messy first draft and we don't have a story that works, and it needs to be completely rewritten, start to finish. Now, I'm a big believer if—for those of you who are in First Book Finish with me—you know that I'm a big believer in the power of revision and revisioning your story, but it sure does help to move things along in the revisioning process when we fundamentally have a draft that works.
Let's look at how the classic three act structure can help us get to a book that has the basic fundamentals in place. I think of this structure as being classic like a Chanel suit. It's just so well constructed, it can take you anywhere. “Classic as seen on tv.” And that's because most of the TV shows that you watch rely on this relatively simple three act structure.
And it's also classic, of course, ‘cause it goes way back to Aristotle, all the way back to 384 B.C.E, before the common era. And so we say this structure is “Aristotelian,” if you can say that three times fast, because it was Aristotle who wrote in poetics and declared that a whole story has a beginning, middle, and end. Now, he was talking about the classic Greek tragedies, and for him, the end means you've just killed your mother or slept with your father. But, still, the concept basically holds.
I think that this structure… we're so familiar with it that we are in danger of just dismissing it and thinking that it's too basic to be interesting. And that if I'm gonna write a successful debut novel, I need to get a really complicated structure going because that's what's gonna make my story, you know, stand out and be interesting, and it's just not true.
You can get all the way to an exciting, fresh, original story with the three act structure. And what's most helpful, I think, about the three act structure, is it provides a sense of closure and satisfaction. The human brain loves an open story loop, and once a story loop is opened up for us, a part of our brain is always on the lookout for, “wait a minute, how is this developing and how is it going to end?” It's a simple set of basic elements.
Beginning, middle, end, but it goes beyond that. I don't know if you've ever heard of fractals, which is a repeating pattern in nature. It's an almost never-ending, repeating pattern. And fractals can look different, or look similar, rather, at different scales. So, when we think about the three act structure, having a beginning, middle, and end, the whole story has a beginning, middle, and end.
Each scene has a beginning, middle, and end. Chapters have a beginning, middle, and end. And subplots have a beginning, middle, and end. So in this way, it's like a pebble dropped in a pond. There's an inherent structure within the structure. I think we don't talk about that enough. Books that are written in the classic three act structure, and that is most books, naturally have a sense of unity about them that is brought through this structure.
And that unity is what provides that sense of satisfaction for the reader when everything ties together. If you are listening to me and you're wondering, “okay, but what about rising action and falling action?” Yes, that's part of the structure as well. It was elaborated over a century ago now by Gustav Freytag.
You might, if you took high school English lit classes, also have the Freytag kind of pyramid, which elaborates it a little further. But let's just talk about the three act structure at its most basic, Aristotelian sort of core, if you like.
We have the beginning, okay? So in the beginning we meet our character, we are introduced to them, we see what their current status is, what their concerns are, what their desires are, who they are, what the world is that they live in, right? And we're kind of in the world as they knew it before something happens. And that something is our inciting incident. So, something happens, we have a plot point at the end of act one, and that takes us into act two.
Act two is generally known as “confrontation, complication.” If you've heard of Jessica Brody's Save the Cat Writes a Novel, act two is when she talks about fun and games, but it's essentially when whatever your character desires, there are now obstacles in their way, and the reader comes to know, as you layer scene on scene, the reader gets to know what the stakes are in your story.
Why does it matter that your character achieves their desire? In what way are they maybe in their own way, and in what way is the fact that they're in their own way coming out in how they're approaching obstacles and trying to overcome them? That's basically the rising action of act two, where the stakes tend to rise. If you're writing a thriller, they rise through life and death situations, but it doesn't have to be that. Maybe you're writing a quieter, more domestic book, and the stakes are high because you're worried that your husband is falling out of love with you, and you're finding increasing amounts of evidence of that.
That would be an entirely different novel. And we can begin to see how the stakes would rise. So act one, we have the introduction, we have the setup, and then in act two we have rising actions. The stakes get higher. The reader understands the stakes more deeply, and we see how the character is responding in the face of those stakes, and we call that the confrontation.
At some point, we reach a point of no return. And that point of no return marks the end of act two. And it's where we then move into act three. Act three gives us the crisis, the ultimate peak of the action, of the stakes, and then from there we have falling action. And so act three is known as “resolution.” So, the thing to remember with the three act structure is that, typically, if you read different guidebooks, like if you get into something like Story Grid or some of the different kinds of craft advice you can find on the internet, people have very firm, rigid ideas about how many pages.
If you have a 300 page novel, then act one needs to be 75 pages, and act three needs to be 75 pages, and the middle needs to be 150 pages. And that's your 300 pages. Eh, I don't know about that. I think that we are making art, and so we can be a little more fluid. All we have to do is be sure that we're respecting the role and purpose of each of the acts, right?
So in act one, we wanna know what the story problem is. What is the external problem that the story's gonna revolve around and the protagonist is gonna have to face? And what's the internal problem or the internal problems faced by the protagonist? The inner conflict they are gonna have to resolve as they deal with the external problem, right? At the end of act one, your protagonist makes some kind of a choice, and this is a choice they can't easily go back on, and it's the choice that governs everything that comes next.
Maybe she decides to pick up and read her husband's cell phone messages, and she sees some things that have her wondering about a woman, and she goes off and tries to find out who this woman is. This is really important. That moment of choice is critical. And it's gonna save you. If you have a choice that is made, you are going to have an active protagonist. It will save you from writing a story that is flat. So that's really important.
That moment at the threshold of act one and act two, it's really important that your protagonist makes some kind of choice there, okay? And that will lead us into act two, or the “confrontation.” I like the term that's sometimes also used for act two, called “complication.” It's where stuff starts getting real and it's clear that a return to the status quo isn't possible.
And we just go deeper and deeper, confronting obstacles, either internal or external, ideally both, and the stakes become increasingly clear, and increasingly important or urgent.
So, this is essentially what happens in act two. Obstacles must be faced. And sometimes, we can end up with a draft that falls a little flat if what we do in act two is lots of backstory, and, “here's why my protagonist is the way she is,” and we don't really throw her into it, and let her get into trouble and let there be conflict, and let her have to resolve obstacles as she moves towards her ultimate desire and her ultimate goal.
If we avoid that, we can end up with a passive protagonist. We can end up with a flat story. You really wanna make sure that your act two is rich in obstacles and conflict.
There might be other things. I mean, you might have a little bit of backstory in there, but please remember with backstory, that anytime you have backstory, you are stopping the forward momentum of your contemporary story. So you have to do that really judiciously.
That's act two, that's the complication. And then we have our crisis point. This is the most important crisis of the story. There may have been other points of crises, but think of this as like, the final test of your protagonist on the way to achieving their desire. Or if they don't achieve their desire, that's fine too, that can also be a choice.
But it basically resolves the central story problem one way or another. This is where your character either gets what they want, or we can see that they're not going to get what they want, and why.
So, you know, if your protagonist and her romantic interest finally end up together in a romance, that's a romance problem solved. There you go. Crisis, we're in act three. If the murderer is unveiled, that's a crime problem solved. A woman comes to terms with her relationship with her mother in some important way, that's a literary problem solved, right? All kind of simplified there, but you get the idea. We're at the point where loose ends are being tied up.
You really can use the three act structure to write a messy first draft in a way that doesn't require you to have super detailed outlines. I'm not a fan of the super detailed outline because in my experience, what we want to do is we wanna figure out all the problems with our book before we write it. We want that comfort. But the creative process doesn't work like that. So, my experience with outlines is I write a kick-ass outline, it's really good, it's really thorough, it's really logical. And then I sit down, and what comes out in the creative process does not respect the outline.
And then I'm always like, “oh, I gotta go back and fix my outline.” But no, you don't. You don't have to go back and fix your outline, as long as you know you're working with this three act structure.
When you're working with it that way, you can be sure of two things. One, my book, my draft, is gonna have a beginning, middle, and end to my story, and therefore the reader is intrinsically going to find that satisfying.
Also, I won't be writing a draft with a passive protagonist where everything just happens to them, but they have no sense of personal agency. And so I've averted a boring story by following the conventions of act one, with a choice at the end of act one that leads into the complications in act two.
So, let's ask ourselves some questions about our draft as it fits the three act structure.
Do you have, at the end of act one, a clear moment that illuminates your protagonist’s choice to move out of the status quo at the end of act one? Do you have rising actions and rising stakes that really matter? And is it clear why things matter in act two?
Do you have a crisis moment to kick off the beginning of act three? And are you resolving all the important threads of your story so that all of the threads and, particularly the subplots themselves, have a beginning, middle, and end? And can you identify your beginning, middle, and ending for your story? Can you do that for your story overall, for each act, for each chapter, for each subplot?
Okay? So, you can see that this structure actually isn't so basic after all. It's classic, it's tried and true, and it can help you get all the way to the end of an amazing first draft of your book without having to do a beat-by-beat outline, which isn't gonna work anyway.
I hope this has been helpful. I'm sure you've heard of the three act structure. I wanted to come back to it today because as I say, I feel like one of the things that I see when I work with writers, particularly in First Book Finish, they come to me, and they're writing a first book. And often they have made these first books so complicated. It's like a multi-generational epic, spanning geography. Or it's like a time travelling fantasy, or something. And there's nothing wrong with that, that's amazing. But you have bitten off a lot there.
And so to the extent that it's possible, I would love to see writers using a more basic structure for a first book. And then when you get into the revision process, there are always ways that you can grab other elements from structural guides you might like.
Let's say you love the Hero's Journey as a structure. You may look at your draft that was done with the Aristotelian three act structure, and say, “you know what? I have a really good draft here, beginning, middle, and end, rising stakes, totally works.
But I think I really like this idea of a mentor character. And so I'm gonna take this secondary character and I'm gonna turn them into a kind of mentor.” Or, “I really like this idea of the ordinary world and then a quest into the extraordinary world. I'm gonna revise with some more of that in mind. But in the meantime, I know I've got a fundamental structure that works because I worked with the classic three act structure to get my draft down.”
So, we are moving into some interviews for you now, we'll do a couple of interviews, and I'll come back again with another solo episode. So I hope this has been helpful to you in your writing life this week, and I can't wait to talk to you soon. Thanks so much for listening.
Thanks so much for hanging out with me today and for listening all the way to the end. I hope you enjoyed today's episode of the Resilient Writers Radio Show. While you're here, I would really appreciate it if you'd consider leaving a rating and review of the show. You can do that in whatever app you're using to listen to the show right now, and it just takes a few minutes. Your ratings and reviews tell the podcast algorithm gods that “yes, this is a great show. Definitely recommend it to other writers.” And that will help us reach new listeners who might need a boost in their writing lives today as well. So please take a moment and leave a review. I'd really appreciate it, and I promise to read every single one. Thank you so much.