Three-Act Structure of the Novel



I’ve been a lifelong reader and student of writing. But I never learned in any class, from any teacher, or in any workshop one of the most basic tools of effective writing: the three-act structure of the novel. What is the three-act structure and why should writers study it?

I could probably write two hundred posts about the importance of understanding structure. But the simplest answer is this: when a writer understands structure, the process of creation has direction. I tell authors who are struggling with writers’ block that feelings of uncertainty/confusion and a lack of ideas are nothing more than the result of not understanding structure. What do I mean by that?

Look at the images of the doors attached to this post. You want to get inside the house. Inside that house love, laughter, food, safety, peace, friends, and all other good things await you. This much you know. But how do you get in? Should you open the first door? And do you knock, or is this a strength test? Will you need to kick the door in? Ask it the right questions like a riddle? Is there a secret password? There is one key, but one key won’t open all three doors–even though the doors all access the same space.

Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, it’s important to start writing about something you care about: the characters, the plot, the setting. Any of those essential elements can give you enough to start. But when you’ve invested the time and are sure you care about finishing the journey, when you’re fairly certain you care enough to finish the book, take a look at the doors. What needs to be behind each door, what keys you need to have in hand to open each… that is when understanding story structure will help you. Even if you think you’re not someone who likes to plot or outline.

I’ll explain.

Door #1, Act One, is the setup of your novel. It’s the beginning. Not just “where the story starts…” In fact, stories rarely START at the beginning.  Act One sets up all of the essential story elements: your plot, characters, conflict, stakes, and world-building. One particular key will unlock all of the information and details and even the pacing needed in Act One.

But then once you’re inside, you realize a very different key–in fact a very different set of tools–will be needed to move on.

Act Two of the novel is of course the middle of the book. But it’s not just what happens after the beginning. The second act of the novel is the confrontation phase of the book. It’s here that all the basics you set up in the beginning of the book become critical. Your characters are provoked, challenged, and forced to start making measurable changes by acting and reacting to stimuli you have so artfully put in their way.

And then once you’ve mucked up the lives of your characters and made things really messy, of course they are going to want to see the light at the end of the book–the resolution promised by Act Three. But again, getting the characters there is not as simple as just walking through the open door. Act Three requires you deliver on the promises you made in Act One and that you clean up the spills, tears, and broken hearts torn open in Act Two. Not just by making the pain stop–but by healing it all and making everything okay again.

In romance novels, that means the happy ever after or happy for now. In mysteries that means all the false leads and distractions and questions fall into place, are answered, and the solution is clear and satisfying. The genre you’re writing in will require slightly different elements in each act, but in general, the Setup, the Confrontation, and the Resolution are not just the Beginning, Middle, and End of your book. If you’d like to dive deep into structure, I’ll be teaching a webinar on Tuesday, August 6, 2019, for RWA U (Romance Writers of America) on the three-act structure for romance novels. Check out the details here. The class is $5.00 for RWA members.

RWA U Events Page

In February of 2020, I’ll be teaching an intensive four-day workshop at UCLA Extension on story structure which will include both the three-act structure and the hero’s journey.

UCLA Extension Writers Studio 2020

If you are interested in more personalized instruction with practical exercises and hands-on help, reach out to me via my contact form and let me know how I can help you find the right keys to unlock your best story.


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