Just like a play or a movie, a book has an underlying structure. Aristotle formulated the concept of the three-act structure, and most books on plot and structure use some form of the basic three-act structure (even Freytag’s five-act structure can be seen as a variation on the three-act structure). James Scott Bell defines the three acts as:
Act One comprises the first 20%-25% of the story and introduces the Lead, Opposition and other major characters, presents the time and setting, and compels the reader to keep reading. It finishes with an incident that thrusts the lead into the major trouble in Act Two.
The first act has a lot of work to do. It has to provide a hook, something that will entice the person browsing in the shop to turn
the page—if they aren’t hooked quickly, they won’t buy your book.
Your opening chapter needs to introduce a likeable protagonist the reader can care about, and a credible and interesting conflict that needs resolution. The first chapter also needs to introduce the reader to your setting, where and when your story is taking place. It needs to make the genre clear—is this a romance or a mystery? Is it Christian fiction? Is it light reading, or something deeper and more thought-provoking?
What your first act should not have is extensive back story or flashbacks, as these pull the reader out of the story. Instead, marble the back story and setup information into the scene, to ensure the central plot remains the central focus.
Act Two comprises the middle 50%-55% of the story. It deepens character relationships, keeps us caring about what happens next, and sets up the plot for the final battle. It finishes with a major setback, crisis or discovery that enables the final battle.
This emotional journey is an essential element of good fiction:
Well-plotted, serious dramatic fiction is transformational by its very nature. A plot isn’t just a matter of one thing happening after another; it’s the progress toward the resolution of a predicament that transforms the character.
The first half of Act Two will usually see the protagonist reacting to events around him or her. At some point, probably around the midpoint of the story, there will be an event that causes the protagonist to change the way they act, to begin to take charge of their situation in order to reach their goal.
Act Three comprises the last 25%, and presents the final conflict, ties up loose ends (except for those that will be covered in a sequel), and leaves readers with that sense of completeness that satisfies them… and makes sure they buy your next book.
These percentages are guidelines, but straying too far from them will mean that the plot drags in some places and feels rushed in others. If anything, Bell advises the first act should be shorter, as this is your opportunity to ‘hook’ the reader (e.g. through the Kindle sample).
Not all authors follow the three-act structure: some don’t even agree there are three acts. A current example of an alternative structure would be The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, winner of the 2013 Man-Booker Prize. The Luminaries is based on an astrological structure, with twelve ‘stellar’ characters and seven ‘planetary’ characters—but many Amazon reviewers, including those who rated it highly, felt the structure detracted from the story.
I suspect the moral is that if you are planning to write award-winning literary fiction, then feel free to experiment with alternative structures (and be prepared for a lot of critical reviews). For genre fiction, stick with the traditional three-act structure.
For more information on the three-act structure, see Plot and Structure or Revision and Self-Editing for Publication, both by James Scott Bell. For a more personal touch, attend the next Romance Writers of Australia or Romance Writers of New Zealand conference (both to be held in August 2014), as James Scott Bell will be speaking at both.
Do you use the three-act structure? Do you follow Bell’s definitions, those of another writing instructor, or your own?
Next week we will be looking at the Snowflake Method, another well-known method of plotting, developed by Randy Ingermanson.