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Plot: The Three-Act Structure

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

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

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

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.

Plot: The LOCK Elements

Last week we looked at the GMC method of plotting and characterisation. This week we are looking at another acronym, LOCK, used by James Scott Bell to describe what he sees as the four key elements of a strong plot:

Lead – Objective – Confrontation – Knockout

Lead

A novel needs a lead character that readers can bond with:

  • We must be able to identify with the lead character, to relate to them on a human level.
  • We must have some sympathy for the Lead’s challenges, by putting the Lead through jeopardy or hardship, making them the underdog or making them vulnerable.
  • The Lead must be likeable. I’ve read too many books with an unlikeable hero or heroine. This is especially annoying in a romance, where an unlikable hero raises questions about the intelligence and discernment of the heroine (or vice versa).
  • There must be some inner conflict, an emotional struggle that catches our attention. Most of us avoid conflict in our personal lives, so there is a tendency to want to avoid writing about it. But:
We must not confuse conflict that can be ruinous in life with conflict that is the essence of fiction. Readers enjoy conflict because it is in fiction and not in their lives. (Sol Stein)

The reader needs to immediately know who the Lead character is, to enable us to build a relationship and develop empathy to their situation:

Ideally, the protagonist should play an important role in the first scene to avoid the reader mistaking another character for the protagonist. One of the marks of amateur novel-writing is a lack of early clarity as to whose story we, as readers, should be following. (Sol Stein)

This is one reason why prologues set in the past don’t always work: the reader is investing themselves in a character, only to find that character has no place in the main plot.

We also need to see what internal and external conflict the Lead is facing as quickly as possible:

One major problem with beginner’s manuscripts is that the protagonists aren’t pressured enough. And if a main character is not squeezed hard enough, we’re not really going to know him because we’re not going to have an opportunity to see what’s inside him. (Angela Hunt)

Objective

The Lead must have an objective, a want so strong he must have it or suffer deep loss. This gives the story forward motion. An objective could be trying to get something (e.g. in a romance, the hero and heroine are trying to get love), or to get away from something (e.g. in a thriller, the protagonist might be trying to escape the antagonist).

The objective can’t be resolved too quickly:

Everyone in your story should want something badly. Every major character should have their own script and personal goals that will, at some point, bring them into conflict with the world and/or with your protagonist. (Angela Hunt)

Confrontation

Opposition to the Lead’s objective: novels are about confrontation, about conflict. There needs to be adhesive, something holding the opposing parties together, something which prevents the Lead or opposition from walking away from the fight.

Without a strong opponent, most novels lack that crucial emotional experience for the reader: worry. If it seems the hero can take care of his problems easily, why bother to read on? (James Scott Bell)

A clear antagonist is important for confrontation. Just as there needs to be a Lead character, there needs to be someone in conflict with that Lead:

Your protagonist needs challenges to stretch and change him throughout his story journey, and that’s the role of the antagonist.(Angela Hunt)

Note that the antagonist isn’t necessarily a villain: it is the character whose goals are in opposition to the goals of the lead, causing conflict. In a romance, this might be the hero—she lives and works in the country; his career is in the city. This is actually more interesting than a villain, as there are compelling reasons for both views: neither character is wrong.

Knockout

The final battle, or the final choice, faced by your protagonist. Your objective as an author is to leave the readers satisfied, but in an unpredictable way.

As you can see, like the GMC elements, the LOCK elements are a combination of plot and character. A well-thought out GMC and/or LOCK will ensure you have sufficient conflict to drive your plot and allow your characters to grow and change.