How to Flesh out Your Novel with Three-Act Structure

Three-act structure
Graph by Wendell Wellman
Final editing proceeds nicely on Souldancer. As I've mentioned before, Soul Cycle vol. II will focus more on romantic themes than Nethereal did, without watering down the horror. In fact, my editor's first comment on the manuscript was how consistently eerie SD is.

Since I'm trying a rather ambitious interweaving of the first and second books' plot lines (in a way I've never seen done before), editing this project has required me to develop some new tools. I previously discussed character building exercises. Recently I put together a writing exercise meant to help manage plots for maximum dramatic impact.

Three-Act Structure
If you've taken a Western lit class or studied screenwriting, you're almost certainly aware of three-act structure. In case you need a refresher, three-act structure is a way of organizing a story's plot into--just like the name suggests--three acts. Each act is defined by the information related to the audience and the level of dramatic tension. The transitions between acts are marked by specific events, e.g. the inciting incident, turning points, etc.

I should point out that three-act structure is best thought of as a descriptive tool; not a plot-building formula. Here's an overview of each act, where it starts, what happens in it, and when it ends.

Act I
Start: the beginning of the story
  • Main characters introduced
  • Character relationships explained
  • Setting described
  • Inciting incident that calls the main character to action (raises the Dramatic Question which must be answered in Act III)
End: the First Turning Point

Example: Raiders of the Lost Ark opens with a prologue (so I'm kind of cheating, but this movie is the gold standard for screenplays) that establishes the year, plus Indy and Belloq's characters and their relationship. In Act I proper, Marcus and Marion get the same treatment. The Army Intelligence agents issue Indy's Call to Action. The First Turning Point occurs when Marion's bar burns down after the fight with Toht's men, and she joins up with Indy. Dramatic Question: will Indy and Marion beat the Nazis to the Ark?

Act II
Start: after the First Turning Point
  • The main character struggles to deal with the problem introduced by the First Turning Point.
  • He initially fails to meet the challenges posed by the main antagonist.
  • As a result, the Dramatic Tension constantly rises.
  • The main character seeks out new skills and tools that he requires to succeed (i.e. starts a Character Arc), usually with the help of a mentor and other allies.
  • Complications lead to almost total disaster, leaving the main character at the Second Turning Point, a.k.a. the Low Point.
End: the Low Point

Example: Raiders again. Despite coming close several times, Indy fails to smuggle the Ark away from the Nazis. In conversation with Belloq, he confronts his rather unsavory true nature and must decide whether to continue his descent and become like his enemy, or to persevere and redeem himself. He rallies with Sallah's help. The literal low point finds Indy and Marion trapped in a viper pit as the Nazis make off with the Ark.

Start: after the Second Turning Point
  • Having attained greater mastery and a deeper sense of self from his trial by fire, the main character sets out again for the final confrontation with the antagonist.
  • The Dramatic Tension rises steeply to the Climax--the point of greatest tension.
  • The Resolution answers the Dramatic Question posed in Act I. The question will be answered in the affirmative, closing with the main character attaining his goal and newfound self-awareness.
  • Unless the story is a tragedy, in which case the question is answered in the negative. Though the main character does not get what he wants, often he will still attain deeper self-knowledge that imparts a valuable lesson about the hubris that caused his downfall.
End: the End

Example: Indiana Jones offers an excellent example of how you can play around with this model. From a classical standpoint, Raiders of the Lost Ark is technically a tragedy, since the main character ultimately proves unequal to his opposition and doesn't get what he wants. Instead, the climax is resolved by a (well set up) deus ex machina. (Actually, it could be argued that Belloq, despite his role as the main antagonist, is actually the movie's hero for taking out the Nazis and himself.)

Though Indy doesn't achieve his original goal, he does gain self-knowledge in the best tragic style. Primarily, he learns due respect for holy things and a healthy fear of powers beyond his understanding (the fact that this character arc is maintained through the third film is one mark of this series' greatness).

Putting Three-Act Structure to Work for Your Novel
Now that we understand three-act structure, how can we use it to our authorial advantage? For Souldancer, I looked at the flow of dramatic tension and each main character's development arc. Using this information I pinpointed where the inciting incidents, turning points, complications, and subplot resolutions are. In this way, I discovered that the book is neatly divisible into seven intertwining three-act plot lines.

Incidentally, that means we can describe the overarching plot of Souldancer in a single seven-point model. But that's a topic for another time.

So OK, diagramming my book in a series of three-act models sounds like an obsessive-compulsive English nerd's cry for help. And perhaps it is. But that doesn't mean we can't get some practical use out of it. Here's how.

Having identified where each part of every three-act subplot begins and ends, I listed each character who has an arc in those scenes. Then I wrote down the following information for each one:
  1. The dramatic question raised by that character's inciting incident
  2. What kind of skills/self discovery the character needs to achieve his goal (phrased as an if/then statement)
  3. How the dramatic question is answered, along with the reason for the outcome and the consequences for the character.
Here's an example from the book's prologue, which you can read at the end of Nethereal, or right here. It's only a few pages long, but it contains a full three-act plot.

1. Kairos
Almeth: I. Can he correct his failures? II. If he can wake Zadok, Almeth will learn if he’s a savior or a destroyer. III. [Redacted to prevent spoilers]

There you go. It's pretty easy once you figure out where your acts are. The finished chart has been a godsend for my editing process. Now I know exactly where to turn the tension up, which conflicts and motivations to emphasize, and where to give more detailed exposition. It's like transcribing my novel into sheet music that shows me the timing changes and where the high notes are. As the author I've got an intuitive grasp of the plot, but charting it out like this helps me see how it's delivered to readers who don't know the whole story.

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