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The Three-Act Narrative

All your plot's a stage, and all the big reversals merely act breaks. (Photo courtesy BaronBrian on Flickr | CC BY 2.0)

All your plot's a stage, and all the big reversals merely act breaks. (Photo courtesy BaronBrian on Flickr | CC BY 2.0)

I’ve been writing books since Middle School, mostly fantasy, but these days I’m working on a long-running series of near-future science fiction cop drama romance. Getting into that genre was a big challenge for me, but even though I hadn’t written it before, I’d read all those genres.

I knew the conventions of science fiction and mystery. I knew how to build a cop drama, so when I ran into problems I hadn’t had to deal with in fantasy, I just leaned on the genre and got through it. I ran with that for three books before it hit me — I was writing formula fiction.

I mean, sure, everything I said last week about recipe cards and business letters makes a lot of sense when you’re just recording reference material. It’s different with a story, though. Right? A story is supposed to be alive. I shuddered at the thought that, in all likelihood, these books were just predictable, cookie cutter fiction.

That thought crushed me. I love this series, and suddenly three books in I had the nagging fear it was worthless, repetitive, dull. That was a Thursday afternoon, and I put everything else aside to resolve this crisis. I spent half an hour revising the plot of book three (already half written), but it was just change for the sake of change. I went back over the outlines of books one and two, looking for things I could tweak, but those books worked.

Here’s My Answer to that Thinking

Finally, I reined in the panic and stopped to think it through. I knew the whole story (all the way out to book twenty-five). It was a good story, and it certainly wasn’t predictable.

In that thought, I found my answer. The Ghost Targets series isn’t formula, it’s structured. Structure is a good thing. I still needed some comforting, though, so I found myself chasing down that path, thinking of all the creative document types that thrive under intensive structure. I said to myself, “What about haiku? What about sonnets?” Then I got a bit of a gleam in my eye, went to my computer, and wrote up a blog post called “Ghost Targets as Formula Fiction.” Here are the key paragraphs:

It all depends on what you mean when you say “formula.” There’s nothing wrong with form, like with the pre-set shape of a haiku, or how Shakespeare’s sonnets always conform to one framework (with three quatrains and then a rhyme). The books in Katie’s story are the same. The quality is only in the content, not how fresh the font or far between the chapter breaks.

But yes, she lives and solves the crime, and often talks with Door who cannot tell her where he is, but gives the key detail. And…leaves you wanting more.

The coolness lies in character and plot. Forget the frame — ask is it good, or not?

In case you didn’t catch it, I explained in the comments that the key to those three paragraphs is that they could be rewritten like this:

It all depends on what you mean when you
Say “formula.” There’s nothing wrong with form,
Like with the pre-set shape of a haiku,
Or how Shakespeare’s sonnets always conform
To one framework (with three quatrains and then
A rhyme). The books in Katie’s story are
The same. The quality is only in
The content, not how fresh the font or far
Between the chapter breaks. But yes, she lives
And solves the crime, and often talks with Door
Who cannot tell her where he is, but gives
The key detail. And…leaves you wanting more.

The coolness lies in character and plot.
Forget the frame — ask is it good, or not?

That’s right. I’m a huge word nerd. I don’t expect you to be surprised by that.

The Structure of a Story

Last week I also wrote an article about the power of poetry to the storyteller, and in the associated writing exercise I included a link to that blog post. The point I was making in that article got left out of the poetry article, but it’s worth making now — especially following that week’s Tuesday post.

Just like technical documents, stories have structure, whether it’s intentional or accidental. As I’ve mentioned before, the most useful definition for “story” is just “a beginning, a middle, and an end.” In other words, pure structure.

The easiest formal structure to map to that definition (and the one I’m using in the Ghost Targets books) is the three-act narrative. Just like a play divided into acts (and each act composed of several scenes), a story works well when it is built out of three distinct acts, each one significantly progressing the plot in its own way.

Act I

Act I is the beginning, the introduction, in which you reveal to the audience all the information they’re going to need to understand the story. If you’ve been following this blog for long, you’ll know I usually say to get right to the action — “get in late, get out early” — but even that method needs (and allows) introduction. I do recommend diving right in, but during the first act, the story that happens (whether in action or dialogue) should be revelatory — it should provide lots of information, even as it drives the plot forward.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “deus ex machina.” It’s a bad thing. It refers to a too-convenient plot development that just magically solves a significant story complication. It can be the right person showing up at the right time (for no good reason), or a sudden inheritance that solves all the protagonist’s woes (even though we’ve heard nothing about any sickly relatives), or a character suddenly having the ability to fly, just as the villain opens a trapdoor under his feet (but he’s never used or mentioned that ability at any point in the story).

Those examples all share one thing in common: parentheses. Your characters are allowed to get rescued, and inherit fabulous treasures, and even fly if you want, but fair play requires you to establish the rules before you start the game. In other words, you have to at least plant the seeds for something like that to blossom. And when do you plant them? Act I. By the end of Act I, you should be finished establishing and revealing the fundamental information necessary for the plot to your readers.

Act II

Act II, then, is when you start revealing things to your protagonist. The first act ramps up to the story, bringing the reader into the protagonist’s life even as the protagonist is beginning to grapple with a major life disruption. At some point, the protagonist should become active, aggressively seeking to get his or her life back to normal. That process is most of the plot of the book (even if it’s only a third of the page count).

Act II is the quest. Act II is the hunt for the killer. Act II is the pursuit of perfect romance (and all the pitfalls along the way).

Act I introduces what has happened to your protagonist, but Act II tells us what your protagonist does about it.


And Act III, of course, is the end. The conclusion. That’s not to say it’s the resolution (or not all of it, anyway). I’ve talked before about climax and denouement. Those two make up the very end, but just the climax and denouement aren’t usually enough to make up a whole third act. (And if they are, it’s probably because you’re not “getting out early.”)

During the third act, though, the climax and resolution become inevitable. If your story is a mystery, your detective should be well and truly investigating the crime at the beginning of the second act (that’s the quest of a mystery novel, after all). Maybe she starts with nothing, or maybe she starts with a dozen good suspects. Act II is all about finding clues, narrowing down the suspects, chasing (and eliminating) red herrings. At some point, though, your detective should find the information she needs, the vital clue, that will eventually reveal the truth.

Maybe she doesn’t recognize it at first. Maybe it points her down a path she never considered. There should still be roadblocks on her path, but past that point, her path is set. There’s one way it can go, and that’s straight to the conclusion.

Ghost Targets as Formula Fiction

That’s how I do it in Ghost Targets. Katie is my detective protagonist, and every book starts with a beginning. In the first act, I tell the reader what’s going on in her life, especially explaining where she is relative to the end of the last book. I introduce the mystery, often with Katie received a case, maybe reviewing a casefile. She’ll do some research, she’ll stick her nose in some office politics, but during the first act, most of what she does is set up to get the reader up to speed.

Then something falls into place. Maybe a fight with her boss gives her a need to prove herself. Maybe a key piece of evidence falls into place, all on its own, or she hears the voice of someone who shouldn’t be talking in her headset. Whatever it is, it changes her investigation from passive to active. She goes out. She investigates, she hits some unexpected obstacles, she learns there’s more to the story than she suspected, and she figures out how to get the right people to talk.

Then, at some point, she understands. She’s not there yet (whether “there” is an armed standoff in the Everglades or lying face-down on the floor in some villain’s underground lair), but she’s on her way. During the third act, the effects of all her decisions, all her hard work, all her successes and setbacks begin to play out. The people who come into the story at this point had to come into the story at this point, because of something that happened earlier. Same for the events that crop up, including the coincidences. Whether she knows it or not — whether the reader can see it or not — she’s drawn to the climax like a steel bead to a magnet.

Then we get resolution. Then we get an end, all neatly tied with a bow, and packaged in a shape that works, again and again. That’s good structure. Try it out sometime.

6 Responses to “The Three-Act Narrative”

  1. Carlos Velez says:

    Yes Aaron, that structure is definitely working for you. The Ghost Target books are really engaging, in spite or because of said structure. It’s crazy to think I haven’t read the 3rd one yet. My life has changed a lot since NaNoWriMo.

    The one exception I can think of to deus ex machina is Stephen King’s dark tower series. Sometimes an almost too convenient thing happens to allow a resolution to the current conflict. I guess the difference is that while that specific, convenient devlopment was not clearly foreshadowed, the world he created does allow for those things to happen, and he does some extremely obscure, almost ineffective foreshadowing. The result is that while it is unexpected, it doesn’t seem implausible. It fits ok, just makes for a weird story.

  2. Aaron Pogue says:

    Thanks, Carlos! It’s encouraging to hear that, specifically within the context of this conversation.

    As far as Stephen King’s exception…I’ve noticed that every great writer breaks some of the rules. In fact, I think when we talk about a writer’s “voice,” we’re talking about the rules that a writer breaks, and breaks well.

    That’s a blog post I’ve been planning to write for a while, but I still need some time to iron out the wrinkles in that philosophy.

  3. Dave Doolin says:

    Uh… I spend a lot of time attempt to either learn formula or create it for myself…

    It’s a good thing!

    Deus ex machina… Peter Hamilton really pulls out all the stops at the end of the Reality Dysfunction.

    Looking forward to reading first two installments…

  4. Aaron Pogue says:

    I like that, Dave. I definitely have a formula for my blog posts, but somehow I’m totally comfortable with that.

    I’ll look into Peter Hamilton. Never even heard the name before. (I’m certainly not as well-read as I ought to be, for a man in my position. Way too busy writing to get much reading done.)

  5. Julie Velez says:

    This is a fantastic post. I learned this structure way back in the 7th grade when I took my first drama class. I can thank the Greeks and Shakespeare for embedding it into my mind.

    It’s something that I refer to each time I read a book or even watch a television show. It’s a big part of the reason that I do make such a good editor, even though I’m a much worse writer.

    I think you did a great job of putting it out there plainly. It’s important and I think something that everyone can benefit from.

    I also spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to “break” these rules in a way that works. I think that you addressed that as well, which is one of the main things that impressed me about this post. Good job!

  6. Aaron Pogue says:

    That’s awesome, Julie. I don’t think anyone ever taught me the Act structures (although, of course, I read plenty of plays with the titles in place). It took me until sometime in college before I started paying attention to the structure behind the breaks, and not until a year or two ago that I started thinking about novels in those same terms.