Three-Act Structure Made Easy ☺
~ By Susan Meier
Hi, I’m Susan Meier, author of over sixty books. I teach online workshops and also at RWA chapter conferences. At one point, I did a Monday Morning blog on the art and craft of writing. This is a blog from that series.
What is three-act structure?
Simply put, three-act structure is the beginning, middle and end of your story. (BTW, don’t get too complicated with how you think about things and they’ll be a lot easier to understand!)
But the three acts aren’t even. The first act is like a setup that ends with a decision or an action that turns the story on its ear, and usually gets it going in another direction. It’s approximately one-tenth of the story. In a category romance, about thirty pages. In a bigger book, about forty. (YIKES) But it can be longer or shorter. There are no structure police. 🙂 You will not go to jail if your setup takes longer or doesn’t take as long.
i.e. In HEAD OVER HEELS FOR THE BOSS, my September Entangled Bliss release, the heroine discovers her family business has been sold to the guy she’s had a crush on forever. She fears working with/for him because she knows she’ll embarrass herself, trip over her own feet, drool on him. LOL But after talking with her friends and spending a morning or two working with him, she realizes what she really wants is to take a shot at getting him to notice her/fall for her, too.
So we end chapter two on a turning point…She decides to take a shot with him.
Act two is all about the results of the decision/turning point at the end of act one. In HEAD OVER HEELS FOR THE BOSS it’s what happens when the hero and heroine work together.
But in act two we also have the story’s midpoint…That’s another turning point. In a lot of romances, the hero and heroine sleep together at the midpoint and that changes how they feel about each other and also changes their circumstance. In some really sweet romances, that turning point can be the first kiss. ☺
From there it’s a sort of tumble to the black moment which is usually the end of act two.
Which means act three, like act one, is short. Misery without each other. Decisions. (Should I go back to my old job, my old life, my mom’s basement? Or maybe should I leave this two-bit town and find my real destiny?) Followed by a point where the hero or heroine realizes (because of something that happens) that they made the wrong decision in dumping the hero/heroine…and then a happy ending.
Some people dress up act 3 with a Hollywood ending. A great/grand gesture made by the party in the wrong to win back the party in the right. (I did that in HEAD OVER HEELS FOR THE BOSS.)
Other publishers like a more emotional ending. I done you wrong, but I am back, please don’t shoot me…Love me. (I do that for Harlequin Romance.)
Suspense authors have a whole different thing going on in act three. They have to solve the suspense problem (sometimes by killing the villain or rescuing somebody the villain took hostage); they have to fix the romance; and they have to debrief.
But that’s three-act structure in a nutshell.
Why was/is that so hard? It isn’t. Not if you use it. LOL But if you don’t know about it, or if you let your characters run away with your story…Yikes. You can have a mess on your hands.
Does structure ruin the free flow of your story? Read what I wrote above. I didn’t give you the iron hand of the law that would make your characters puppets. Structure is just like a spine or a framework. Or maybe a tour guide. It doesn’t boss you around. It just shows you the way to keep your story tight and on track.
Some people, Michael Hague, for instance, will give you a little bit more of a guide or a fence. I love his stuff! He’s at storymastery.com. Get his plot template. You will love it.
The trick to this is realizing that you don’t have to hit exact pages with things like turning points or act endings. You just have to be in the ballpark. 🙂
But trust me…in the end…you will be glad because you will have a clear, readable story.
Susan Meier is the author of over 60 books for Harlequin and Silhouette, Entangled Indulgence, Red Hot Bliss and Bliss and one of Guideposts’ Grace Chapel Inn series books, THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS. In 2013 she lived one of her career-long dreams. Her book, THE TYCOON’S SECRET DAUGHER was a finalist for RWA’s highest honor, the Rita. The same year NANNY FOR THE MILLIONAIRE’S TWINS was a National Reader’s Choice finalist and won the Book Buyer’s Best Award.
Susan is married with three children and is one of eleven children, which is why love and family are always part of her stories.