There are conventions, structures and forms to writing fiction that help you hold all the pieces together and transform an idea into a story. The form called the three-act structure, handed down to us from the ancient Greeks, is one that’s proven successful for thousands of years.
The study of the three-act structure has been ongoing since it evolved from the mythic adventures that have long been part of classical education, but Christopher Vogler put it into accessible terms. Each writer defines the three-act structure in his own way. Fiction is a fluid art form. But I highly recommend any writer pick up a copy of Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey before writing another word.
We dream our dreams in a basic structure, and the Ancient Greeks followed this structure in their myths. To write fiction in the structure in which we dream gives the reader a level of familiarity that makes stories meaningful and accessible.
The three acts are known by various titles and their ingredients referred to in various ways: Beginning, Middle, End; Opening, Development, Conclusion; The Decision to Act, The Action, The Consequences of the Action.
Following this form, or at least being aware of its long-proven success, will help you get a handle on what’s working and what’s not in your stories.
In starting an outline, I like to think up four or five big moments that will occur in the story. These are turning points, or darkest moments. From here, I bridge to connect these scenes, adding several smaller turning points to connect the dots.
My technique is a holdover from scriptwriting. I card these scenes and hang them on the wall. But regardless of how you start the massive job of assembling the character(s) and story lines in your novel, in the end, the story should be structured in three acts.
ACT 1THE CHALLENGE
This first act establishes action, characters and what’s at stake. Our protagonist, or lead character, faces something newsomething that requires his participation. A journey. A quest. He must decide to accept the challenge. Vogler talks about the Hero leaving the “Ordinary World” and stresses that the early part of the story shows the Ordinary World in order to later distinguish the “Special World.” I think of it in terms of set-up. You want to establish your character(s) in the real world; to set up the world where your character(s) exist. The reader needs a reference point, and somewhere early in the story is your chance to show the protagonist in his everyday life. That way, when we see the challenge that’s the central conflict of the story, we’ll start at the level ground from which the protagonist must climb the mountain. By seeing the mountain more clearly, this also allows us to identify the antagonist. By inference, we learn not only who our protagonist is, but also what he’s made of, or at least the level of threat the antagonist presents.
In the first act, we learn what’s at stake for the protagonistwhat he has to lose, and therefore we begin to imagine what he might gain.
Vogler refers to the early element of Act 1 as the “Call to Adventure.” The Hero is presented with a problem, challenge or adventure that he must solve or complete. In a detective mystery, it’s the first crime. In a story of revenge, it’s a wrong to be righted. In a romance, it’s an early encounter with a future love interest.
Story is character. Act 1 shows the reader the boundaries that the protagonist must operate within. This includes phobias, fears, limitations and other flaws. They may be physical or mental; real or imagined; age-based or gender-based. Show your character as human. Show his flaws and his vulnerability because this is the character mountain he must climb while he follows his call to adventure. The protagonist is often reluctant to accept the challenge. He’s facing his biggest fears and is in no hurry to jump into the fray. The characters face internal conflicts (character issues) just as they face external conflicts (the challenge of the story). Act 1 is where all of this is brought to the page.
He can still turn back at this point. You see the internal and external conflicts, and the reader is rooting for him to go for it. But before he does, he may need to be pushed.
Vogler writes of the mentor, the sage, the Obe-Wan character who’s consulted and is the catalyst for the Hero to make the commitment to the Adventure. The mentor prepares the protagonist for the challenge. Think: The Good Witch explains about the Wizard and the Emerald City and then delivers the Ruby Slippers to Dorothy.
Consulting a mentor also gives the writer a chance to show, not tell, the reader about the protagonist. The mentor verbalizes the fears the protagonist must face; he can tell us or show us something about the protagonist by remembering something from the past. The mentor is therefore a vehicle to the backstory (and as the writer you must know the character’s backstory, whether or not you choose to ever share it with the reader). The mentor is a great tool for exposition about the emotional depth of the protagonist and what events may be responsible for his greatest fears.
The end of Act 1 throws the protagonist into the decision to accept the challenge. This is the first big moment. This could be a firsthand confrontation with the evilpersonified or notand by taking a stand or simply by not running away from the challenge, the decision is made. Here the protagonist overcomes the concerns, accepts the complications, passes the tests and, with an awareness that it’s dangerous, decides to take on this challenge.
The conflict is now fully realized; it’s no longer just talk. The protagonist’s decision to move forward is seen by the reader as a defining moment; it forms a lasting impression of character in the reader’s mind. We get our first really good look at what kind of person this isand we like him.
Vogler calls it crossing the first threshold. The Hero faces the consequences of accepting the Call to Adventure. The story takes off. The Hero takes action. Think: Dorothy heads out onto the Yellow Brick Road.
Act 2 involves development of story and character and the darkest moment. Action heats up. Challenges complicate. Characters expand. The protagonist has accepted the challenge, and he must come to face that challenge and move forward to survive.
Vogler defines the start of the second act as a series of tests, a time to confirm allies and enemies. The Hero learns the rules of this Special World. Vogler points out that surprisingly often, saloons and bars offer the necessary backdrop (think Star Wars), settings that allow exposition of both the new world and the various characters involved.
Complications make the pursuit (of truth, of love, of a treasure or individual) more difficult than expected. In a detective story or mystery, there might be more murders discovered at this stage. Whatever the case, the level of confusion for the protagonist and the reader increases.
In romance, relationships entangle and nothing is as it seemed. Preparation is needed to face one’s fears and one’s mortal enemy. This next phase isn’t to be taken lightly.
It’s during this preparation that there’s a reflective moment where lovers or fellow protagonists share backstory and further inform us of who they are. This is the “sitting around the fire” momentand it precedes entering the dark place.
Vogler talks about the Hero standing at the mouth of the cave. Plans must be made before he enters. When he finally crosses that line and enters the inmost cave, he crosses a second threshold, or another big moment. Very often the ordeal takes place, literally, in a cave or dark underground place. (In my novel The Art of Deception, I used a little-known subterranean space under Seattle.) Stories are rich with these locations for the obvious reference to Hell. The Hero faces the ordeal and appears to die. The reader is depressed by the apparent loss of the Hero, only to be overjoyed when he resurfaces. Having survived and beaten the dragon, he grabs the sword (the treasure, truth, knowledge or relationship) and leaves the inmost cave.
This darkest moment is when everything goes to ruin, and we fear for the protagonist’s life (or relationship or whatever’s at stake). The airplane is out of fuel, and the parachutes turn out to be 20 years old and made of rotting cloth, for example. But the protagonist prevails, surviving when we thought he was doomed. He puts the challenge behind him. Or so we think. This is the beauty of the end of the second act: What feels like a finale is in fact a set-up to the third and final act.
The second act is a balance of action, story development and interiorizing the characters. We’re not going to have time to resolve everything in the third act without it feeling forced. This is a place first-time novelists make mistakes. Near the end of the second act is a good time to resolve subplots, or at least move them along so you can resolve them quickly in the third act. Red herrings in mysteries need to be exposed and/or new developments need to arise that eliminate many of them as well as many of the earlier complications. We clear the reader’s mind to focus on the protagonist getting home safely with the treasure in hand. We’re not going to want to stop and explain things in the third act, so now’s the time to get stuff out of the way. You can use dialogue to do this, letting one character explain or show something to another character that, in turn, informs the reader that we don’t need to think about that (person, place or thing) any longer.
ACT 3THE CONSEQUENCES
Now it’s time for the unexpected to give rise to a final threat that brings closure. The third act is where the chase hits full stride. It begins with the unexpected and ends with the long anticipated. This is where winning at the end of Act 2 turns out to be only a minor victory, and the threat the protagonist overcame turns out to be not the only one he’ll have to overcome. This is also the act for the big twist; shock value pays off. The character, having achieved new heights, must remain on or above those heights; there’s no return, no lessening of strength in this actthe character has hit his stride and now, if anything, must run even faster. If we spent the first two acts making our protagonist flawed, vulnerable and human, here’s where he overachieves and becomes superhuman. Dorothy will kill the witch. Luke will slay Lord Vader.
The opening of Act 3 typically involves a chase. Vogler explains that the Hero is pursued on the road back by the same forces he disturbed by Seizing the Sword. The Hero elects to return to the Ordinary World from which he came; the Special World must be left behind. Challenges, dangers and more tests still lie ahead.
Act 3 provides for the big twist. What we thought was true turns out to be false. The elusive truth finally takes hold, and we realize we’ve been wrong all along. This propels the protagonist to a final threat.
The final threat is the “dead” guy jumping in from stage left, not dead at all. This is the guy pulling himself out of the river and dragging himself to shore to attack the protagonist one final time. It’s the lover coming back to mend the wounds, only to see the protagonist with a new lover.
The protagonist, having learned something (about himself or others) at the conclusion of Act 2 can now reap the benefit of that knowledge and prevail one final time. In doing so, he’s a changed man. He’s made it. It’s over. He can return, with no desire to be somewhere else or someone else. He’s whole again.
Vogler writes that the story is meaningless if the Hero returns without what he calls the elixir. This is a truth, an antidote, a treasure, a lesson. Dorothy realizes there’s no place like home. Someone graduates from college, or training camp or boot camp. There’s a truth gained, and it’s worth all he’s gone through.
This is the payoff. All that’s been accomplished, all that’s been learned. Not only has he gained the external treasure, but he’s also cemented a character change in the protagonist that will affect him in a positive way and allow for healing, or a better relationship, or stability. We celebrate with the protagonist that this has all been worth it.
The end often shows the reuniting with someone from whom the protagonist separated at the start of the story: This could be an idea, a belief system or a person. The protagonist, and the reader along with him, is made whole. Ordinary life can continue again.
There’s no simple formula for fiction. But there’s a centuries-proven form to good storytelling that follows this three-act structure. All of these conventions are there to be fooled with-there’s no right way. In my novel Cut and Run, I started the book in Act 2 by weaving the elements of Act 1 into a story that was already moving at the pace of an Act 2. The result is a fast read, but it was no simple task to construct the story this way.
The three-act form is there because it works. Name a film or book you think rises above others, and chances are, if you go back and study it, the story line will fit into this form. We often think of the start of a story as a blank pagenothing there but our idea. But it’s not true. With the three-act structure, we have a massive foundation to support, sustain and maintain our stories.