writers talk a lot about "the rules." What they are. What they aren't.
Whether or not to break them. I think there are probably no hard and
fast rules about "the rules." Sometimes you break them at will.
Sometimes you don't. Sometimes you break them on some things but keep
them on the others. Sometimes you don't have a clue what the rules are
to begin with.
But I'm a lot less interested
in "the rules" than I am "the formula." You know, the formula all
romance writers write by, according to scoffers and critics.
I can hear the outrage now. We don't write by a formula! How insulting.
Well, um, I do. I write all my books by a formula that's been around
since the days of Aristotle. It's called the Three Act Structure, and I
think almost all good genre novels follow that formula, whether we
realize it or not.
Aristotle lay the foundation for story structure we know as
Three Act Structure. Put simply, this structure can be described as
"the beginning, the middle and the end." But Aristotle himself, and the
millions of storytellers who came after, have refined the three act
structure, defining the integral parts and functions of each act and
how they drive the narrative and result in a satisfying story.
Nowhere does the three act structure figure more prominently than in
screenplays and stage plays. Screenwriter and teacher Syd Field was a
pioneer who made the three act structure one of the foundations of his
screenwriting classes. In his book
Screenplay, this is how Field breaks
down the three-act screenplay:
Act One - Pages 1 - 30 (approximately)
In these thirty pages, the writer sets up the story, the characters,
the dramatic premise and the major players and their relationships.
Act Two - Pages 31 - 90 (approximately)
In Act Two, the main character's attempt to reach his goal is thwarted
again and again, forcing her to change the way she tries to reach her
goal. Each change leads to a new obstacle standing between her and her
Act Three - Pages 91 - 120 (approximately)
The third act solves the story problem, for good or for ill. Your
character reaches her goal or is forever thwarted. Or, perhaps, the
events of the story cause her to change her goal and find a different
sort of success than she originally sought. (Field,
Romance writers may recognize the structure Field outlines in his book.
Roughly, the three act structure is similar to the so-called "formula"
many romance writers have followed for decades in plotting their
stories. And why not? As Aristotle recognized as far back as 350
B.C.E., human beings tell stories the same way. Instinctively, we
understand that a story requires the three parts Field outlines. In
fact, by keeping the three-act structure in mind as we plot our
stories, we can improve our pacing, avoid a sagging middle, and create
a dramatically and emotionally satisfying ending that will leave the
reader happy--and eager to buy our next books.
When plotting your novel, try starting out with a broad three-act
outline. The Set-up--who is your protagonist? What does she want? Why
does she want it? What is keeping her from getting what she wants? You
probably recognize a seminal form of Debra Dixon's Goal, Motivation and
Conflict concept in the previous questions. That's because
what Syd Field and Aristotle knew: goal, motivation and conflict are
essential to Acts One and Two of the three act structure.
If you properly set up Act One, you have a pretty good idea where to go
in Act Two (a.k.a. The Dreaded Middle). You know what the protagonist
wants, and you have a good idea what stands in the way. Act Two is all
about escalating that conflict, making sure that each subsequent
obstacle is bigger and more complex than the obstacle that came before
If, at the end of Act One, you've driven your protagonist up a tree,
you can certainly get her back down again. But make sure that as she
hits the ground, there's a bear after her. And the next tree you drive
her up should be taller and more perilous than the one before, and the
bear that chases her when she gets down better be bigger and meaner
than the one before.
At the end of Act Two, you will have reached that point we romance
writers know as the Black Moment. In screenplay structure, this is the
Act Two turn. It's that point in the story where it seems impossible
that your protagonist will ever reach her goal. All is lost.
Here is where the quality of the first two acts come into play. In the
process of setting up your story problem, defining your protagonist and
antagonist, and escalating your conflict, you should have built in the
escape hatch through which your protagonist escapes to reach her goal.
It's not enough to discover the antagonist's weakness. Ideally, the
protagonist must have learned something over the course of the
confrontation that helps her do something at the end of the story that
she could not have done at the beginning. It can be as simple as
standing up to an overbearing parent or as complicated as giving up the
goal she's spent the entire story pursuing in order to reach a
different, more important goal.
If you can take the three act structure and break it down into its
parts, you have created a solid outline for your novel. But what if
you're not a plotter? What if you're a pantser? How can the three act
structure help you?
Try approaching the revision process with the three act structure in
mind. When you're through with the story you've written by the seat of
your pants, apply the three act structure as a measuring stick. Have
you spent too much time on the set-up and given short shrift to the
middle? Has your middle overtaken the story, meandering around without
escalating incrementally toward the black moment? Is your black moment
the logical result of the confrontations your hero or heroine
experienced in Act Two? Does your resolution drag on too long, or is it
the short, sweet button to your story that it's supposed to be?
The three act structure has stood the test of time. Put it to work for
Copyright © 2005 by Paula Graves