The Formula

We 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.

In Poetics, 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 story goal.


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, Screenplay, pp. 9-12).

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. If you have a favorite book cover and want a sign of it can make you one.

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 Dixon knows 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 it.

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 you.