Three Act Structure for Novelists
Part of my day job used to be teaching scriptwriting for stage and screen at
. One of the foundational
modules was all about three act structure. For film writers, it is essential
that they have an understanding of this influential model as the vast majority
of produced screenplays follow it. For playwrights it is important too,
although the theatre sees more experimentation in form than commercial film.
But what about novelists? Yes, they can also use it. Northumbria University
In fact, I do. My books are written using the three act structure model I learned through scriptwriting. I find it very helpful to plan my novel in this way and it helps me as I’m writing to keep on track and not lose sight of the big picture. Knowing the approximate word count for each section of the book is enormously helpful for me. It helps, for instance, for me to know that my inciting incident will kick off at around 18 – 20,000 words, and that I need to have a ‘point of no return’ in the middle of the book, which will be around the 45K mark. Then as I’m approaching the end, it helps me to know my ‘act three’, the final section of the book, should start gaining momentum at around 65,000 words.
This way of writing may not be for everyone, but it certainly is for me. Perhaps you might want to consider it too. There are lots of books you can read to help you understand this structure. Some of the best are Robert McKee’s Story and Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey (which ties the three act structure into a classical mythical model). But for now, here is a brief introduction (and a graph):
Act 1: The beginning - the introduction of the main characters and their world. This is where you establish the primary conflict of the book. What does the main character want and what or who stands in his or her way? What propels the character to start out on their journey? In my literary thriller The Peace Garden, for instance, we meet Natalie as she is arriving at her grandmother's house and she discovers that there is a plant thief in the neighbourhood. She sets out to find the thief but on the way discovers that there’s a far darker secret hiding in the quiet suburban cul-de-sac. In my 1920s mystery, The Jazz Files, we meet Poppy Denby as she arrives in
, gets a job on a newspaper and then is tasked with
finishing the investigation started by a journalist who has died in mysterious
Act 2: The middle - the character has now started on their journey to find love, right a wrong, uncover a mystery or escape a vicious killer. But what happens to them on the way? This is where the character faces obstacles and setbacks, detours and challenges, in the quest to find a solution to their problem at the risk of losing everything. In The Peace Garden, Gladwin, whom Natalie has befriended in her search for the plant thief, returns to his home country of South Africa to face a murder charge and sends Natalie a series of letters in which he tells the story of his past. In The Jazz Files Poppy follows a complex web of corruption, deceit and murder in her quest to find out the truth about the death of a suffragette seven years earlier.
Act 3: The end - the story reaches a climax as the characters come face to face with their greatest fear or their greatest desire or their greatest challenge. The questions that are raised in the beginning and the middle should be addressed by the end. This does not mean everything needs to be tied up neatly, and there can be some suggestions that everyone will not live happily ever after, but the story needs to be complete in some way or you will run the risk of leaving a dissatisfied reader. Both The Peace Garden and The Jazz Files reach a climax as the heroines come face to face with their respective antagonists and finally solve the mystery.
The optional denouement - the aftermath of the climax. Once the character's problem has been solved, what does their world look like? What has changed? This can be an internal or external change, but most novels have a combination of both. Don’t linger on this section; this should be one short chapter or an afterword. In some novels there is no denouement because everything is summed up in the climax. The denouement is a useful place to briefly wrap up sub-plots but the main plot must be resolved at the climax. In The Peace Garden there is an explosive climactic chapter then a quiet denouement set seven months later. The Jazz Files’ denouement takes place two weeks after the climax, when Poppy is back in the newspaper office.
Fiona Veitch Smith is a writer and writing tutor, based in
Newcastle upon Tyne. She writes across all media, for children and
adults. Her mystery novel The Jazz Files, the first in the Poppy
Denby Investigates Series (Lion Fiction) was shortlisted for the CWA Historical
Dagger award in 2016. The second book, The
Kill Fee is a finalist for the Foreword Review
mystery novel of the year 2016/17, and the third, The Death Beat, will
be published in October. Her novel Pilate’s
Daughter a historical love story
set in Roman Palestine, is published by Endeavour Press and her literary
thriller about apartheid , The
Peace Garden, is self-published under the Crafty Publishing imprint.
Her children’s books The
Young David Series and the Young
Joseph Series are published by
SPCK. South Africa