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The Three-Act Principle

The Three-Act Principle

A Session with Laurel Dewey

The Art and Arc of Charting Your Novel

Long before I ever considered writing a novel, I wrote screenplays. A lot of screenplays. I learned the art of screenplay writing from the best of the best. My mentors wrote in the “Golden Age” of television, where a solid story and defined character development were fundamental elements to creating a powerful and moving visual experience. Many of the writers in that era came to film writing from the New York theatre. This is an important point because they understood the fundamentals of writing a solid story. And it was all based on the three-act principle.

My first exposure to this style of writing came when I took courses at California State University Northridge. One of my professors during that time used a teleplay starring Peter Falk as a template for the three-act principle. The teleplay was presented on The Dick Powell Theatre and the title of the show was “The Price of Tomatoes.” We were told to watch it and then “graph” the plot points in our head as we viewed it. But fifteen minutes before the end of the program, he turned off the projector (yeah, projector) and asked each of us in the class to telegraph how WE would end the story, making sure to incorporate a genuine twist at the end.

In case you decide to watch “The Price of Tomatoes,” (and I strongly suggest you do), I don’t want to give away the ending. But I will tell you that when the professor asked me how I’d end it, I based my answer on everything that had come before in the story. Paying attention to the ebb and flow of the very simple plot points within the story, I knew that certain elements had to happen in order for Peter Falk’s character to be redeemed. Figuring out the writer’s “twist” at the end was more about following a thread that had been foreshadowed in the first “act” and then repeated for good measure in the second “act.”

While this all sounds like a dull, math problem, it was nothing of the sort. It became a clear puzzle with pieces that fit beautifully. When I told the professor how I would end the story, he looked at me quizzically and accused me of seeing the show before and knowing how it ended. But I’d never seen it before. I simply used what he and others had taught me in order to predict the most effective and realistic ending.

THE “F” WORD

As boring as it sounds, all good stories must have solid structure to contain them. You can be writing about talking bunnies or singing chairs and the story still has to have an arc of rising and falling to keep the reader interested. The term “structure” can also be compared to the dreaded “F” word: Formula. As much as this seems constrictive to a writer who enjoys “free form narrative,” I assure you that it’s not. It’s more about keeping a writer on track and not allowing him or her to fall into artistic indulgence—a real issue that can prevent readers from becoming totally engaged in a story.

Writing with the formula of the three-act principle also gives the writer a visual template that I liken to a gigantic puzzle. After you lay out your story in your head, you outline it on paper. But corralling that story all at once can be absolutely overwhelming. Using the three-act principle allows the outline process to be less mind-boggling and actually helps to engage the writer in creative problem solving along the way.

By “charting” your novel in this way, you create a sound framework. It is not a cookie cutter approach, nor should it be confused with “writing by the numbers.” Rather, it is a trusted vessel in which you pour your creativity. Readers often complain that too many novels just keep going on and on and on, with no “spike points” as I call them (i.e, action scenes, building tension, character revelations, etc. Using this three-act technique, you can avoid any slow or drifting sections in your novel.

BREAKING IT DOWN

Just like a screen or stage play, you break your novel down into Act One, Act Two, and Act Three. This creates clear sections for building character development and your story arc. After playing around with this concept over the years, I found that breaking those three acts into specific percentages allows a natural progression where challenges arise for the main character or characters in a believable way. This might sound like the most anal-retentive way to lay out a novel, but stay with me here and you’ll see how it works.

The percentage rule I came up with is 25/55/20. That means, 25% of the story is Act One, 55% of your book is Act Two, and the final 20% is Act Three. Using a 400-page manuscript as an example, applying the 25/55/20 rule would mean page one through one hundred is Act One. (There’s wiggle room here, give or take 10 or 15 pages either side, but you don’t want to go past these marks because it really does make a difference in how your novel flows.)

It’s important to mention here that one hundred pages is your “magic number.” The first 100 pages are critical since most publishers judge a book on those pages. If you don’t grab them within those first 100 pages, they won’t bother reading the rest of your book. This also applies to your readers as well. Most readers will give a book fifty to one hundred pages before they give up. Thus, your first act has to be tightly written, well developed, include any subtle foreshadowing and of course, introduce your main characters.

ProtectorAct One of your novel must establish your story. And here are five words you must always remember when you write any story: You need a person with a problem. That’s Number One. Without a person with a problem, you have nothing to hinge the expected drama or tension onto. Watch any good film and in the first ten minutes, you will meet the main character and their problem will be established. If that does not happen within the first ten minutes of the film, it is doubtful that you will care about the rest of the film.  In a novel, you must establish the main character(s) in the first ten to fifteen pages. Look at books that you really like and you’ll see how they deftly do this. They establish the main character and then set up that character’s problems. It may not be the main problem of the book, it may not be the main focus of the book, but you’ve got to introduce what that character is initially attempting to “solve.”

As for the protagonist’s central problem, you have to establish that or at least introduce the problem in some way in the first twenty-five pages of the manuscript. If you’re not introducing what this book is about in the first twenty-five pages, why are you writing it? Whatever this problem is, it has to be resolved by the end of the novel.

In my first novel, Protector, the story revolves around homicide detective Jane Perry and a child, Emily Lawrence, who Jane is assigned to protect. While Jane Perry is the driving force of the book and subsequent series, I chose to start the book with Emily. Readers do not meet Jane until page eight. But within three pages, readers quickly get an understanding of who Jane Perry is, how she sees the world, what just happened to her and how she chooses to deal with her many problems.

Detective Jane Perry woke up with a start. For a second, she had no idea where she was. Her breathing was fast and labored, as though she’d just run a marathon. Jane closed her eyes and let out a loud grunt. Catching her breath, she stared at the ceiling in a slight daze. “Fuck,” was all she could utter in a raspy whisper.

She’d had the same bloody nightmare again. But it was different this time. There was something else; something incongruous to the usual pattern of violence. But that something else was ominously intangible to Jane. It was as though she could damn near taste it and smell the scent of danger, but her rational mind couldn’t define it. Whatever this was, it felt patently real, as if it had already happened. She’d always accepted her sixth sense – gut intuitiveness – but that only came into play after exhaustive logical reasoning. Now it appeared that her intuitive mind was morphing into a chaotic, precognitive monster that hid between the shadows of her conscious mind. Jane tried to chalk this tender sense of doom to her five-day booze binge. But she’d hit the bottle hard many times and never felt the queasy uneasiness that was beginning to take on a life of its own. The thought crossed her mind that she was finally losing it. After 35 years of barely holding it together, she feared she might be unraveling. That fear alone jolted her back to her senses as she lay alone in her bed staring into the void.

Jane coughed deeply – the kind of gut cough that comes from over 20 years of chain smoking. She reached over to the bedside table feeling for a pack of cigarettes. The table, just like the rest of the house, was a mess – the tactile consequence of her binge. A dozen empty cigarette packs, three drained bottles of Jack Daniels and a thick coating of ashes from the overturned ashtray littered the small table. Coming up empty handed, she leaned over to the other side of the bed where another table sat askew from the wall. Opening the drawer, Jane found a full pack of Marlboros and a lighter. Her gut-wrenching cough continued as she peeled off the wrapping, jerked a cigarette out of the pack and lit up. She sucked the nicotine into her lungs like a seasoned pro. As the smoke peeled out of her mouth, she examined her bandaged left hand.

Putting it mildly, Jane starts out in bad shape, both physically and mentally. By page twenty-six of the novel, Jane’s world is crumbling around her. She’s losing control of her life and told that unless she agrees to play by the rules, her job is in jeopardy. Thus, another huge problem for Jane.

And from there, the problems just keep piling up for her. By page 106, readers have learned Jane’s brutal backstory and, perhaps, begin to understand her motives and knee-jerk reactions to the world around her. In other words, I made sure that within that crucial one hundred-or-so page mark, readers would have a clear understanding of who this woman is, what she experienced as a child, and how that brutal trauma has wormed its way into her present life. This is critical for the story as a whole because Jane Perry is not your typical female protagonist. I chose to craft a character that is terribly damaged, brutally honest, edgy, boiling with rage, foul-mouthed but also highly intelligent and compassionate. I knew that if I didn’t let readers in on the “why” of Jane Perry, they might not want to continue reading the book.

Thus, Act One of your novel establishes the main character, their problem(s), and creates the obstacles to those problems. Act One lays the groundwork for the entire book. Within that first act, your main character requires either other characters and/or situations—preferably both—that continually complicate their lives as they attempt to solve their problems. Without the hills to climb, your story will be flat and pointless. Challenges create intrigue and demonstrate the cleverness and/or determination of the protagonist, not to mention the writer who is figuring it all out.
 

Exercise 1

As you write or review the first 100 pages of your novel, make a note of each challenge your main character encounters. Now, take each one of those challenges and come up with three different outcomes that will move the story forward. Each outcome doesn’t have to be used, of course, but this flexes your creative mind to come up with (hopefully) realistic outcomes/reactions to the main character’s challenge. If you are doing this correctly, the best outcome will lead to yet another challenge and yet another outcome that will move the story forward.

In order to understand this process better, put yourself in your main character’s shoes and ask yourself how you would react to such a challenge. What would be the most common reaction? What would be the most ludicrous reaction? What would be the most logical reaction? This will show you how well you really know your main character and help you to know the true reactions he/she would have to the situation you have created.


 
By the end of Act One, you must insert a challenge or greater issue than what has come before. In other words, Act One must end with a bit of a “cliffhanger.” However, this is not the same type of cliffhanger you will create to end Act Two. Act One’s ending should be about half as shocking compared to how you choose to end Act Two. But it has to have relevance to how you plot Act Two and finally, Act Three.

The end of Act One should also involve a springboard, so to speak, to Act Two. The springboard is not necessarily a major obstacle but a “wow moment”—a twist, discovery or complication that propels the main character and the reader into solving the issue at hand, even if the main character is dragged kicking and screaming into that situation.

In Protector, Act One ends with Jane being ordered to protect the child, Emily Lawrence. Up to that point, she has fought tooth and nail to avoid this connection at all costs. But backed against a wall at the end of Act One, she reluctantly agrees and we then blast into the “meat” of the book: Act Two.

THE MEAT AND POTATOES OF YOUR STORY

Act Two is the core of your story. It’s the meat and potatoes, where everything important takes place. Using the same 400-page template and applying the 25/55/20 rule, Act Two would begin approximately on page 101 and continue for around 220 more pages. Act Two is where you delve deeper into the main character, creating constant obstacles for him or her to overcome. You peel away the proverbial onion layer by layer until you hit the center, which is the “sting” or the end of Act Two.

Begin Act Two at 40 mph and make sure you end Act Two at 80 mph. In order to do this, you must constantly inject more problems for the main character or characters to solve. This doesn’t mean that you can’t solve some of the minor problems within Act Two. It’s vital and hopefully obvious to save the big issues at hand and their final resolution for Act Three. But allowing your characters to show their grit and creative determination in Act Two is a good idea. Constant struggle in a book can be depressing to read. Thus, figure out how to resolve minor issues but continually maintain a pressing need to move forward…and then forward again. Act Two needs to be a train on a central track that doesn’t stop. Minor problems are solved but the major ones remain or get further complicated by the character’s actions or inaction, or via challenges that arise from events or other characters’ intervention.

By the end of Act Two, your reader should be so deeply engaged in your main character’s struggles, that they begin to relate to them in a very personal way. This is very important because it creates a strong connection between your reader and your fictional character. The character’s jeopardy becomes their jeopardy. By the end of Act Two, it is critical to put your main character in a position that threatens them in some major way. The reader, in turn, will also feel threatened because, by this point, they’ve invested a lot of their emotional muscle in the main character’s struggles and feel completely connected to their desires. By the end of Act Two, if you’ve done your job up until this point, your reader will have a genuine need to see how the character and “they” will end up.

The end of Act Two is the “Oh my God!” moment. It’s the guy hanging—sometimes literally—off a cliff. It’s the character in jeopardy or making a choice to do something they have resisted prior to this point in the story. In Protector, Act Two ends with Jane making a hard decision to put into action a series of events that will further complicate her life but also lead her to the resolution of the story. Those actions I plotted in Protector quickly escalate within five pages and we blast into Act Three with lots of mounting tension and dramatic revelations.

“What are you thinking about?” Emily said carefully.

“There’s something I’ve got to do.” Jane replied, locked in deep thought.

Emily analyzed Jane’s posture and nervous behavior. “Why are you so scared?”

Jane turned to Emily. “Huh?”

“You only rub your scar when you’re scared. What is it you have to do?”

Jane pulled her hand away from the scar. “I have to make an important phone call.”

Jane checked her Glock before slipping it into her fanny pack. She started to walk out of her bedroom when she returned to her leather satchel and drew an extra clip from the side pocket. Placing the clip into the inside pocket of the fanny pack, she zipped it up and headed down the hallway. “Ready?”

Emily was seated on the couch. “You know, we never talked about the sleepover with Heather and her friends.”

“We’ll talk about it later. Come on.”

“No,” Emily stated, not moving an inch. “The sleepover means a lot to me.”

Jane sat on the couch, doing her best act diplomatic. “Look, you and I are up against the wall right now. I think we should keep the house off-limits to other people.”

“It’s one night. We can lock all the doors and you can sit up in your bedroom with your gun. I just want to feel normal again…even if it’s just for a little bit.”

Jane studied Emily’s face. Her gut told her “no,” but the kid’s candid petition was hard to argue with. “Okay,” Jane replied reluctantly.

They drove off in the Subaru, Jane’s heart beating hard the whole time. Pulling into the parking lot of The Pit Stop, she checked the time. It was Monday around noon. He should be home for lunch. This phone call was a long shot and risky as hell. She would also have to check her pride at the door for the whole thing to work.

She got out of the car and dialed the number. The phone rang three times and then, “Hello?”

Your story will become even more intense if the cliffhanger at the end of Act Two also challenges your main character’s belief system simultaneously. This makes the crisis two-fold because it forces your main character to be brave and even move outside his/her comfort zone in order to solve their problem(s). Moving them outside their comfort zone also allows them to grow and evolve—something intrinsic to the character’s arc as you move into Act Three of your novel.
 

Exercise 2

As you move closer to ending Act Two and beginning Act Three of your novel, write down five options that you feel would humble your character. What logical angles at that point of your story would bring your character to his or her knees, either physically or emotionally? Once you come up with those five options, take each option and play it out on paper or talk it out loud. You should know your main character by heart at this point and clearly understand what would hurt or deeply affect him or her to the point where s/he would have no choice but to act and resolve the problem once and for all. One way to do this is to choose an option that will challenge the character and then pretend to be your character and start talking like your character out loud in a stream of consciousness manner. If you really know your character, you can often come up with original and realistic actions and reactions as you move into the character’s mind. Using this method, you can also verify whether the creative option you’ve chosen feels real or manufactured. Whatever option(s) you choose, the result should always be true to whatever you’ve set up for the character in Acts One and Two. In addition, playing the options out to their natural conclusion(s) will help you see whether you are staying true to your story arc and character’s natural evolution.

 
WRAPPING IT UP AND MAKING IT COUNT

Act Three needs to start at 80 mph and end at 125 mph or more. Act Three is always the shortest act of your novel. Again, using the 400-page template, Act Three would come in around 80-90 pages. Those pages should not feel rushed, as if you are trying to cram everything you haven’t said into that small section. If you’ve paced your story correctly, the reader will not feel as if the last 80-90 pages are too hurried. The reader should, however, feel tremendous tension that makes it difficult for them to put down the book. Since Act Three is the smallest percentage of the book, it gives you the opportunity to really kick it into gear and get the reader thinking, “Oh, my God! Oh, no!” and then take them on a fast-paced ride until the final few pages of the novel…or even the final line of the book.

The key word for Act Three is momentum. It is vital for you to maintain that momentum throughout Act Three, building it brick by brick, page by page. As we all know from novels we’ve read, “good” stories often fall apart in the last 80-100 pages. How many times have you heard this: “I loved the book but the writer didn’t know how to end it.” That only happens when a book is poorly conceived and outlined. But if you chart your novel, this won’t happen and it certainly won’t take away from your creativity. In fact, using the template of the three-act principle, a writer begins to understand exactly what is needed at this point or that point in the book and can then come up with creative solutions that make sense but also allow the reader’s suspension of disbelief to flourish.

How you choose to end your story depends upon whether you’ve built a strong and consistent narrative that allows for the ending you create. Endings that “come out of the blue” should be avoided. Anything that runs counter to how the character would or would not act or react needs to be rejected in the creative process. Do all the stories need to be resolved? No. This is true especially if you are planning to continue your story as a series. But the main character’s issue for that novel does need to be resolved. In other words, the mystery (if there is one) or major problem has to be solved and your main character absolutely should be different than he or she was when we first met him or her in the first ten pages.

If the book is the first in a series, it’s a great idea to end it with some type of unresolved “issue” or concern that relates to the main character. In the last pages of Protector, Jane Perry has to make a difficult decision about Emily Lawrence and, in doing so, we see a woman who is still struggling but definitely moving onto a better path from where she began at the beginning of the novel. The last line of the book also relates to a “callback” from earlier in the novel that perfectly ties in Jane’s newfound revelations about herself and her uncertain future. The last line of Protector leaves the reader with a greater understanding of where Jane Perry might be headed but doesn’t telegraph it to the point where the reader would know exactly what will happen next.

Jane could have headed straight home. But 30 miles down the road, she pulled off the rural highway, got out of her car and lay on the hood of her Mustang staring into the summer twilight sky. For the first time in her life, she had no clear mission planned – no sense of where she was meant to be. But she felt something close to her – like a heavy page turning. The sounds of the warm night echoed in the distance. The soft hum of trucks in the distance blended with a lone red-tailed hawk circling above her three times before disappearing into the distance. Jane lay there for three hours waiting for an answer that never came.
 

Exercise 3

Using the same method referenced earlier, choose a classic film that is generally regarded as “good” to “great.” It can be anything from Gone With The Wind to a more recent romantic comedy such as Sleepless in Seattle. Whatever you choose, make sure it’s a film that has a solid story structure with deep and meaningful character development. Once you’ve chosen the film, re-write the ending, maintaining realism and making sure to never sacrifice the character’s evolution.

You can do the same thing with a classic novel, from Moby Dick to Catcher in the Rye. This exercise trains your mind to think outside the box because it’s often easier to rewrite endings to classic films or novels since you are more subjective than you would be with your own work. It’s also good to know that the endings/resolutions you have grown accustomed to in classic films and novels were not necessarily the writer’s first choice. Many times the endings of films and books have been drastically altered by the writer to create more drama or compassion for the main character.

Once you feel comfortable re-writing the ends to classic films and books, you will have trained your mind to be more open to the possibility of altering or improving the end of your story. After exploring this process, if the ending you originally chose is still the best ending to your novel, figure out a way to give it a twist or refine it just a bit. No matter how perfect you believe it is, it can always be just a bit better.


 

“Leave your reader wanting more,” one of my mentors used to say all the time. I agree. Keep them hungry and they’ll always come back for the next feast.

 

About the Author…
Bookreporter says, “Laurel Dewey has definitely earned a place in any discussion of the top mystery authors of the present day.” Over the years, the creative team at The Story Plant has been involved in the development of many of the suspense genre’s brightest stars. When we first read national bestselling author Laurel Dewey, we knew we were meeting a writer with as much storytelling energy and raw emotional power as any we’d encountered. Readers share our enthusiasm, writing rhapsodically about their experiences with her novels and their emotional connection with Dewey’s unforgettable main character, Detective Jane Perry. Meanwhile, Dewey’s standalone novel, Betty’s (Little Basement) Garden will let you see the world in a completely different way, and Dewey can even help you grow healthier plants.
http://www.laureldewey.com
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