#marywrites Three Act Structure

I want to begin this with a disclaimer that everyone writes differently, in the way that works for them, and this is not meant to be a how to write. This is literally just how I write, and I thought it would be interesting to break it down. One of my writer friends doesn’t write this way, and it was confusing her for ages when I kept referencing the acts of my book–honestly, it still confuses her, we write in very different ways, and we both think each other is crazy–so I thought it’d be fun to talk about what a three-act structure is and why I write like this.

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If you have taken a single English literature 101 class ever, you know what this is! And while it may seem arbitrary and annoying, and you may be having nightmare flashbacks to high school where no one actually cared about books except for you, this is important! And no matter what way you write, you’re either going to consciously or subconsciously going to utilize this model. (Honestly, you’re probably subconsciously utilize a three-act structure without realizing it, too.) The way that stories are told generally follow the same formula, no matter the plot and characters and world input into that formula. Why? Because it makes sense. This is how we’ve told stories for as long as we’ve been telling stories. You need to set your readers up with enough exposition that they understand the what/why/how/who. There has to be a climax that your story is working toward, but you need some time to get there, and even if your conclusion isn’t a Disney moral, there is some kind of conclusion that you’ve got to slow down toward. That’s just how stories work.

The three act structure fits neatly inside of that. I’ve talked before about how I outline and why it helps me, and while outlining is definitely something that about half of writers scoff at and don’t utilize, I think, at some point or another, you’re going to end up outlining at least a little. If you’re writing a story, there are enough components going on that, eventually, you’re going to forget something or get confused or just need to walk through the story beat by beat until you understand what direction you’re headed in. Whether this happens at the start or in the middle of the second draft, outlining comes around eventually, and it’s more a matter of what the actual outline looks like that changes between people.

Acts are part of outlining, and while it’s definitely more high-level than the actual act of outlining, it’s helped me a lot in figuring out the moments of pivotal action in my books.

So what, exactly, is the three act structure?

Act one is generally the getting to know the characters chapters. I’m going to take out some of the finer details, but this is what the act one outline for the first sister witches looks like:

  • ACT ONE
    • First chapter
      • Witches accidentally summon & bind Theo to them, uh oh
    • One year later
    • Getting to know the different witches
    • Theo gets moody about something at some point and turns into a cat
      • All of them pretend the cat just comes and goes as it pleases and that whenever the cat’s there, Theo is visiting family or something
      • Luciana knows that he has magic like the girls, but doesn’t know that he’s a demon
    • Wren shows up at the end of this act
    • All boyfriends should be introduced, as well

There are a few bullet points that I removed, plot points that either are spoilery or didn’t happen, but this is the basic structure of the first act of SW1. I feel like I should probably compare this to a standalone novel, but I don’t have one? Well, okay, I have one, but I’m not much of a standalone writer, and it’s very infrequently going to happen, so another disclaimer, the three act structure I’m talking here is in reference to, at minimum, duologies. It changes a little with standalones because you’re telling a complete story in one book, so you need to get things moving quicker, but I think looking at the first sister witches will work, too, since it’s the beginning of everything, and I’ve got to hook the reader with that first book to keep them on the line for the second one.

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Oh my gosh, whyyyyyyy, the idiocy of this movie is just constantly on repeat in my brain.

The first act is introductory. It’s the first step and a half of the story graph. It lays the exposition out slowly, and it starts to give you some rising action. Wren being introduced at the end of the first act is meant as a turning point, something that’s going to shift the action a little and refocus the characters. Thus far, they’ve just been interacting, getting to know each other, letting you, as the reader, get to know them, setting out the lay of the land. But, when Wren arrives–or whatever your shift from exposition to rising action is–that’s a break in the story, something that’s opening things up enough that we enter the second act.

The second act is probably a lot of people’s favorites, but I’m a 12-ending kind of gal like Tolkien, so I really love the third act. If I could just write conclusions for days, I’d be happy. (Spoiler: they’re always going to be happy conclusions, too.) But the second act is where a lot of Things happen. It’s not quite the climax yet, though we’re working toward that, but it is a lot of the rising action. Characters are doing stuff. Chaos is starting to happen. There’s probably some yelling going on. Think of Odin screaming in Thor & Loki’s faces. That’s where we’re at.

And this is what act two of SW1 (mostly) looks like:

  • ACT TWO
    • Eliot & Roman find out about Theo being a demon
      • Both of them are visiting when shit goes down, and Theo bursts in all bloody and ready to fight
    • Let’s see what Theo does during the day
      • Oh my gosh, there’s this really cute boy that works at the same coffee shop as Henley who is totally in love with Theo, but Theo’s oblivious to humans and isn’t able to tell he’s flirting until Henley straight up points it out
        • Surprise Finn’s actually a demon, but they don’t know this yet, and Theo’s got a strict no dating humans rule
    • The girls go out to the club one night, dragging Theo along because he’s been mopey, and one of them nearly gets murdered by an enemy demon
      • Theo saves the day?
      • They do a tracking spell after to figure out who the demon belongs to
        • Surprise, it’s Wren!
    • This ends with Theo getting kidnapped by Wren’s demons

Okay, oh my gosh, FIRST OF ALL, that bullet point about going to the club DOESN’T HAPPEN, and I can’t believe that was my original plan for this book. Wowwwww, remember when I wrote that post about food in books? Yeah, this clubbing bullet point doesn’t happen because everyone has a potluck dinner instead, and that’s when the enemy demon tries to kill them all. So much better than clubbing, what the actual hell, Mary.

Anyway, as you can see, things are starting to happen! The bullet point about Theo & Finn might actually happen earlier in the story, probably in act one, because I got rid of the oblivious thing, and we see Finn flirting with Theo right away, who outlines his Edward Cullen policy immediately, and I’m pretty sure they’re on a date by the time we get to act two? But the Finn bullet point is important for act two because it’s when a lot of other things happen. Because Theo’s out and not with the girls, they’re all left vulnerable, and several terrible things happen all at once. It’s bad, there’s a lot of yelling, the boyfriends are freaked the fuck out, and several cacti almost die.

And while act two is not necessarily as action-packed as act three, the groundwork that we laid in act one allows me to shrug off some character development and focus more on the what. Sure, there’s still character development happening, and there’ll be Nothing scenes scattered throughout this act, but the focus is on moving the plot forward here.

Lorddddd, I can’t wait to see what I had outlined for act three:

  • ACT THREE
    • Roman makes an offhand comment about how they didn’t have to kick Theo out just to placate them, and that’s when they realize they haven’t seen him in a week
    • Adelaide says they should try to flush out the demon using one of them as bait
      • She’ll be the bait so that when she gets captured, she can see Wren
      • Luciana gets captured while Henley & Margot are out looking for Adelaide
    • Cute boy demon Finn should totally corner Henley at the coffee shop and offer his help
    • Find the coven
      • Adelaide has already been nearly bled dry
      • Theo is nowhere to be found
      • Luciana is the last body that they need
        • They’ll complete the ritual before the witches can stop them, but Theo will somehow take Luciana’s place
          • This will cast him back to the demon realm, and the last scene will be the girls summoning him back
            • Unfortunately, this means the Big Bad has been brought into the human realm at the same time

I am shook. Wow, I didn’t have to delete a single bullet point of this act because none of it actually happens. Fun fact, my original outlines are usually batshit, and there’s always a second outline scribbled out below the original one. I just have to share the actual act three outline because this one is making me cackle and want to hide all at once:

  • ACT THREE
    • We have to retrieve Theo & Margot
      • Maybe a couple chapters with Henley & a couple with Theo before the big end scene
    • Henley & Adelaide (& Finn) duke it out against Wren
      • Theo pulls some crazy ass demon magic thing to save them all, but then he’s unconscious for a long time
    • Last chapters
      • Theo wakes up
      • They reestablish their contract with him
      • One scene of everyone being happy and chill with each other
      • Theo wakes up in the middle of the night to his father visiting, dun dun duhhhh

That’s more like it. My original plan was apparently to have Wren as Adelaide’s sister (weird), for the girls to not always know where Theo is (what?!), and for there to be a second, but evil, coven (why). All of that is dumb, thus why I revamped the entire thing, and what you see in act three is the climax where Henley & Co. face off against Wren and her demons. They have to save Theo & Margot, who are being bled for their power and some psycho ritual Wren wants to do. There’s some chapters for planning and general chaos. And then, at the end, here’s my 12 endings! Just kidding, the ending of SW1 is relatively short, it’s SW3 you want to keep your eye on.

But act three is both ALL THE THINGS and okay byyyyye. It’s the climax breaking apart, though we’ve likely reached that climax at the end of the second act. The third act is all about actually seeing the climax in motion, and, once you’ve got a solid few chapters to settle that, it’s time to bring things back down and hurtle toward your conclusion.

For me, three acts is incredibly helpful to map out of my books. When I was writing the sister witches trilogy, the novels themselves were acts, too, since I had a larger story arc happening over the three of them. They do fit neatly into three individual acts, too, which is funny to think about since I didn’t quite outline it that way. And all of this may have been useless, and you’re wondering why the hell you just sat through a high school English class lesson, but I so rarely see people talking about how they outline, especially as it pertains to using arcs, and I thought it’d be fun to work through how I use them. I know I had a good time, and hopefully, if you’re struggling with writing your first draft, this helps a little. Maybe segregating the big, pivotal moments in your book into three acts of plot movement, allowing at least a little structure to sneak in–maybe that’ll make the difference.

Do you write using the three act structure?

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she/her | yoga teacher | Tibetan Buddhism | part-time witch | full-time author | astronaut in a previous life

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