Learning the Three-Act Story Structure

One problem some of us have during NaNoWriMo is difficulty pacing our stories. The beginning goes on for 40000 words, or we reach the final battle around word 10000. If our goal is a complete 50000 word novel, that doesn’t work. (We may be OK with writing 50000 words of a longer novel, or completing a short story, however.)

Knowing about the Three Act structure will help you pace your story. The first act is where you set-up your story. In the second act you develop it, and in the third you conclude it. If you skimp on any of the acts, your story will feel unbalanced and weird.

Plotters will deal with the structure in the outlining phase. Pantsers may be keeping it in mind as they write, or using the structure to sort out the mess of randomly written scenes they have produced. In either case, at some point you need to think about structure.


The first act is the first 12500 words of a 50000 word novel, or the first 1/4 of a longer novel. James Scott Bell, in his book Super Structure: The Key to Unleashing The Power of Story, gives us the following ‘signposts’ that should happen in the first act:

The Disturbance (to the Lead character’s ordinary world)

The Care Package (to show that the Lead cares about someone)

The Argument Against Transformation (Because your Lead is likely to resist the changes coming to his life.)

Trouble Brewing (Hint of the major story conflict to come)

Doorway of No Return #1 (Major change, Lead is now committed to the confrontation/conflict of Act 2)


The Lead is now committed to leaving his Ordinary World for the world of the story’s conflict/challenge. In a detective novel, this change may be in taking the case. In The Hunger Games, it’s when Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place as tribute. In Act Two, the Lead’s life has changed in a big way.

Act Two is longer than Act One— 25000 words in a 50000 word story. About 1/2 of the novel’s total acreage. Act Two can drag if you let it. Here are the signposts that James Scott Bell gives us for Act Two:

A Kick in the Shins (Lead must face an obstacle— trouble related to overall story)

The Mirror Moment (Midpoint— Lead is reflective, realizes he must change or die)

Pet the Dog (Lead character shows compassion to animal or human, in spite of danger)

Doorway of No Return #2 (Lead is now committed to Final Confrontation)


The Lead is now committed to the Final Confrontation that the story has been pointing to. No chance to back out. This final act is the climax of the story, the pay-off that the previous acts have been pointing to. This act is about 1/4 of the novel, or the last 12500 words of a 50000 word novel. The Final Battle should take care of the major conflict of the story, and other loose ends must be wrapped up as well, so the Reader feels the story is done. The signposts:

Mounting Forces (The Lead’s Opposition is closing in)

Lights Out (The darkest point: all seems lost, Lead can’t win)

The Q Factor (Lead receives what he needs to win: encouragement, a weapon, knowledge)

Final Battle (Climax of the story; this battle will solve the story problem, kill or defeat villain)

Transformation (After the battle, Lead has been changed— show this)

Plotters will use the Three Act structure and the signposts before the writing of the story begins. You can use them as the framework of your outline. And, as you write, you can revise elements of that outline to make it more reflective of what you have in fact actually written.

Pantsers aren’t going to work all these things out in advance. They MAY use the signposts and the Three-Act structure to help them set the pace, and to work out what they should write next. OR, they may ignore much of the structure until the second draft stage. Yes, pantsers sometimes outline AFTER they’ve written a first draft, as a way to organize a batch of randomly written scenes into parts of a structured novel.

NaNoWriMo Prep: Clearing the Decks

Preparing for NaNo, as far as the writing is concerned, is different due to your writing style. If you are a plotter, you may need to spend all of October outlining (even though officially you are only allowed one week.) If you are a pantser, you may do nothing, or perhaps just make lists of character names and place names so you have them when you need them.

But there is another, practical side to NaNo prep. You need to ‘clear the decks’ — make things in your life ready for your extra writing hours. What do you need to do to be ready?

You may need to beg off on some volunteering-type projects for the month of November. Let someone else teach that Sunday school class for the month, or run the neighborhood kids to the rec center. Perhaps you should have prepared further in advance by doing extra volunteer things in October to make up.

Writing needs a certain amount of writing hours. You may have to get up an hour or two earlier, If you are grouchy early in the morning, you may need to start the earlier wake-up before Nov. 1st. I use a ‘dawn simulator’ type of alarm clock, which wakes me with bright light, and, later, with nature sounds, because I jump out of my skin with a normal alarm clock. I’ve already set my alarm to an hour earlier, and I lived. I even got some blog posts written.

You might also need to give up some of your regular TV shows, or your regular internet surfing time. Or quit playing Candy Crush for the month.

Your writing area may need revamping. You may need to clean it up, make it more private or less so, or set up a new writing area altogether.

What about your personal responsibilities? If you do cooking for yourself or your family, you might need a plan to make things easier on yourself just for the month.DON’T plan on feeding yourself and possibly others by going on a month-long high-carb fast-food or processed food diet. Being exhausted, sick and unhealthy for a month will NOT help you get more writing done.

Some writers think they have to be fueled by high-carb snacks. This is not so. The way to prevent this is to keep plentiful supplies of low-carb and healthy food options in the house, especially things that are easy to fix. I got myself an ‘air fryer’ and plan to lay in some supplies of chicken wings or chicken thighs I can cook in it. I may also get some turnips to make low-carb ’french fries,’ if I can manage to get to the grocery that carries turnips, and if they have any.

Mommy writers who have to watch children during their some of their writing time have to get creative. I think very short writing sprints— 2 minutes or so— might be a way to get work done on your NaNo novel and give your kids attention in between time. I’ve read about a writer who did very short writing sprints while AT WORK and managed to get writing done and not get fired. (I don’t recommend ‘cheating’ on your employer like that. If you don’t work when your employer expects you to work, why will your employer be motivated to keep paying you? And there is the moral aspect as well.)

Do you usually write to music? That can act as a ‘sound wall’ that helps you ignore distracting noises. Buy yourself some new music to inspire you.

Finally, busy people are often the best people to get things done. Don’t worry if you have to be busy with things during NaNo. I’ve just started a new blog and will be writing posts for two blogs during NaNo month. That may actually inspire me to do more writing on the WIP, since I write both things on the same computer, in both case using Scrivener.

Questions: What preparations do you usually do before writing sessions? What would you do to prepare for a more intense writing experience like NaNo?

Christian Writers and Christian Ignorance

One of the challenges for Christian writers (Catholic, Evangelical, Lutheran, all kinds) is that today’s Christians can be very ignorant of their own faith. And they are not doing anything to change that.

My mom (born in 1927) went to an Evangelical and Reformed church in Brillion, Wisconsin. When she got to a certain age, she had to take a catechism class. They had to memorize the (Reformed/Calvinist) catechism in order to learn the basics of Christianity, before they were allowed to be confirmed and to join the church.

Other Christian children went to Catholic or Lutheran schools instead of the public schools, where they had religious instruction every single day.

Contrast that to today in which many people become Christians after watching an evangelist on television. They ask Jesus into their heart, but they don’t know what to do next. They may try going to a church, but if they haven’t been to a church before it may just seem too weird. Or they may pick a church based on the type of church music used, or prefer one where the sermons sound like they were taken from a New Age self-help book.

Christian writers, people like that are a part of your audience. And it’s your mission, whether you like it or not, whether you feel qualified or not, to plant ‘seeds’ of Christian knowledge in your readers. (It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to make those seeds grow.)

One seed you could plant is the idea that it’s the norm for a Christian to have a daily Bible reading time. At least, it’s the norm today. In the early Church, Christians got their ‘dose’ of Bible at the church service when Bible passages were read. That’s why even today we have the custom of having set Bible readings each Sunday (and at daily Mass for Catholics) and many churches have united in using the same Bible readings— so that my mother at a Presbyterian church and I at a Catholic church would hear the same Bible readings.

Of course, it’s easier to plant this particular seed if you write contemporary fiction. In fantasy, things are different. Imagine if C. S. Lewis had wanted to plant a seed about Bible reading in the Narnia books. In Narnia, Christianity is represented largely by the Person of Aslan, the Jesus-like Lion. There is no holy book or holy scroll mentioned in the story. I suppose Lewis could have mentioned his characters regularly talking to one another about their memories of encounters with Aslan. Well, we’re writers. I suppose we are creative enough to find ways to plant this seed in any type of fiction.

There are three major methods that people use for their daily Bible readings. One, popular among Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans, is to read the assigned daily Mass readings for the day every day. Since these readings are read in daily Mass all over the world, people who do this are a part of the biggest Bible reading group in the world.

Another way is to follow a Bible reading plan which helps you to read through the whole Bible in a year. This is popular with Protestants— I know I had a guide to doing this printed in the back of a Bible I used during my Presbyterian childhood. There is also a Catholic guide to reading the Bible and Catechism in a year, put out by The Coming Home Network International. This is also good for Protestants who want to read the Deuterocanonical books also. (Both the King James Version translators and Martin Luther translated these books. These ‘Apocryphal’ books were not removed from English Bibles until much later. German Protestant Bibles still have them, tucked away between the Testaments.)

The third way of managing daily Bible reading is just picking and choosing passages. Some Christians are led astray by this: they may read the same few books over and over because they are familiar, or they may get into obscure Bible passages which they misunderstand. (This problem is why I encourage folks to read Bible commentaries by qualified Bible scholars, and why we attend churches with trained pastors who can help us through the difficult bits.)

Writers who are Christians may write ‘Christian fiction’ or may write for the mainstream market. But in either case, when you get known as a Christian writer, people will look up to you as a Christian leader. So we need to do our own Bible reading so we can pass on what we’ve learned through our fiction— or at least not lead people astray. (I must now end this post since I haven’t done my daily Bible reading yet today. I’m doing Genesis and Psalms with a commentary, as well as reading the Catechism passages from the Coming Home Network guide. You don’t want to know how many years it’s taking me to ‘read the Bible and Catechism in a year!)

Why Your NaNoWriMo Idea Sucks

NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, is an international event held in November, in which assorted people either try to write a 50000 word novel in a month, or try to kill themselves through excessive coffee consumption. Why they are not allowed to kill themselves with tea I’ll never know….

If you have the impulse to try NaNo this November, you probably have a bit of a writing idea floating around in your head. And most of those NaNo ideas in people’s heads are simply no good.

Why is that? NaNo is a very broad-based event. Some people who do it are actual writers or aspiring writers who have written before. Others are timid souls who have never dared think of themselves as writers before NaNo came along. Some, who probably sign up for NaNo due to peer pressure, aren’t even regular book readers. And NaNo actually encourages ‘youth writers’— that is, children.

Now, children, those new to writing, and non-reader participants may be very enthusiastic about NaNo, but they simply lack most of the knowledge they might need to make an attempted novel happen. Most writers and serious aspiring writers have read hundreds of novels and have absorbed the rules of novels. Without that knowledge, attempted novel writing may be a failing proposition.

Children are a special case. Some will grow up to be real writers. Some will even be brilliant. But they are not there yet, and if they are encouraged to self-published an unready NaNo work, that self-publication will be a drag on their future writing.

NaNo’s founder has a book out called ‘No Plot, No Problem.’ We might guess from that title that NaNo encourages us to be ‘pantsers’— people who write without an outline. The problem is, some people don’t write well that way. And others, who are natural ‘pantsers,’ have story ideas that require a lot of worldbuilding and preparation other than outlining that just don’t fit in to a one-month NaNo.

Not having an outline mostly works for people who have been compulsive readers and who have the rules for novels in their head. They know your Lead character has to have a goal, or something he wants. They know there has to be conflict, even in the gentlest of sweet romances. If your character is not working toward a goal or facing a challenge, nothing is happening in your story.

I remember reading a very bad novel once. It was a near-future story, and the ‘author’ spent the first few chapters explaining how the crisis in the story could possibly happen. When we finally did get characters introduced to us, it turns out they were survivalists who weren’t much challenged by the utter disaster in the story, because they had prepped. The crisis was happening to other people who weren’t central to the story except as corpses in the scenery.

Your Lead character needs to be in the center of the crisis, conflict, or disaster in your novel. If the real action is happening elsewhere with entirely different people, you need to make one of those people your Lead. Readers won’t identify with a character who isn’t challenged, doesn’t want anything, doesn’t do anything other than pick flowers and watch the butterflies fly past.

NaNoWriMo has one bad effect, and that is that it focusses on the word count. Yes, you need to put out a decent word count to finish the first draft of your novel. But if you write scene after rambling scene because you obeyed the NaNo rules and didn’t outline much in advance, and if you tell yourself that the rambling wordiness is OK because you are making your word count, you are setting yourself up for failure. Wordy fiction isn’t readable, and rambling around isn’t something that you can keep in the next draft.

If you have a NaNo idea that might suck, if you haven’t read enough novels, if you have never read a good how-to-write book, does that mean you shouldn’t do NaNo? Not at all! A writer learns by writing. If you finish NaNo with the required word count, but you have created a beast that cannot even be edited and rewritten into publishable shape, you have still written a lot of words. The next writing project you tackle will be better. And writing ideas can get better over time, as you work with them. Thing of some writing project you or someone else has finished. Imagine what the writer would have said to explain his writing idea when he first had it. Then imagine what he could have said about it after he finished the final draft. The idea grew and improved over time, most likely.

I’m doing NaNo myself this year. Since I’m experimenting with the Edit-As-You-Go writing method, I’m not sure it’s possible for me to ‘win’ NaNo by writing 50000 words of a completed (first draft of a) novel, but I think it’s worth doing.

My NaNo profile: https://nanowrimo.org/participants/ilsabein

Questions: Do you have a NaNoWriMo idea? Would you give it up if someone criticized it, or would you bull ahead and do the best you could with it? Do you think doing NaNo this year is something worth doing, or a waste of your time?


Join one of my writers’ groups!

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Have You Tortured Your Characters Today?

If you haven’t yet done something cruel, vile and shocking to a fictional character, you haven’t been writing. That’s the fiction writer’s job— to torture characters.

Look at some examples— in the Game of Thrones books, one character loses his sword hand, another most of his nose, another several fingers and toes. Well, that’s a bloody violent series. What about children’s books? Harry Potter has his parents murdered because of an evil wizard who was really targeting Harry, and in the Hunger Games, Katniss, the breadwinner of her impoverished family, feels compelled to volunteer for a combat to the death in order to spare her younger sister from that fate.

Even in the mildest of Amish romances, the Lead character will suffer. Perhaps she’ll find her intended kissing another girl behind the barn— or perhaps he’s discussing complicated Bible passages with her. Maybe the Bible discussion would be worse. Or perhaps she’s suspected of stealing something or of doing something that could get her shunned. Even in a mild romance, life isn’t all roses.

The reason for that is that crisis helps us identify with the Lead character and his struggles. Maybe we don’t really care whether Jordun Bigmuscles ever finds that magic sword. But we’ll care when he’s tortured by a wizard— particularly if he gets tortured because he’s saving someone else from that fate. We care if his brother or his mother is killed by his particular enemy— and we perhaps identify with his attempts to get justice. And this identification with the character helps us identify with the rest of the Lead character’s quest.

Each genre and sub-genre has its own rules for what level of character-torture is permitted. In an Amish romance, Lead character Bethany’s enemy is more likely to steal her apple pie recipe than to lop off her arm with a sword. And Mommy and Daddy don’t get murdered in a baby’s picture book. In other genres like spy novels or epic fantasy, a lot of character-torture is permitted.

One caution before you go too far, though. Really extreme events— your Lead character getting his eyes gouged out and his limbs amputated— can take you to the point where the reader stops identifying with the character because it’s just too painful. I know a nurse who quit watching The Walking Dead the time that Bob was captured by some guys who cut off his leg and ate it. If you want a wide readership, you have to restrain your natural sadism a little.

What bad things are happening to the characters you are working with right now? Are you harming them enough? Remember, no one reads books where everyone is happy about everything right from the start. There’s nowhere to go from complete bliss.

#IWSG — Too Late, Too Late

Becoming a successful-enough writer is a process that usually takes many years, and as the years go by many of us take a moment to wonder— is it too late for me? Am I too old to become a ‘real writer,’ or have I been trying for too many years? Wouldn’t it be better to give up on my writing dreams right now?

This is a post for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group’s monthly blog hop. Learn more at: https://www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com/

The answer to that is that the one thing that guarantees your failure at writing is giving up on it. If you quit writing, your writing can’t get better or take off or anything. In fact, if you give up on writing the moment becoming a writer crosses your mind, you will have saved yourself a lot of time and effort. But then you will never know what would have resulted if you had started trying.

The amount of time you get in this life to do anything is limited. The day you leave the first grade and start the second grade in school, it is forever too late to distinguish yourself as a first grader. That part of your life is over, and whatever things you have not yet achieved as a first grader can’t be done as a first grader. You have to do them at second grade (or even later.)

Writing dreams can begin for us in grade school. When we first read Little Women, being a writer like Jo seems to have much more of a future to it than being a good piano player like doomed Beth. We think about writing, we make our juvenile first writing attempts, perhaps at the orders of a school teacher, and it seems like we have an infinite future in which to make our dreams come true.

But then we get old enough to become a ‘real writer,’ and other people of our age are self-publishing and selling, getting agents, selling books to traditional publishers or getting conned by a vanity press, and we may feel left behind. What’s wrong with my brilliant writing career? Why hasn’t it happened for me yet?

Of course, no one’s writing career is perfect, and I bet there are days in which successful writers like George R. R. Martin, James Patterson, Stephen King, Declan Finn, Karina Fabian, and Mercedes Lackey feel like their writing career is ‘not good enough’ and that they are failures. (Boy, would I love to be a failure like that!)

There are some writers who begin writing at a later age and yet succeed. Others have written and ‘failed’ for years and then their writing ‘takes off—‘ they get published or self-published and their books sell well.

What we need to do is have an idea of what success looks like for us. Is it finishing a novel? Or finishing one that doesn’t suck (much?) Or making a best-seller list? We can’t all be Stephen King and have multiple movies made of our books and short stories. But the vast majority of us can manage to write stories that someone or other out there will enjoy reading. We just have to keep trying, keep improving our skills, and keep writing. Because there is no prize for giving up writing early because you ‘know’ you are doomed to failure. Maybe you will write until age 101 and only then write a single short story that gets published. Maybe only a few people will read it. But you will have kept on trying, and your success at age 101 will inspire many. Though, admittedly, you likely will have passed on before you discover how inspirational your persistence has been.


Do you ever worry it is ‘too late’ for your writing? My advice is, stop worrying and write something! It’s only too late when you are dead. If you are still alive, keep on writing.

Understanding the Edit-As-You-Go Writing Method

The world of writers is made up of ‘plotters’ and ‘pantsers,’ each of these groups using a different method to get to the same goal of having a finished work of fiction.

‘Plotters’ are writers who use outlines. Some plotters write long, detailed formal outlines, and others make do with much shorter outlines. Plotters transfer the excitement of discovering their new story from the first-draft stage to the outlining stage.

Subsets of the ‘plotters’ include those who use the Snowflake Method and Plot Gardening to come up with their outline.

My problem, when trying to be a plotter, was that once I’d finished the enormous goal of writing an outline, I was done with the story. The outline made it feel too flat and lifeless to actually write.

‘Pantsers’ are writers who just sit down and write the ideas in their head without an outline to get in the way. Pantsing is looked down upon by some how-to-write authors— there is even one book called ‘Pull Up Your Pants,’ which I assume encourages pantsers to become plotters.

But since writers like Stephen King and George R. R. Martin are pantsers, using that method doesn’t have to be death to your writing career.

I don’t know how much the average successful pantser has in his head about the contents of a chapter when he sits down to write it. Probably it’s different for different writers. Many of the ideas come during the process of writing.

My problem when trying to be a pantser is that I end up with a lot of chapters that don’t match each other. The mess gets bigger the more chapters I accumulate. Is it any wonder that I prefer to write short poems, which can at least be contained in my head and don’t have to match anything?

The answer to that problem is a subset of pantsing called ‘Edit-As-You-Go’ writing. In the book ‘Fiction Writing for Dummies’ by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy, pages 62-64 are dedicated to Edit-As-You-Go writing, and the book states that Dean Koontz uses that method.

I looked up an article on the Great God Internet: ‘Edit As You Go And Why You Must Try’ by Ryan J. Pelton. He says that Edit-As-You-Go is what writers Lee Child, Stephen King, Dean Wesley Smith, and Elmore Leonard do.

How EAYG works is that you write a chapter or three as a pantser— no outline to bind you, no editing, just see where your story is taking you. And then you go back and start to edit-as-you-go.

If you have already written chapter two or chapter three before you go back to EAYG chapter one, you can make the adjustments that your later chapters demand. Perhaps you have created a minor character in the later chapters who needs to exist in chapter one, or at least be mentioned. Maybe later still in the story you will have to go back to your earliest chapters to add characters or plot elements, or merge a couple of minor characters into one.

The reward for using EAYG is that you don’t end up with a wild, meandering first draft that needs more editing effort than you can supply. When you write ‘The End’ it is really the end, or close to it, not the beginning of 6 months to two years of rewriting hell.

This is how it is working for me. I had written a bunch of chapters and chapter-fragments for my current WIP (which is nameless.) Some of these don’t even have the same Lead character! These chapters are set in 2 different fantasy kingdoms (which border on each other.) After a few chapters, I had worked out that the Lead is a girl from Kingdom 1 who escapes to Kingdom 2 to get beyond the reach of a King that has evil intentions towards the girl’s family, who are noted for their skill in working with dragons.

I chose a chapter that seemed like it could become a fully functional first chapter. After finishing it, I began rewriting. I had to correct some mistakes, like failing to mention that a viewpoint character was a dwarf, and using Lord Zeeman’s name without having bothered to introduce him to the other characters or the reader.

I am also going ahead and ‘pantsing’ the successor chapter, which is in a different setting and introduces the Lead character’s father just as he is imprisoned by the tyrant king. This will replace a partial chapter I wrote earlier in the process, when I was still discovering the story.

I think EAYG will work out for me, as I learn more about doing it. It’s clear that the other methods I’ve tried don’t work out that well for me as an individual writer. I don’t say that what works for me is what will work for you. You have your own brain and your own natural working methods. Maybe you love outlining and feel that makes you a better writer. I’m not saying, don’t do it. I’m saying, if it doesn’t work for you, here is another method to try.

Some Books (NOT affiliate links, alas):

The Snowflake Method: Writing Fiction for Dummies by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy

The Plot Gardening Method: Plot Gardening by Chris Fox

The Article:

Edit As You Go and Why You Should Try by Ryan J. Pelton