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.

ACT ONE

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)

ACT TWO

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)

ACT THREE

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.

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.

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

No, Virginia, there is no Mary Sue

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Real life can bring disappointment. Santa Claus is a Catholic bishop who punched heretics. And Mary Sue, that figure beloved by amateur writing lore, isn’t real. She and her stepbrother Gary Stu are just figments of the amateur writing wars.

Mary Sue, other than being a way of making fun of women with unfashionable names like Mary and Susan, has no objective meaning. One person says it’s a character that is too perfect. (Was Jesus Christ then the ultimate Mary Sue— or Gary Lou?) Another says it’s a character who is too ‘nice.’ Or a character that doesn’t have the right flaws— the ones that ‘count.’

Realistically, calling someone else’s character a Mary Sue is another arena to fight the opinion wars. John’s a hardcore angry atheist? Then every character in your Evangelical Christian romance is a Mary Sue because they all go to church weekly and refrain from stealing and using heroin. Does Mandy have a low opinion of the ‘politically correct?’  Then she will accuse your characters of being sensitive-snowflake Mary Sues who will worry if a murderer would think it’s ‘racist’ if he is asked not to do the murder thing any more. Any  character more morally straight than Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter Morgan can be seen as a Mary Sue by somebody.

If you get accuse of having written a Mary Sue, perhaps the best thing to do is ignore it, as you would do if someone accused your protagonist of being Santa Claus’s lead reindeer. If you really feel you have to respond, ask the person— what, specifically, is wrong with the character? If he responds ’she’s too nice,’ that’s not a specific response. In what scene, in what action, is that character being ‘too nice?’ Chances are, it’s going to come down to a matter of taste or opinion.

Sometimes the problem is genre. If you are writing Christian fiction or Amish romance, the guy who writes spy novels with high body counts may see all your best characters as Mary Sues. But the genre standards are different. If you write an Amish girl who can kill bad guys seven different ways with a pencil eraser, that won’t meet the standards of the Amish romance genre, which has a notoriously low body count.

When you despair, remember that the greatest writers in the world wrote characters who were nice as well as ones that were Lady Macbeth. Jane Austen wrote whole books full of people who never called anyone a motherf-ck-er, not once. Was she a writer of Mary Sue characters? No. And neither are you. Go forth, and write stuff!

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Setups and Payoffs in Fiction Writing

I’ve been reading Plot Gardening by Chris Fox, and he introduced to me the concepts of setups and payoffs in a fictional plot.

What is a setup? What is a payoff? Actually it’s easier to define the payoff first. A payoff is a story event for which the main character (and the reader) need to prepare. If your fantasy novel has at its conclusion a sword-fight between your hero and the Dark Lord, you need to set that up. Your hero needs a sword, and needs to know how to use it. Perhaps he needs a magic sword in order to win a fight with that particular Dark Lord.

Payoffs don’t always happen at the conclusion of a novel. Perhaps in your historical novel your heroine needs to be put into a position where marrying a (handsome) stranger seems like her only choice. This marriage is a payoff, though it will probably happen closer to the beginning of your novel. To set up for that payoff, you may perhaps need to turn your comfortable middle-class historical heroine into an orphan, and have a loathsome step-brother offer her a position as an unpaid nanny in his home. Perhaps the step-brother tells her that is her only choice to avoid ending up in a workhouse or worse. That kind of setup would make a marriage to a stranger seem like a plausible choice.

Setup scenes make the reader expect a payoff. If we are shown a firearm in an early scene, we expect that firearm to be fired in a later scene— not necessarily a self-defense or murder type firing, it could be hunting or target practice. But if something is mentioned in a significant way, we expect that it is a setup that will be paid off later in the story.

In the same way, big payoffs in a story have to be set up. Is your character going to undergo a major change— perhaps learning skills or becoming more independent? You can’t just state that fact in your climatic scene, you have to set it up in earlier scenes, or the change seems unrealistic and unmotivated.

Chris Fox says that to avoid ‘plot holes’ you have to pay off your setoffs and set up your payoffs. Setups make your future payoff scenes seem less random and ‘out of the blue.’ Actually having the payoff happen means that those setup scenes had meaning for the story as a whole.

One way to start thinking about setups and payoffs is to think about your climactic scenes. What payoffs will happen at that time? What might you need to do to set up those payoffs? And if you have a scene, often near the beginning, that feels like a setup, think how that scene can lead to a payoff. (If your scene sets up something that will never lead to any kind of payoff, it may not be an important scene for your novel.)

Assignment: Read a favorite novel and note scenes that seem to be setups or payoffs.

How To Dispose of a Dead Body

I must point out right away that’s I’m talking about fictional bodies here— if you have a real-world corpse around, the only solution is to summon the police immediately. Yes, even if you were the one that caused the corpse to be a corpse. Immediate police summoning is for the best. Imagine how much easier O. J. Simpson’s life would have been if he’d called the police as soon as he got done murdering Nicole and Ron. He’d have had to do a little time for manslaughter, they would have written it off as a crime of passion, and when he got out no one would have been mad at him but Nicole and Ron’s families.

Fictional dead bodies are a fact of the writing life. If you go in for writing murder mysteries, they are your bread and butter. (Or steak and salad, if you are doing Keto.) But almost any other type of fiction might have a murder or a murder mystery in it.

There are three basic methods murderers have used to deal with the corpses they make. I suppose there are a few other methods but they are for the most part a variant on one of the three themes. Except for that fellow who killed his mistress, stripped her corpse to the bones, and sold her skeleton to a medical school (H. H. Holmes.) Different types of murderer do different things with the body, depending on their personalities and what situations they are living in. Here are the main methods of body disposal.

Leave the corpse where it falls. This is the method famously used by Jack the Ripper. It served him well in the Victorian era when the police knew next to nothing about forensics. Modern let-‘em-lie killers have to worry about leaving any evidence behind with the corpse. In the modern age, it’s best for those killers who use a gun or who are efficient users of a knife or machete. You want as little contact with the victim as you can so you leave little to no evidence.

The problem for many types of murderer is that they want to do something to the victim that would lead to evidence. Murderers who sexually assault their victims before or after the murder risk leaving a sample of their DNA around where it will do the police the most good.

Keep the corpse around the house or yard. John Wayne Gacy famously hid his victims in the crawl space under his house. Christie left his backlog of corpses all over 10 Rillington Place. The advantage of this method is that you have the corpse someplace that you have control over. If you have a corpse in the downstairs loo, you needn’t allow your guests to use that particular facility.

The disadvantage, though, is that once the police take a look at your place, it’s hard to deny responsibility for the corpses they find. They are on your property (or your rented home) in any case. Who else could have done it? Mind you, Christie managed to blame a dead woman, her dead unborn baby, and her dead toddler on the woman’s husband, who was executed for it since the police didn’t do a thorough search and find the other bodies Christie had around the place.

Dump the corpse somewhere remote. This gets the corpse far away from the murderer and gives the body time to decompose before discovery. It’s the method used by Casey Anthony in getting rid of her daughter’s body— by the time it was discovered, the coroner could no longer say what the exact method of murder was.

The problem is that most of us don’t know of properly remote locations that are not connected to us. We may think of that wooded area we found on a deer-hunting trip, but not realize that it’s pretty close to the parking lot of a busy tavern, or that the dirt road that leads there is someone’s driveway.

Some people have used city parks as body dump locations. Thousands of people have access to these city parks, and so the location doesn’t point to any one person as murderer. If the park has some remote spots, you can even hope to not have the body discovered for some time.

Remotely dumped bodies can remain undiscovered for months or years, or can be found almost immediately— perhaps soon enough that witnesses can describe the murderer and his vehicle which were parked near the body-dump site. It’s a crap shoot, but even the most dim-bulb type of murderer usually thinks he can be clever in finding a good body dump site.

As a writer, it is up to you to decide how soon your fictional corpse gets discovered and what evidence may be found along with it. It all depends on what works in your story. For the main murder in a murder mystery, you are expected to make it a little more clever that real-life murders usually are. For example, don’t have your murderer dump the corpse right next to where his dad’s deer hunting cabin is. Fictional murderers need to be smarter than that.

Avoiding Deus et Machina Endings

If you regularly read ‘how to write’ books you may have read warnings against having a Deus et machina ending. What is that? It is usually explained as a tradition in ancient Greek theater where the playwright could land the character in a load of trouble the playwright couldn’t fix, and then just use the ‘God from the machine,’ a stage device that made it look like a god-character had taken the troubled character up to heaven and solved all his problems.

Well. I’m skeptical. The little ancient Greek drama I have read is on mythological and legendary stories— stories the audience knew. They would not welcome a divine intervention that wasn’t part of the traditional story! The divine interventions in the stories was expected by the audience, in the same way modern Christian readers of the ‘Left Behind’ series of novels were not surprised by the Second Coming of Christ at the end which did solve the Antichrist problem. (I was not a Christian when I started reading them, but even I expected that ‘Second Coming’ event since book one.)

In your real-world writing life, Deus ex machina as a failed story ending is different from what we might imagine. It does not need to involve God or ‘the gods.’ It usually involves unexpected, surprise help from a powerful source— a king or president, a scientific discovery or a space-alien intervention, whatever.

The problem is not the powerful helper, but in the fact that it is unexpected and a surprise, and that also the main character did nothing to earn it. In our own real lives, we don’t have all our problems solved by a divine miracle or by a president making a visit to our town on our behalf. We usually have to work and suffer to try to fix our problems, and it may not work even then.

Also, real world instances that seem to be possible divine intervention— such as when God allowed the Blessed Mother to appear to Bernadette in Lourdes and the three shepherd children in Fatima— the divine intervention didn’t solve problems but caused them. The Fatima children were even taken to jail and threatened with being boiled alive!

The reason the true Deus ex machina is a bad story ending is that it makes things too easy for our lead character. We don’t enjoy following the adventures of characters that have it all so easy. We like the Harry Potters who are little babies when a major evil wizard tries to kill them, or the Katniss Everdeens who have to volunteer for what seems like certain death in the Hunger Games to save a vulnerable younger sister.

In Mercedes Lackey’s book, Aerie, there is what a cynic might describe as a literal Deus ex machina towards the end. Several Egyptian gods intervene so the main characters won’t be destroyed by an enemy army lead by a monster who was becoming a goddess. But that’s just at the end of the book. The main characters have to go through a lot of struggles and hard work to get to the point where the gods intervene. Mercedes Lackey, having published probably as many as 50 books by the time she wrote Aerie (part of The Dragon Jousters series which I highly recommend, at least to mature readers.) She is too good a writer to put in an actual Deus ex machina ending.

I once read a critique of ‘Christian fiction’ by someone who didn’t seem to have actually read any. He claimed that all Christian fiction has an ending in which a miracle from God solves everything. I have read quite a bit of Christian fiction, both evangelical and Catholic, and I’ve never read a book where a miracle solves anything. To see an example, read the ’Saint Tommy’ series by Catholic author Declan Finn. His character Tommy Nolan is a NYC cop who has been given by God some ‘wonder-working’ abilities like the ability to bilocate and to smell demonic evil. But that doesn’t fix his problems, but makes him a major target of both demon-possessed criminals and of progressive politicians.

In your own writing, you can keep from unintentionally writing a Deus ex machina by richly providing your Lead character with problems. Let him work on the problems with his own efforts. Let him suffer! If he does receive special help, whether divine or otherwise, don’t let that solve the problems for him. Yes, sometimes especially in Christian fiction a character may have to trust in the Lord for something instead of trying to fix it himself, but deciding to trust the Lord is also an action. And your character must act, not just be buffeted between helpful and oppositional forces.