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?

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?


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