Three Act Structure: Act I

Hi, Gang. Craig with you again today. It occurred to me that I’ve mentioned Three Act Structure several times on this site, but never posted anything about it before. That ends today.

This is a great way of plotting your stories, but it’s so much more than that. It will keep you on point with word count, and make sure you have a structure others can follow when they read. I use it along with my storyboards. I may slip a comment about storyboards into this series, but they aren’t required for you to take tips and tricks away.

Act I Climax

Since there are three acts, I intend to have four posts. It makes more sense that way, and you’ll see why when we get to Act Two. Act One is 20-25% of your story. Act Two is 50% (Why the extra post), Act Three is 20-25% of your story. The third act is usually on the shorter side.

I’m floating a little on the percentages, because every tale is different. These aren’t stick-pins and you can vary to a degree. However, if you’re shooting for 100,000 words, you can see that 25K of those can make up Act One. It’s a neat way to stay on task.

Every act has a job to do, and this post is about the first act. It’s all about getting everything on the table your readers will need to enjoy the story.

One of two things happens first. It’s either the main character, or setting. Readers are going to need that PDQ. Open outside with your sunny day, or inside with your main character. Then move to the other one. Sure, there are many ways to do this, like having your character on a bus looking at the robots. That will give some setting right away while you’re in the hero’s head.

By the end of page two, we should have hints as to whether this is a Western, modern world, fantasy, or something else. She’s brushing her hair in the back of a covered wagon. Readers can figure some of it out.

This doesn’t exclude opening with the villain, or first murder. It’s the traditional approach that you can mold to a certain degree. I make index cards, but these two concepts are usually right next to each other at the beginning. (When I say hero, think main character. I’m the guy who writes all the weird stuff, so hero fits.)

Shortly after we’ve grounded our readers, the hero has to want something. It’s usually better if it isn’t related to the main struggle. Could be the barmaid down the block, or a promotion, but something. This helps establish the hero’s wound. What makes this person tick? Readers will buy in if your hero has a personal goal.

It’s okay if he makes some headway against his personal goal. This isn’t the happy ending at the end of the book. Right here is where the bottom is going to fall out. Aliens land, Mt. Vesuvius erupts, kaiju crawl from the ocean and head for Tokyo. He and the barmaid found something special, but he has to go…

Take some time here, because this will be the main struggle in your story. Readers need to understand what the big issue is. You have 25K words, don’t be afraid to use them.

This is where other characters come into the tale. Maybe you add the antagonist if you haven’t already. I wrote a series about the Character Archetypes some time ago. You can find it by using the search bar at the bottom of this page.

This is a good place for Allies, Mentors, Love interests, and others to show up.

It all has to end with a bang. We should get an eyewitness vision of whatever the central problem is. “Look, Godzilla,” etc.

You should also dedicate some time to the stakes. What does he stand to lose? What does the world stand to lose? Might go back to that fetching barmaid in some fashion. Whatever your stakes are, make them big. Make it nigh on impossible for your hero to turn back.

Interlude here: The climax of Act One can help you write your blurb. “Can Bob rescue the beautiful barmaid from the clutches of fourth-grade recorder players before she goes deaf and has to pull out of the big singing contest?”

As you assess your own Act One, ask whether you addressed: Who, What, When, and Where. How and Why can come along later. It’s useful to save those if you write mysteries or other genres.

That’s another big point. This works for all genres across all times. Don’t let my goofy ideas put you off. Maybe your romance ends with, “Look, ex husband.” Maybe it’s the second murder, and it hits closer to home.

Act One is paramount to your story. If it isn’t good, they might not read Act Two, so spend some time on it.

Next time, we’ll talk about the first half of Act Two. How about it, Gang? Do you think Three Act Structure could help with your stories? Hope so, because I’m posting them anyway.

56 thoughts on “Three Act Structure: Act I

  1. Great intro to Act One, Craig. I enjoyed the detail and the hilarious examples. I tend to use the 7-Step story structure, but in many ways it resembles the 3 Acts, maybe broken down a bit more. I especially liked your focus on the protagonist’s goal and upping the stakes. That drives so much of the action and tension of the tale. If the MC cares, so will the reader (hopefully). Looking forward to Act 2. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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  3. Great post, Craig 🙂 I’ve always thought of it as the beginning, middle, and end. I like putting it into acts with a word count guide. Good suggestion that the blurb come from the first act, that helps put everything in there needed. I look forward to the next installment.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. LOL. Glad you’re posting three more blogs about structure because I really enjoyed this one. I love writing the first fourth of a book for the very reasons you listed. Everything’s new. I’m really interested in what you put in the two middle fourths. I try to have a twist at the end of each of those, but I always get bogged down somewhere along the way. Great post, Craig! Good advice.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. All kinds of smiles here, Craig! I so wish I’d had writing courses in college or anywhere else. Thank you for shining your magical flashlight on the story structure. It was illuminating and fun! Bravo!

    Liked by 2 people

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    • It’s funny, other commenters mentioned taking classes on this, but still got something from my post. Different presenters will click with different people. I like to marry this structure with the hero’s journey when I do deep plotting.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve never taken a writing class, so I’ve never even thought about story structure, per se, Craig, except from the view of having read hundreds upon hundreds of books in the last 60+ years of my life. I think I just follow my instincts, based on reading experience, and how most books play out. But I’m always happy to learn more about the process, especially as I continue trying to improve my writing from 8 years ago, when I wrote my “bucket list” first novel. I hope my techniques are getting stronger with each of my books, and I know this concept is going to help me in pursuit of that quest.

    Thanks for a very instructive, yet fun, post! Sharing!! 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    • There are many instinctual authors out there. Mae Clair is a wonderful example. Sometimes posts about structures don’t offer them much. I still believe there are nuggets to take away from everything, even if you’ve heard it before.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well, I’m planning on grabbing all the nuggets I can carry, Craig, and at least checking to see which ones will improve what I’m trying to do. I very much appreciate learning the rules, even if I decide to break them now and then. And I already know at least some of them will be useful going forward, so I thank you for this post! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  8. An excellent post, Craig. Like John, my first writing class dealt with the three-act structure. Even though it was a screenwriting class, I found that everything translated perfectly to writing a novel. I love your explanation and examples. I look forward to this series and beefing up my skills!! Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. One of the first writing classes I took was on the three-act structure. All the hours in class didn’t solidify the concept. Your examples made more sense than the ones used back then.
    I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. This makes all the sense in the world but I’m that writer that never learned to color between the lines so for me it’s plantsing and not following any sort of structure in my writing. If I could learn how do this, it would make my writing life easier. Great examples and explanations. I anticipate this will be an excellent series. Maybe I’ll even learn to color between the lines. 😉

    I freaking loved your blurb about Bob, the barmaid and the fourth grade record players, LOL!

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s worth considering, but I’d let a beta reader see it before taking all this as gospel. Writing rules are fairly malleable. In my own WIP I started moving into Act 2 before finishing Act 1. While this came from the theater, novel readers don’t need those restroom breaks scheduled in. A bit of drift across the lines is acceptable.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. The part that really made me think was how you said the setting could be introduced first. I remember being told a lot that my main character needed to appear within the first page then setting, but that felt off for my fantasy stories. The world has to drawn people in when it’s not modern Earth. So, nice to see setting get a shout out here.

    Liked by 3 people

    • It’s more true for you and I than some of the others. I might not flesh out the modern world of The Hat to the same degree I did for Lanternfish. We’ve all seen a modern setting, but might not have seen islands in the sky, or tar fields on alien planets. A little more effort there is appropriate, and it needs to happen before readers form their own images.

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      • Interestingly enough, I’ve found that many people need modern settings described without realizing it. A person will create a setting based around their experience unless told otherwise. So, different time periods and an unfamiliar location can fall into the same category as fantasy to some readers. You are right that it takes less effort, but it’s surprisingly often I find people who need details on real world places as well.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. Oh, Craig, your posts always make me chuckle even while I’m learning something! Your last line had me laugh out loud.
    I’ve used this structure informally and you give such great examples. I believe this is a neat way to get the story done within word count. I love that you include the vital W questions too. Great post, Craig. I’ll be bookmarking this series. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Thanks for this, Craig! I’ve had some sort of three act structure in mind as I’ve been working on stories, and it was certainly used in some form in the novel I co-wrote… though I don’t know if it’s the same one you’re talking about, but what you said checks out. Looking forward to the rest of this series 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

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