Craft

On Building Plot: Three Act Structure in Fiction

We are so excited to host the next post in the #DVPit blog hop!

#DVpit, the Twitter pitch event for marginalized creators, is returning for its fifth run this April. In preparation for the main event, Writer’s Block Party is hosting a guest post from YA author and CAKE Literary co-founder Sona Charaipotra as part of the #DVpit blog hop!

Once upon a time, long ago but not so far away, I immersed myself in the study of a form quite foreign to most writers of fiction: that of the screenplay.

I know what you’re thinking: so much white space. So few words. And so many rules. Why would I do that to myself?
I’ll be honest: I loved it.

Despite the chaos that is my house and my head, there’s something about the grounding, formal nature of three act structure – the classical screenplay format – that is super soothing to my writerly brain.

There’s a lot to be said about the familiar beats most movies you watch will bring: the catalyst, the turning points, the classic beginning, middle and end. It works in the movies, and it can work in fiction too.

It offers an easy in to the story, a skeleton ready to be fattened up. And for me, that just works. So frequently, when I’m outlining (because I LOVE having an outline, though the act of outlining is, let’s face it, not super fun), I’ll start with a basic three act structure and build out from there. And guess what, in a few easy steps, you can, too!

Keep in mind: this is just the bones, a skeleton on which to hang your story. Learn the basic rules, and then bend and break them as you will.

So, as I said, three act structure is made up of – you guessed it, three acts! When I begin building a plot, I start with the logline, which is a single sentence that encapsulates the critical who, what, and why of the story.

Once I have that single sentence, I start to expand it out into three sentences: the beginning, the middle and the end. Then I expand each of those three sentences out into paragraphs, and each of those three paragraphs out into multiple paragraphs, which then tend to be easy to divide up into chapters, thus forming an easy chapter-by-chapter outline that’s already broken down into Act One, Act Two and Act Three.

ACT ONE: the beginning (the first quarter of the book) is the set up. What is your character’s status quo? Who are they, and what is their world? What is the problem looming in the background, the one that the protagonist will eventually need to face? This is all introduced in the first quarter of the book. But critical here is the catalyst or inciting incident: what happens to shake up their world and knock the character out of their rut? This is where protagonist realizes their story challenge or problem – what they’ll spend the rest of the book resolving.

ACT TWO: The dreaded sticky middle. Always the hardest part for me, because it’s the next fifty percent of the book, and needs to be filled with emotional ups and downs, challenges and obstacles for your protagonist as they work toward resolving the story problem. Here, we witness the turning points, where the protagonist sheds their familiar skin and surroundings in a confrontation with their new circumstances and challenges. The key here is midpoint reversal, a critical twist: what your hero thought was the issue may have just been masking the real problem. It’s about two steps forward, three steps back. And just when you think your protagonist is about to get what they want, it all comes crashing down. The circumstances are dire, the stakes get even higher, the theme of the work becomes clearer.

ACT THREE: Act Three is the final quarter of the novel, and the part in which the horrible drama set up in Act Two reaches its peak – the climax. This is where your protagonist confronts the situation head on, whether it be the form of a showdown with a physically manifested antagonist, or an emotional earthquake that shakes the very foundation of what our hero thought was truth. Here, the stakes get even higher, and often, there is a sacrifice. It is a bleak, bleak time for our hero, and one we can’t be sure they’ll survive. And in the end, there is the wrap up, the resolution or the denouement, if you want to be fancy and French, in which we pull all the strands of the story together and tie them up in a messy bow. (I prefer messy to neat.)

As you are building this main basic arc of beginning, middle and end for your protagonist, keep in mind that most good books, like most good films, will also have a B story and C story happening at the same time – sometimes centering on other characters, but often as part of the protagonist’s emotional load. These are storylines (often emerging in Act Two) that may seem disparate from our main focus for quite some time, but ideally, by the time you get to the end of Act Three, you can tell how they connect thematically with the larger work.

So there you have it! Some basics on three act structure. If you’re interested in learning more about using screenwriting techniques for fiction, there are some great primers to dig into:  Story, by Robert McKee, Anatomy of Story, by John Truby, this handy-dandy chart, Janice Hardy’s Fiction University posts on screenwriting tools, Alexandra Sokoloff’s screenwriting tips for novelists,  and this post, which explains Three Act structure using Star Wars.

Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, these easy steps are totally worth a shot! Try these excellent techniques and definitely check out the rest of the blog hop (links on the resources page)! #DVpit’s pitch day for children’s and teen projects is April 25th and adult projects can be pitched on April 26th. #DVpit was created by Beth Phelan in 2016. Please visit www.dvpit.com for more information.


sona 2.jpg

Sona Charaipotra spends much of her time poking plot holes in shows like Riverdale – for work, of course. As the co-founder of the boutique book packager CAKE Literary, Sona’s mission is to get more diverse and deliciously high concept books for kids and teens onto shelves. She’s the co-author of the YA dance dramas Tiny Pretty Things and Shiny Broken Pieces, and the author of the upcoming Prognosis: Love & Death. Sona is also a proud We Need Diverse Books team member. The owner of a Masters in screenwriting from NYU and an MFA in creative writing from the New School, Sona is also a journalist who has written for everyone from The New York Times to TeenVogue. Find her on Twitter @sona_c, or on the web at www.SonaCharaipotra.com

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