FROM THE VAULTS: Three Weeks, Three Acts
Originally published April 7, 2013
with Aaron Gansky
I thought it might be fun to take a few weeks to look at the three act structure. While most commonly used for screenplays, fiction writers have used the same set-up for decades. While fairly self-explanatory (beginning, conflict, resolution), a closer examination of the structure can help us outline our books more effectively.
This week, we’ll look at Act I.
Act I is often called the exposition. It introduces our primary characters and the world in which they live. In fiction-speak, it establishes setting and character. However, this shouldn’t be a simple introduction. That is to say, don’t resort to “telling.” Showing is highly important, as Act I sets the tone for your novel and introduces your writing style to your reader as well. Show us your character in action, their strengths and desires. Then, mess up their lives.
Act I ends when the primary conflict is introduced (the messing up of their lives, so to speak). According to David Trottier, in The Screenwriter’s Bible, Act I ends with the first turning point, which does all of the following:
signals the end of the first act
ensures life will never be the same again for the protagonist
raises a dramatic question that will be answered in the climax of the film.
This dramatic question should be framed in context of what the protagonist must do to “win.” For example, “Will Bob get the girl?” or “Will Sally escape the stalker?” or “Will Hank discover the true murderer in time?” or “Will Tamara save the world?”
At the risk of being called narcissistic, I’ll use my YA fantasy novel, Hand of Adonai, as a guide. Act I begins with our two primary characters standing in the snow overlooking a cliff. It continues on to show us their desires, and put them in conflict (they’re not happy for a variety of reasons). Act I continues by intensifying the conflict (family problems, school problems, etc.), and also introduces the other two primary characters. The first act ends when the characters wake up in the video game world they’d created. This is the “no turning back” moment, and also introduces a newer, bigger conflict (the dramatic question): Will Oliver, Lauren, Erica, and Aiden (pictured above, thanks to the wonderful talents of Kristin Brittner) get back home to North Chester, or forever be trapped in the dangerous world of Alrujah?
Trottier, David: “The Screenwriter’s Bible”, pp. 5–7. Silman James, 1998.
You can purchase Hand of Adonai: The Book of Things to Come by clicking on the title.