Three Weeks, Three Acts

Brittner charactersI 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 as a guide. You can read (almost) the entire novel here. The Hand of Adonai and the Book of Things to Come, Act one 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 one 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?

  1. Trottier, David: "The Screenwriter’s Bible", pp. 5–7. Silman James, 1998.

9 Comments on Three Weeks, Three Acts

  1. dina rodriguez | April 8, 2013 at 2:41 pm | Reply

    I had thought that only people who write plays used the Act1,2,&3 idea but I guess not. But I understood the “Will Jake save the world?” was in act 2 . Isn’t Act1 only talking about the characters?

  2. Act I is much more than introducing the characters. It’s about setting up the world in which the story takes place and the general rules of how the world of the story works. And it is also the introduction of the conflict that messes up the character’s life.
    Think about your favorite movie. The first several minutes are setting up the characters and the world in which the story takes place. The initial setup, plus the conflict that soon follows, makes up the first act.
    It’s that moment when things go wrong, when the reader wants to see how the main character survives this trial (or suffer a humiliating and possibly eternal defeat). That’s Act I.
    Write well, write often, friends.

  3. janet Anderson | April 12, 2013 at 10:46 am | Reply

    I dont really get the blog this time…. It was not that clear tyo me i couldent put and image in my head of act1 and..etc but i kinda got when you said ”will bob get the girl” or ”will sally get away from the stalker”

  4. Summer Connell | April 12, 2013 at 11:01 am | Reply

    In the beginning of a play it usually starts off by telling and showing you what the setting is. So basically what I got from this is that its more dramatic to have something happen in the beginning that can’t be answered until the climax or ending.

  5. Christian Beaman | April 15, 2013 at 10:38 am | Reply

    This blog really decribed to me how plays and stories are told in many different ways and techniques, different acts and many uses are used in act one.

  6. This blog showed me the many different ways and ideas that stories can be told, developed and created. Act 1 usially opens up talking about main characters, and setting.

  7. JessicaRae Padilla | April 20, 2013 at 12:10 pm | Reply

    I’m not really understanding this blog but from my understanding and reading the different comments to get an Idea of what it’s about is that stories and plays are told in different ways and techniques, you start off by introducing and a brief explanation of what’s going on then you just into the conflict and the different stuff that comes along then the resolution and there is different ways to to tell this

  8. This blog post taught me everything i know about Act 1s. This was enlightening to me, because i had never quite understood the meaning of these things call Acts.

  9. Drew Williams | May 17, 2013 at 7:34 am | Reply

    The three act structure is a good way to keep suspense, not only in plays but books can be a three act structure as well. Three acts gives two stopping points to keep you in suspense and when the story resumes, it is more interesting.

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