Thursday, August 2, 2012

The 3 Acts in a Novel

I promised Tuesday that I would write more today about what I learned at the RWA Conference. I'm going to focus on writing novels using the same three acts as screenplay writers use.

 As I have mentioned before, here on my blog and when I've been asked to speak about writing, my novel writing really took off after I'd taken a screenplay writing class at the university. We were taught how movie scripts are written with three acts in mind: Act 1, is usually the set up; Act 2, the middle; and Act 3 the ending or wrap up.

I understood Act 1 pretty well as it applied to novels. This is where the author sets up the story by introducing characters, setting, and the main premise of the novel. At the end of Act 1 there needs to be a plot point that takes the characters out of their familiar world. It can be simple or life-threatening, but the characters will never be the same.

Act 2 is the middle of your novel where the characters struggle with the problem. They can be chasing red herrings, meeting new people, or overcoming more challenges, but all of this must move the story forward. Act 2 must also end with a major plot point that will ultimately take the main characters to the climax of your novel

Act 3 is the climactic scene and the wrap up. This is pretty straightforward and easy to understand.

BUT I've always wanted a little more guidance in regards to Act 2. This is the bulk of the story. I've read what other authors believed was supposed to happen during the middle. They had elaborate charts with arrows pointing up and down and one, I swear, had a circle. I felt that by the time I figured out what it all meant and applied it to my novel, I could have written two other books. So it seemed a waste of time.

However, last week when I took Michael Hauge's class on Six Stage Plot Structure Act 2 finally made sense. And it's so simple. Michael says that during Act 2 your characters need to make progress and vacillate between identity and essence. Identity is the false sense you present to the world. Essence is the potential of who your character can become. Yes! So it goes back to shoring up your characters along with forwarding plot. Also in Act 2 complications and higher stakes must be added which will steadily build toward the big plot point turn at the end of Act 2.
I understood this part and without my knowing it I have had my characters struggling with identity to embrace their essence, but now I know why.

 So if you've been struggling with writing the middle of your story, you might want to check out Michael Hauge's Six Stage Plot Structure on his website. And you might think about buying his book because there's a lot more to writing a solid story than what I've told you.

 I love learning more about my craft. Have you found a new theory or book that has helped your writing? Feel free to let me know.


  1. Great comparison between a novel and a screenplay. The three act rule is a good one

  2. Great idea Kathi! I think novelists and screenwriters can learn a lot from each other -- especially in this day and age when novels are becoming much more cinematic.

  3. Tracy,
    Using the three acts of a play for my novels have served me very well. :)

  4. Andrew,
    I think you're right. Screenwriters and novelists can learn a lot from each other. Many times as I write I see the scene unfold like a movie.



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