Three Act Structure: The Most Basic of Basics

Find the original /r/writing post here.

Today I realized I had been going over all this story structure theory for beginners and I hadn’t even touched on the most basic of basics, three act structure. I’m sure everyone here already feels like they have three act structure pretty well understood, but it never hurts to do a little refresher every now and again.

One of my favorite places to start with studying three act structure is the often trusty Wikipedia. Particularly, I like the plot line graph they use in the article, which includes a few extra points (pinch 1 and pinch 2) that aren’t often included in images illustrating three act structure.

Three Act Structure Plot Line Graph

Here’s a short blog article from Karen Woodward that talks about pinch points, with some examples from Star Wars. To quote it:

First Pinch Point:

The first pinch point reminds us of the central conflict of the story.

Second Pinch Point:

The second pinch point, like the first, reminds the audience of the central conflict of the story, but it also is linked to the first. It shows the audience the threat (whatever it is that still stands in the way of the hero achieving his goal). The pinch point scene lays out what the hero has yet to conquer/overcome/accomplish.

To put three act structure more simply, however, we need only turn to the always trusty TV Tropes:

“I took a master class with Billy Wilder once and he said that in the first act of a story you put your character up in a tree and the second act you set the tree on fire and then in the third you get him down.”

Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back Producer Gary Kurtz, LA Times interview

The entire article is a pretty useful simple explanation of three act structure as well, so be sure to give it a read. That, along with this little rehash of everything you just read (found on the College of DuPage website), should get you feeling comfortable with the most basic of basics and ready to go over the previous tips again (especially Miéville’s) if you didn’t feel comfortable with three act structure already when reading them the first time.

[Click here for more writing advice for beginners.]

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Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat Beat Sheet

This one was originally intended for screenwriters–especially those who want a decidedly commercial product–but it’s useful for novelists and short story writers alike.

Those of you who were afraid to give beginners something to shoehorn their plot into are really going to hate this one–from Blake Snyder, writer of the fabulous ’90s movie Blank Check among other screenplays–because it goes so far as to include specific wordcounts for each beat–originally page numbers for a screenplay which have been converted for our purposes.

All wordcounts assume a 100,000 word finished novel. Enjoy:

THE BLAKE SNYDER BEAT SHEET

Opening Image (1 – 1,000 words) – A visual that represents the struggle & tone of the story. A snapshot of the main character’s problem, before the adventure begins.

Set-up (1 – 9,100 words) – Expand on the “before” snapshot. Present the main character’s world as it is, and what is missing in their life.

Theme Stated (happens during the Set-up at around 4,550 words) – What your story is about; the message, the truth. Usually, it is spoken to the main character or in their presence, but they don’t understand the truth…not until they have some personal experience and context to support it.

Catalyst (at 10,920 words) – The moment where life as it is changes. It is the telegram, the act of catching your loved-one cheating, allowing a monster onboard the ship, meeting the true love of your life, etc. The “before” world is no more, change is underway.

Debate (10,920 – 22,714 words) – But change is scary and for a moment, or a brief number of moments, the main character doubts the journey they must take. Can I face this challenge? Do I have what it takes? Should I go at all? It is the last chance for the hero to chicken out.

Break Into Two [Choosing Act Two] (at 22,714 words) – The main character makes a choice and the journey begins. We leave the “Thesis” world and enter the upside-down, opposite world of Act Two.

B Story (around 27,300 words) – This is when there’s a discussion about the Theme – the nugget of truth. Usually, this discussion is between the main character and the love interest. So, the B Story is usually called the “love story”.

The Promise of the Premise (27,300 – 50,050 words) – This is the fun part of the story. This is when Craig Thompson’s relationship with Raina blooms, when Indiana Jones tries to beat the Nazis to the Lost Ark, when the detective finds the most clues and dodges the most bullets. This is when the main character explores the new world and the audience is entertained by the premise they have been promised.

Midpoint (at 50,050 words) – Dependent upon the story, this moment is when everything is “great” or everything is “awful”. The main character either gets everything they think they want (“great”) or doesn’t get what they think they want at all (“awful”). But not everything we think we want is what we actually need in the end.

Bad Guys Close In (50,050 – 68,250 words) – Doubt, jealousy, fear, foes both physical and emotional regroup to defeat the main character’s goal, and the main character’s “great”/“awful” situation disintegrates.

All is Lost (at 68,250 words) – The opposite moment from the Midpoint: “awful”/“great”. The moment that the main character realizes they’ve lost everything they gained, or everything they now have has no meaning. The initial goal now looks even more impossible than before. And here, something or someone dies. It can be physical or emotional, but the death of something old makes way for something new to be born.

Dark Night of the Soul (68,250 – 77,350 words) – The main character hits bottom, and wallows in hopelessness. The Why hast thou forsaken me, Lord? moment. Mourning the loss of what has “died” – the dream, the goal, the mentor character, the love of your life, etc. But, you must fall completely before you can pick yourself back up and try again.

Break Into Three [Choosing Act Three] (at 77,350 words) – Thanks to a fresh idea, new inspiration, or last-minute Thematic advice from the B Story (usually the love interest), the main character chooses to try again.

Finale (77,359 – 99,100 words) – This time around, the main character incorporates the Theme – the nugget of truth that now makes sense to them – into their fight for the goal because they have experience from the A Story and context from the B Story. Act Three is about Synthesis!

Final Image (99,100 – 100,000 words) – opposite of Opening Image, proving, visually, that a change has occurred within the character.

THE END

If you liked that, you can find a huge list of movies analyzed using this beat sheet on Blake Snyder’s website right here, or you can read the full Save the Cat book. Further, on Jami Gold’s website, there’s a page with worksheets for writers, found here, that also includes a Save the Cat spreadsheet for novels. [Click here to directly download the .xls version.]

I hope that helped. And click here for more writing advice for beginners.

Kurt Vonnegut on the Shapes of Stories and 8 Basics of Creative Writing

Today’s post appeared here originally.

This is one that I’m sure most of the writers on reddit have seen, but it’s worth a rehash nonetheless. The best place to start on Vonnegut’s shapes of stories, I think, is from the man himself, so here he is talking about his literary theory in video format.

If you don’t like to watch videos (I don’t either, but you should watch this one. It’s short, and he’s a great speaker.), you can check out this infographic with the same information.

Kurt Vonnegut's shapes of stories

Here I’d like to add something that only comes up in the comments of the original /r/writing self post, thanks to /u/kyle_albasi. That is the conclusion of the above talk, found in Vonnegut’s almost memoir A Man Without a Country, where Vonnegut says:

But there’s a reason we recognize Hamlet as a masterpiece: it’s that Shakespeare told us the truth, and people so rarely tell us the truth in this rise and fall here [indicates blackboard]. The truth is, we known so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is. And if I die-God forbid- I would like to go to heaven and ask somebody in charge up there ‘Hey! What was the good news and what was the bad news?!

Next, I’ll leave you with Vonnegut’s eight basics of creative writing. For everyone who hates the structures, models, and rules I’ve been posting, I think it’s especially important to pay attention to Vonnegut’s addendum after rule eight. Here they are:

Kurt Vonnegut created some of the most outrageously memorable novels of our time, such as Cat’s CradleBreakfast Of Champions, and Slaughterhouse Five. His work is a mesh of contradictions: both science fiction and literary, dark and funny, classic and counter-culture, warm-blooded and very cool. And it’s all completely unique.

With his customary wisdom and wit, Vonnegut put forth 8 basics of what he calls Creative Writing 101:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964). She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.

From the preface to Vonnegut’s short story collection Bagombo Snuff Box.

And if that wasn’t enough, here’s a PDF with a set of eight other rules from Vonnegut on how to write in style.

I hope this was of some assistance. Thanks for joining us, and see you again next Thursday with more writing tips.

[Click here for more writing advice for beginners.]

Dan Harmon’s Story Structure 101: Super Basic Shit

The /r/writing self post this is quoted from can be found here:

This is taken from Dan Harmon’s Channel 101 post, found here, and it is one of the many great ways to look at story structure which might help you follow China Miéville’s advice on novel structure for beginners, found here. Now back to Harmon:

Storytelling comes naturally to humans, but since we live in an unnatural world, we sometimes need a little help doing what we’d naturally do.

Draw a circle and divide it in half vertically.

Divide the circle again horizontally.

Starting from the 12 o clock position and going clockwise, number the 4 points where the lines cross the circle: 1, 3, 5 and 7.

Number the quarter-sections themselves 2, 4, 6 and 8.

Dan Harmon Story Circle

Here we go, down and dirty:

  1. A character is in a zone of comfort,
  2. But they want something.
  3. They enter an unfamiliar situation,
  4. Adapt to it,
  5. Get what they wanted,
  6. Pay a heavy price for it,
  7. Then return to their familiar situation,
  8. Having changed.

Start thinking of as many of your favorite movies as you can, and see if they apply to this pattern. Now think of your favorite party anecdotes, your most vivid dreams, fairy tales, and listen to a popular song (the music, not necessarily the lyrics). Get used to the idea that stories follow that pattern of descent and return, diving and emerging. Demystify it. See it everywhere. Realize that it’s hardwired into your nervous system, and trust that in a vacuum, raised by wolves, your stories would follow this pattern.

I will talk in greater detail about this pattern in subsequent tutorials.

Next article:Story Structure 102: Pure, Boring Theory

And do be sure to check out Story Structure 102 and beyond. Dan Harmon is great at what he does. Enjoy until next time.

[For more writing advice for beginners click here.]

Margaret Atwood’s Happy Endings and 10 Tips for Writing

Today I’d like to discuss Margaret Atwood, one of my favorite speculative fiction authors. Here she is in video formattalking about why we tell stories. She thinks it’s in human nature to do so, much like Dan Harmon did in an earlier tip post .

Moving on to a short story she wrote, Happy Endings, we’ll find again some of Atwood’s thoughts on storytelling. With the odd structure of this “story” she seems to be saying, “It’s not the end of a tale that matters but the meaty bits in the middle.” Right here you can find a decent, if short, analysis of the story to serve as a jumping off point for conversation.

And finally, it seems that every author has their own list–this one taken from the Guardian article here–so here’s Atwood’s. Enjoy:

  1. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
  2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
  3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
  4. If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick.
  5. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.
  6. Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What ­fascinates A will bore the pants off B.
  7. You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
  8. You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a ­romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.
  9. Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
  10. Prayer might work. Or reading ­something else. Or a constant visual­isation of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.

 

[Click here for more writing advice for beginners.]

China Miéville on Novel Structure for Beginners

I spend a lot of time on reddit while I’m doing the work that pays my bills (not writing yet, I’m afraid), and recently I’ve been posting the writing tips that helped get me started to the /r/writing subreddit. Starting today, and every Thursday until I run out of them, I’m going to share those writing tips here on the blog, as well.

You might recognize this first one from my personal note about The Asymptote’s Tail. I’m just going to go ahead and quote the self post directly from reddit, but you can find it here if you want to see the conversation it produced there. I hope it helps:

This was posted here more than a year ago by /u/toothsoup, but it helped me so much, I thought it deserved rehashing for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet. What follows is all from the linked post above:

I finally got around to transcribing an interview that Miéville gave at a writer’s festival earlier this year where he was talking about his new book (Railsea), writing comics, and his place in the fantastic genre. He also took questions from the crowd, and I found his answer to a rather broad question about structure really solid. It’s helped me out in how I’m thinking about structuring my first novel, so I thought I’d post it here in case it helps someone else.


I was wondering if you could give me some advice on how to deal with structure? How do you deal with it?

“You’re talking about writing a novel, right? I think it’s kind of like…do you know Kurt Schwitters, the artist? He was an experimental artist in the 1940s who made these very strange cut up collages and so on and very strange abstract paintings. And I was just seeing an exhibition of his, and one of the things that is really noticeable is he is known for these wild collages, and then interspersing these are these really beautiful, very formally traditional oil paintings, portraits, and landscapes and so on.And this is that old—I mean it’s a bit of a cliché–but the old thing about knowing the rules and being able to obey them before you can break them. Now I think that that is quite useful in terms of structure for novels because one of the things that stops people writing is kind of this panic at the scale of the thing, you know? So I would say, I would encourage anyone that’s writing a novel to be as out there as they possibly can. But as a way of getting yourself kick-started, why not go completely traditional?

Think three-act structure, you know. Think rising action at the beginning of the journey and then some sort of cliff-hanger at the end of act one. Continuing up to the end of act two, followed by a big crisis at the end of act three, followed by a little dénouement. Think 30,000 words, 40,000 words, 30,000 words, so what’s that, around 100,000 words. Divide that up into 5,000 word chapters so you’re going 6/8/6. I realise this sounds incredibly sort of drab, and kind of mechanical. But my feeling is that the more you can kind of formalise and bureaucratise those aspects of things. It actually paradoxically liberates you creatively because you don’t need to worry about that stuff.

If you front load that stuff, plant all that out in advance and you know the rough outline of each chapter in advance, then when you come to each day’s writing, you’re able to go off in all kinds of directions because you know what you have to do in that day. You have to walk this character from this point to this point and you can do that in the strangest way possible. Whereas if you’re looking at a blank piece of paper and saying where do you I go from here you get kind of frozen.

The unwritten novel has a basilisk’s stare, and so I would say do it behind your own back by just formally structuring it in that traditional way. And then when you have confidence and you’ve gained confidence in that, you can play more odder games with it. But it’s really not a bad way to get started.”

[Click here for more writing advice for beginners.]

A Note From the Author on the Asymptote’s Tail

On the Amazon page for every novel there’s a little section with the heading “From the Author”. I didn’t know this section existed until after the book was published, so I didn’t have anything to put there until just now. All that is to say, here’s a note from me, the author, about The Asymptote’s Tail:

I wrote this novel as a challenge to myself. I had been reading the Song of Ice and Fire series and Casual Vacancy–two seemingly unconnected stories, perhaps–around the same time, and what I found myself most impressed with, which was lacking in all my attempts at writing a novel thus far, was both authors’ ability to juggle such a large cast of believable, well-rounded characters.

Keeping that in mind, in November of 2013, I started the first draft of what was then called Outland, hoping to come up with a hefty cast of fleshed out characters of my own making. My first attempts were bumbling and undirected. Unable to find the story because the only things I knew I wanted were an expansive character list, a story full of political intrigue, and a unique futuristic science fiction setting, I discarded those attempts and set to building the world properly while the story composted in my brain.

I studied and restudied story structures all the way from the basic three act, to Campbell’s monomyth, to Harmon’s (Dan Harmon of Community fame) circular story structure, eating up every bit of theory I could, and as I did, I came across a transcription of an interview with China Miéville–whose work I still have yet to read, I’m afraid–in which he gave some advice to new writers trying to get started. Among other things he said:

“Think three-act structure, you know. Think rising action at the beginning of the journey and then some sort of cliff-hanger at the end of act one. Continuing up to the end of act two, followed by a big crisis at the end of act three, followed by a little dénouement. Think 30,000 words, 40,000 words, 30,000 words, so what’s that, around 100,000 words. Divide that up into 5,000 word chapters so you’re going 6/8/6. I realise this sounds incredibly sort of drab, and kind of mechanical. But my feeling is that the more you can kind of formalise and bureaucratise those aspects of [your novel’s structure]. It actually paradoxically liberates you creatively because you don’t need to worry about that stuff.”

And I took that advice to heart. So I came up with seven characters, each with seven different backgrounds and seven different perspectives of the future world I had created, and I decided that each character would get three 5,000 word chapters from their point of view, adding up to a little more than the 20 suggested by Miéville but something that could be made to work along the same lines.

And as I started to write, I did feel liberated creatively. I could see all the characters’ timelines intertwining as I went, and though I’m sure I didn’t perform up to the standards of the legends I was trying to emulate, I feel like I’ve created something I can be proud of, and I’m certain I’ll continue to improve as I write more novels in the future.

So if you’re a fan of the political intrigue and cast size in works like Game of Thrones and Casual Vacancy, or if you’re into classic dystopian science fiction like The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451, or even if you’re into absurdism of the likes of Tom Stoppard and Albert Camus, think about giving The Asymptote’s Tail a read. I believe the cast will become your friends, the decisions they’re forced to make will give you philosophical contradictions to mull over long after reading, and most of all, you’ll enjoy yourself.

Thanks for giving me a read, I hope you’ll join me in the future.

-Bryan “with a Y” Perkins 06/04/15

Click here to visit the Amazon page.