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Life in Three Acts

I know what you’re thinking:  what, no writing again?  Yeah, that’s been happening of late as I’ve really been in the middle of some intense socializing for the first time in months.  Actually, it’s been kinda the perfect storm of interaction of late, with my trip back to Indiana, meeting people there, then doing things on this end–yep, that actually leaves a few holes in the writing schedule.  But I’ve needed the interaction for a while, and it’s helping me recharge a little.  Actually, I was a bit weepy for the most part yesterday, and getting together with someone for dinner helped bring me out of that funk.

It was either that or spend all my time crying while writing.

But this is a good time to get into something else that’s important to writing, or at least to my writing.  And that’s to answer the question, “Why do you lay things out the way you lay them out?”  Besides the answer, “Because I’m strange,” it’s really due in part to helping me keep action organized in a format that’s fairly well-known to writers around the world.

First off, let’s speak of something known as three act structure.  This is probably one of the most basic of all writing tools that’s used in so many stories that once you start getting heavy into reading the works of others, you’ll recognize it immediately.  Stephen King employed it to good use in most of his novels, particularly with The Stand and IT, and Joss Whedon has used this in both his Avenger movies.

The set up is easy:  the story is broken into three acts, often known as the Setup, the Confrontation and the Resolution.  The Setup is mostly exposition, where the story is set up, the character met, backgrounds laid out, and so on.  The Confrontation is just that:  the challenges are met and things start getting a little dicey.  The last act is the Resolution, where everything is tidied up and the hero–or heroes–walk off into the sunset victorious–or in a case of a couple of kids separated by the continent of Europe, they go home and get sad.

I had this structure in my last night, A For Advanced, because, really, it helped determine how I should sell the book when I sell the book.

I have the same thing in the current novel, 'cause why get rid of a good thing?

I have the same thing in the current novel, ’cause why get rid of a good thing?

The first time I used the three act structure was Kolor Ijo.  My characters meet in the first act and find out what’s happening.  In act two things ramp up, and in act three the move in together and take on the big bad.  That worked well enough that I decided to keep it for The Foundation Chronicles novels, while at the same time divided the story up even further.

In these two novels, acts are broken into parts that are basically a collection of interrelated things.  Let’s look below:

Hey, looks like there's a dance going on.

Hey, looks like there’s a dance going on.

Part Four, Under Pressure, deals with events in Annie’s and Kerry’s lives that affect them in different ways.  Those events becomes chapters, which contain the telling of those events.  Samhain Festivities is an event that’s good for Annie and Kerry together.  The Manor Called is something that affects Annie, and From Queens to Dreams affects Kerry.  The last, Restricted Dreamspace, is something that again affects them both, and sends Annie off asking questions.

And lastly I have scenes, and this seems to be the place where a lot of people look at me and go, “Huh?”  Since I think of my story in somewhat cinematic terms, a scene, to me, is a segment of a chapter relating to a particular event, like one would see in a movie or television show.  Let’s go back to the first Avengers movie.  You start out with the Tesseract acting up and Nick Fury coming to see what the hell is happening; that’s a scene.  Loki appears, gets his meat puppets, and scoots with the loot; that’s a scene.  There’s the chase out of the facility as everyone finished packing their shit and leaving before it all blows up and Loki vanishes with the goods; that’s a scene, and the end of a chapter.

I do the same above.  Kerry finds out he’s on the A Team–scene.  The A Team meets–scene.  They start the race–scene.  They end the race–scene.  Off to the dance and meet the other students–scene.  While Kerry dances, Annie talks–scene.  It’s all part of the festivities, and if I wanted to I could break those up between the Samhain Races and the Samhain Dance, and I may do just that when I get home.  This is why I like Scrivener, because it allows me that freedom, and given that I transition sharply from the race to the dance, it’s possible they could be two separate chapters.

That’s how I do thing, but more importantly, why I do it that way.  It also helps me keep things neat and organized, even if it looks like a huge mess.  Then again, this is what I used project management software to write my novels.

It helps keep the insanity to a minimum.

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2 thoughts on “Life in Three Acts

  1. Thanks for the description of your process – it all makes perfect sense to me, but then I structure things in a very similar way :). TBH, I hadn’t realised I was following a three act structure until I started putting the scenes and chapters in order, but I think it’s something that has become so ingrained in me as a reader, and, just as importantly, a viewer, that I’ve internalised it in my own process. The rise, fall and rise is integral to good drama, and it’s a satisfying way to read and write. Joss Whedon has a lot to answer for, among others, of course ;).

    • I was sort of the same way with the set-up, and it wasn’t until I saw something on it that I realized it was what I was doing. And, yes: There is a lot of things Joss has to answer for. 😉

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