Whether you’re a plotter or a panster, every story requires structure. Christina Hollis returns to talk about the merits of the Three Act Structure.
Is your novella turning into a never-ending story? Do your characters get further away from their HEA, the closer you get to your maximum word count? Find out how to harness your creativity without squeezing all the enjoyment from your work.
We all love the spontaneity of the creative process. Many people have to fit their writing into odd moments in a busy life. Continually picking up, then putting down your work means it’s easy to ramble without noticing. Some people are dedicated planners but many start with an idea and simply run with it.
That’s fine for you as a writer—never hobble your talent—but what about your readers?
When someone picks up a sample of your work, whether it’s a short story, novella or saga, they’ve got expectations. Your characters must seduce them into turning the pages to find out what happens until they reach a satisfying conclusion. You may be a free spirit who doesn’t believe in detailed plans but imagine how much easier it would be if you started out with a rough idea of where you were going and how long it would take you to get there. A five-hundred mile cross-country drive might be amazing, but when you use a map it’s a whole lot more economical in terms of time and resources.
In the same way, a basic Three Act Structure comes in handy when you’re writing fiction. It’s been followed for centuries without going out of fashion, mainly because it’s so adaptable. Your story falls into three unequal parts. After a short section of scene-setting, the largest portion contains the action. This approaches a climax in a shorter, final section, which also ties up all the loose ends. Within these divisions, you use basic pegs to position various story elements and guide progress.
Act One: Your Story World
Use your opening chapters to set the scene and give basic answers to the who, when, where, and why of your central characters. Begin with an inciting incident—a stranger arrives in town is a classic or a sudden change (for either better or worse) in circumstances. Don’t give too much away. Drip feed information and hint at dramas to come: “My Cedric’s got a job at last. Don’t know how he’ll get to Southampton by April 10th, though.”
Make sure every scene moves the action forward. Every word should be a wanted word. Gradually increase the pressure on your characters by presenting them with situations where they need to take action. As you make things more complicated for them, give glimpses of their motives and deepen their inner conflicts.
The introductions are over and your readers know who they’re dealing with. Or do they? This is when the fun begins. In Pride and Prejudice, for example, it’s when Darcy dismisses Elizabeth as “…tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me.” That gets every reader on Elizabeth’s side, keen to see how she’ll puncture his arrogance. Put your characters in a corner and start throwing stones at them.
This is the biggest, and most complex part of your story. It’s the point where Alice has gone through the looking glass, and Dorothy isn’t in Kansas any more. There’s no way back. The characters have to create a new existence and fresh ways of thinking as they learn about their new world.
Draw contrasts between their old life, and the new rules they are learning. Your readers understand enough about your characters by now to care what happens to them—“This job’s so well paid, Cedric says we’ll get married the minute The Titanic brings him home again!”
Create situations to stretch your hero and heroine so they grow and develop. How does your heroine react to being parted from her hero and vice versa? What if there’s an unplanned pregnancy? Or a notice to quit arrives out of the blue? Show how they cope. Contrast high drama with small, everyday irritations and pleasures.
In other words, make your story larger than life, yet still believable. Build tension, and foreshadow future problems. In The Lord Of The Rings, Gandalf rages at Pippin for doing something as simple as dropping a stone down a well. We’re told that’s not a good thing to do in a place like the Mines of Moria, but we don’t know why. Yet…
Don’t forget to give your cast some breathing space, however small. The contrast of action and peace gives your readers and heroes a rest so that when they least expect it you can throw another grenade into their tranquil pool. And whether you’re writing sweet, sexy, or suspense, keep dropping hints and adding hooks: “Cedric was too busy serving champagne to hear the grinding crunch from below decks…”
Act Three: Climax and Conclusion
Everything has been building towards this point. Things are getting worse and worse—romances seem doomed, everyone’s hurtling toward disaster and there is (apparently) no way out. Your hero(es) must find inner resources they didn’t know they had to make one last, enormous push toward reconciliation or one final battle. Will Cedric’s wonderful character development be snuffed out by the freezing North Atlantic? Will his plucky fiancée find him among the survivors brought ashore, or must she face life alone? These blackest moments showcase how the crucible of your imagination develops your characters during their journey through your plot.
And finally…when it’s all over, your characters look around and take stock of their new story world and their relationships. They should have changed in some way or at least grown in understanding.
The climax and resolution of your story is the place to give your characters their Happy Ever After moment or let them announce their determination to stride forward into Book Two of a series. At least give them a satisfying conclusion.
There are lots of possible variations on this basic layout, but this one has worked well for me. It’s the way I kept Sara and Leo heading for their happy ever after in His Majesty’s Secret Passion, despite all their troubles, and reversals on the way.
How much planning do you do before you actually start writing? Does your final story always stick closely to your original structure?
HIS MAJESTY’S SECRET PASSION [Wild Rose Press – February 2015]
Leo Gregoryan is determined to be the perfect king. Loyalty to his country means sacrificing his own happiness, but he’ll divert the energy he once poured into his dream of becoming a doctor toward royal duties. All he needs right now is a stress-free vacation–no future queen need apply. Sara Astley escapes to the luxurious Paradise Hotel after she’s dumped by her partner, who then stole the promotion she’d expected. She hides her broken dreams behind a tough exterior. Her stubborn streak makes her a challenge Leo can’t resist. His special brand of hands-on persuasion seduces Sara into enjoying the holiday of a lifetime. Their fling can’t hurt either of them–or so they think. Leo’s focussed on being the ideal hero. Sara knows what she wants, and that’s independence. Then a revelation tears them apart, meaning things can never be the same between them…
Bio: Christina Hollis writes contemporary fiction starring complex men and independent women–when she isn’t cooking, gardening or beekeeping. Her books have been translated into more than a dozen languages, and she’s sold over two million books worldwide. You can catch up with her at http://www.christinahollis.blogspot.com, on Twitter, Facebook, and see a full list of her published books at http://www.christinahollis.com.
Next up: RU founder and author Kelsey Browning joins us on Monday, March 9th.
- Janice Hardy presents: The Big Push to 50 (Thousand Words, That Is)
- The Form of Romance, or, A Roll in the Hay with Theresa Stevens
- Anna Campbell on the Lure of the Familiar
- A Matter of Timing: Positioning Your Major Plot Points Within Your Story by K.M. Weiland
- Before You Climax by Chris Eboch