On Pacing and Structure (Part 7): The Fundamental Principles- What is an Act, and How Do You Use Them?

I recently examined and explained several storytelling structures, including the Hero’s Journey, the Three Act Format, the Five Act Format, Save the Cat!, and the Seven Point Plot Structure. While studying them, I found quite a number of commonalities between them. I am now going to try to summarize those commonalities, in an attempt to find general rules underpinning narrative structures in general. Let’s get started.

First of all we need to answer a simple question: What is an Act?

  • First, dividing a book into acts can provide a clear in-narrative breaking point between events.
    • For example, in a 3 Act Fantasy novel, Act 1 is often where we’re introduced to the protagonist before they hear their Call to Adventure. Act 2 is where they go on their Adventure, preparing to defeat the antagonist. Act 3 is when they defeat their antagonist, and return home again.
      • In this case, each act serves a specific, distinct narrative function. Act 1’s purpose is to introduce the protagonist, setting and stakes. Act 2’s purpose is to show how the protagonist, setting and stakes change as the plot takes place. Act 3’s purpose is to bring the tension up to a breaking point at the climax, and then wind down the story after wards.
    • In a 5 Act Fantasy, Act 1 establishes the status quo of the protagonist’s life. Act 2 is the Call to Adventure, when the outside world forces the orphan farmboy to act. Act 3 is when the protagonist leaves their home and is forced to make difficult choices to advance the plot. Act 4 is when the protagonist suffers a setback, and has to make a plan to come back from defeat. Act 5 is the climax and denumount, when the heroes attack the Dark Lord and return home again.
      • Each act serves a purpose. Act 1 introduces the protagonist, and establishes the status quo setting. Act 2 disturbs the setting, and forces the protagonist to act. Act 3 is the meat-and-potatoes act of the story, where most of the ‘adventure’ takes place. Act 4 is the darkest moment before the dawn, when the protagonist questions their choices, has a EUREKA moment and strategies one last plan to succeed. Act 5 is the final battle, and the heroes resetting the story to the status quo of the setting so it’s healthier than it was at the beginning.
  • Second, dividing a book into Acts allows the author to structure changes in the protagonist’s characterization with each act break.
    • For example, in 3 Act Format
      • a protagonist might lack confidence in Act 1,
      • gain moderate confidence in Act 2,
      • and be extremely confident in Act 3.
    • Or  in 5 Act Format
      • the protagonist might lack confidence in Act 1,
      • gain moderate confidence in Act 2,
      • be overconfident in Act 3, to the point of making a mistake,
      • In Act 4, that mistakes causes the protagonist lose all their hard-gained confidence, and then spends the rest of the act slowly rebuilding their confidence,
      • So in Act 5 the protagonist is confident, but that confidence is tempered by wisdom of their own self-limitations, and they are able to use their wisdom to succeed.

By linking the changes in plot in various acts with changes in personality, you allow for narrative based changes in characterization.

  • For example, in Lois McMaster Bujold’s ‘Paladin of Souls,’
    • the protagonist Ista hates the gods in Act 1 and refuses to pray to them;
    • she hates the gods in Act 2 but is willing to pray to them under certain circumstances;
    • and in Act 3 she loves the gods and is willing to pray to them at all times. In this way her personality and the plot of the story are linked together. Her love for the gods allows the gods to interced at the climax, and end the plot.

Why is it good to link together changes in plot with changes in character personality? Because it helps make a character seem like they are growing and changing over the course of the novel, in response to the events of the novel. People like reading 3 dimensional characters. Having your characters grow and change over the course of a novel is one method to accomplish that 3 dimensionality.

There’s something special when you have the main plot of the story and the side plot of the protagonist’s character development resolve at the same time. When writing/editing your story, try to have your character’s internal plot and the story’s external plot resolve at the same time. This is when your protagonist uses the wisdom they’ve gained while addressing their character-flaw plotline, to resolve the main plotline.

  • For example, in Ursula K. LeGuin’s ‘A Wizard of Earthsea,’ the protagonist Ged’s main, external plot of defeating an evil shadow monster. At the climax of the novel, Ged realizes that the shadow monster is really an echo of his darker desires (Ged’s inner plotline). To defeat the monster, Ged must come to terms with his inner turmoil, accept his past failures. Only by doing so can he overcome his enemy, for his enemy is himself.

So what exactly is an Act, anyway? It’s a nebulous concept. My favorite definition is ‘An Act ends when the protagonist makes a choice which they cannot take back.’ For example, in the Hero’s Journey, the first Act ends when the protagonist makes the choice to leave home after receiving the Call to Adventure.

However this definition doesn’t work for all stories. I can think of two types of stories where it doesn’t work. First, some stories are written where the protagonist doesn’t have any agency, and thus cannot make choices which cannot be taken back.

  • As an example of this, I point to N K Jemisin’s ‘The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.’ In that novel, the protagonist makes virtually no major choices until the very end of the book. She spends 99% of the book in what amounts to a gilded prison, and thus is denied agency. You can’t make choices if you’re locked in prison! In that novel, the act breaks were determined by major revelations, and dramatic changes in the direction of the plot caused by outside forces.

Second, some stories feature no protagonist change at all. Think of Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple- from book to book, they don’t change at all. In those stories, the characters who change are those around the protagonists. The protagonist serves as a vessel for the plot. While such a protagonist can have a rich internal life, they don’t change from book to book because that’s the nature of a serialized series protagonist. A reader can skip around and read the series out of order because there is no overall narrative linking the books.

With those exceptions in mind, I propose that the lowest-common-denominator definition of an Act is this: ‘An Act begins or ends when either the protagonist makes a choice they cannot take back, or they undergo an emotional transformation, or when a plot beat permanently sets the direction of the story in a dramatically new direction.’

With that definition in mind, the next question is: how do you use Acts to structure your story? To answer that question, you need to first answer this question: what is your story?

Here’s my method for determining what act structure to use when structuring a novel:

  1. Think about your story as you’ve written it, or as you’re outlining it. Determine who the protagonist is. If you have multiple protagonists, select one of them.
  2. Answer these questions.
    1. Over the course of the novel, what character flaw(s) are they trying to address? Are they proud? Scared? Wrathful? Lazy?
    2. What is your protagonist’s personality at the beginning of the book? What’s their personality at the end? What events in the story causes them to change?
    3. What important choices does your character make throughout your novel?
    4. What scenes contain emotional high points for your protagonist? What scenes contain emotional low points?
    5. What are the points of transition for your character, when their personality changes? (These transitions can be subtle, occurring over multiple chapters. Just be aware those changes are going on.)
    6. Does the protagonist’s change in personality help them triumph at the end? For example, if a proud protagonist becomes humble, does that humility help them triumph in some way?
  3. Once I answer those questions, the next step is to use the insight I gained by answering those questions to study the general slope of the character’s arc.
    1. Example: Going back to the example of ‘Paladin of Souls’ mentioned above, let’s study that.
      1. Act 1
        1. Ista begins the book repressed and frustrated by four decades of being micromanaged by her mother. When her mother dies, she feels a sense of dreadful relief from that pressure. Now that she isn’t controlled by her elderly helicopter parent anymore, she doesn’t know what to do with her life. This manifests in her running away from home.
        2.  Ista decides to go on a pilgrimage, to get as far away from her mother’s grave as possible, to escape her shadow even after death. She’s going on a pilgrimage despite the fact that Ista hates the gods. This is Ista’s flaw: not knowing who she is, and wanting to escape.
        3. On her pilgrimage, Ista reveals to her attendant priest that she hates the gods. Ista was once a faithful servant of the gods, and they gave her the duty of lifting a curse upon her family. She failed, and the curse killed her husband and son. Since then the curse was lifted by someone else, but Ista never forgave herself or the gods.
          1. (Note: the lifting of the curse occurred in book 1 of this series, ‘The Curse of Chalion.’ It’s good. You should read it.)
        4. Shortly after that, Ista is taken hostage by foreign raiders from the nation of Jokona. She is saved by divine intervention, which galls Ista to no end. The gods sent a warrior, Lord Arhys, to kill the raiders who captured her.
        5. Lord Arhys is cursed, and the gods assign Ista to de-curse him. Ista doesn’t want to be the god’s lapdog again, but because Arhys saved her life she feels obliged to. Thus ending Act 1.
          1. Analysis of this Act: Ista begins the story listless, but desperate to be free after a lifetime being held captive by her mother. Her mother held Ista captive after Ista failed to break a curse on her family. When Ista is saved from captivity by a cursed man, Ista MAKES A CHOICE to try again to lift the curse.
      2. Act 2
        1. Ista discovers that the curse is due to Arhys being dead. He died months prior, when he was stabbed in the chest. Arhys’ wife Cattilara is infested by a demon, and she used demonic magic to bring her husband back to life. Catty is draining the life energy from Arhys’ brother Ilvyn to sustain Arhys’ life. Ista develops a crush on the unconscious Ilvyn.
        2. It is revealed that Catty gained her demon from a princess of Jokona. The princess was infested by the demon, and was sent to seduce Ilvyn and Arhys, to turn them against one another. Months prior, there was a fight between the princess, Ilvyn, Arhys and Catty, and both the princess and Arhys were killed. The demon was transferred from the dying princess into the living Catty. Catty then used the demon’s magic to sustain Arhys’ life.
        3. The nation of Jokona attacks. It’s leaders have also been infested by demons. They are attacking in order to get revenge for their dead princess.
        4. Arhys dies again. Arhys’ curse prevents him from going to the heaven with the gods. It’s up to Ista to break this curse. The trouble is that because Ista never forgave herself for failing to break that prior curse decades earlier, which cost the lives of her husband and son, she can’t break this new curse.
        5. Ista suffers a divine revelation. Her empathy for Arhys, Catty and Ilvyn allow her to forgives herself, forgive the gods, and saves Arhys’ soul.
        6. Analysis: Ista begins this act furious at the gods, but willing to work with them for the sake of helping Arhys, Cattilara and Ilvyn. She grows to love Ilvyn, respect Arhys, and sees a younger version of herself in Catty. That empathy opens her heart, and lets her forgive herself for failing to save her husband and son. Ista MAKES THE CHOICE of forgiving herself, forgiving the gods. That act of self-forgiveness allows the gods to work through her to save Arhys’ soul.
      3. Act 3
        1. Ista agrees to be taken hostage by the Jokonans, so the Jokonans don’t kill everyone travelling with her. She walks into the den of demons alone, save for her love interest Ilvyn.
        2. When all seems lost, Ista reveals the fact that because she’s forgiven herself, the gods can channel a holy miracle through her. Using Ista as a vessel, the gods draw all the demons in the Jokonan court back to the hells from which they came.
        3. Triumphant, Ista and Ilvyn escape. The Jokonan army is routed by the Chalionese army, and Ista is left to pick up the pieces.
        4. Ista’s old life catches up with her. Family and friends from her hometown try to snatch her back up and take her back to the gilded cage she spent four decades inside. Ista declines to return, citing her new purpose as being a servant of the gods.
        5. She no longer needs to be micromanaged by her family and friends. She has forgiven herself, and taken responsibility for her failures.
        6. At last, Ista has a moment alone with Ilvyn. After four decades spent cloistered from the outside world, after two decades spent mourning her dead husband, she gets to live for herself. Free, she chooses to move on, and love another man. The closing image of the story is the pair of them spending a tender moment together.
      4. Analysis of the book: We see Ista transform into a willing servant of the gods(resolving her anti-god plotline and the self-forgiveness plotline). She no longer needs to run away from her old life, afraid to be put back in her gilded cage; she has outgrown that cage and even if they tried to stuff her back into it she wouldn’t fit. At the beginning of the story, she lived on other people’s beck and call; at the end, she lives how she chooses to (resolving the freedom plotline).
    2. As you can see in this example, Ista’s character development occurs in three main phases.
      1. In Act 1, she is both bitter and small-hearted. She hates the gods, and longs for a freedom she’s never tasted.
      2. In Act 2, she begins to grow, accepting the gods’ help but giving nothing back in return. But because she is unwilling to give anything back to the gods, she is unable to save Arhys’ soul when he becomes damned.
      3. In Act 3, she completes her character arc. Her love and empathy for Arhys, Catty and Ilvyn free her from two decades of self-hate. She learns to accept who she is, failures and all. That forgiveness, and those decades of bitter experience, open her up and allow her to become a worthy vessel for the gods. She culminates the story a much wiser woman, tempered by both love and hate.
    3. By ending acts with the protagonist MAKING CHOICES, the writer creates definitive moments of when the protagonist is changing the direction of the plot in a major way by their own agency. In each act we see how the events of that act cause the protagonist to change so they feel compelled to make that choice.
      1. In Act 1, we see Ista transform from being bitter and lonely to bitter and friendly, thanks to the positive impact of her entourage. She makes a choice to save Arhys instead of leaving, because she feels indebted to him for saving her life and the lives of her entourage, ending the act.
      2. In Act 2, we see her transform from being anti-god to pro-god when she sees the desperation of Catty, Arhys and Ilvyn, and sees in their desperation the same desperation which caused her to ultimately fail to save her son and husband two decades prior. To break the cycle of despair, she has to succeed today where she failed two decades earlier. So she chooses to forgive herself and save Arhys’ soul, ending the act.
      3. In Act 3, we see her love of Ilvyn and of the gods (the Bastard god in particular) gives her the patience and dignity to deal with her clingy family and friends. She no longer needs to be stored away like a mad woman; she’s outgrown her gilded cage.
  4. So you’ve determined the scope of your protagonist’s inner journey. Your next task is to determine the external plot of your story. The external plot is a term I like to use in place of something like ‘main plot.’ (The phrase ‘external plot’ is in contrast with the phrase ‘internal plot,’ which is the internal journey your protagonist goes through over the course of the story.)
      1. Going Back to ‘Paladin of Souls:’ Act 1
        1. Ista’s mother dies, and Ista flees home in manic relief and regret. Ista spent the last two decades in a gilded prison in Valinda, but with her mother dead, the lock on that cage is broken.
        2. Ista dy Chalion decides to go on a pilgrimage, to escape the confinement of her country castle. She recruits a priest and handmaiden, and they escape that prison.
        3. Ista, in a moment of rare frankness, admits the truth of her history to her priest. She tells him that she killed Arvol dy Lutez, in an ill-planned attempt to lift a curse which once haunted the House of Chalion. Because she failed to lift the curse, her husband and son died. Her family held her in a gilded cage afterwords, because Ista herself went mad with grief and guilt.
        4. Ista and her entourage visit a country tournament, where men and women compete riding horses. Her handmaiden wins the tournament, and Ista feels a motherly joy seeing this turn of events.
        5. Ista’s bodyguard contracts a wild demon, becoming a sorcerer. (This foreshadows demons in later acts.)
        6. Her bodyguard and handmaiden fall in love, and Ista is happy for them.
        7. But then the Jokonans take Ista captive. Ista’s handmaiden and priest barely escape being killed.
        8. Ista is dragged along the countryside, only to be saved by Arhys dy Lutez, the son of Arvol dy Lutez.
        9. In Arhys’ home of Castle Porifors, Ista immediately notices something is wrong. A strange curse connects Arhys to his unconscious brother Ilvyn, and to Arhys’ wife Cattilara.
        10. After recovering from her kidnapping, Ista can leave Porifors, return to her pilgrimage. But instead she chooses to stay and fight the curse, and maybe make up for killing Arvol dy Lutez by saving his son Arhys dy Lutez.
      2. Act 2
        1. Ista prays to the gods, and receives a holy vision. She realizes that Cattilara is infested by a demon.
        2. Investigating the recent history of Porifors, she learns that a princess of Jokona was briefly the fiance of Ilvyn, until she suddenly died under mysterious conditions.
        3. Looking deeper, she finds out that unconscious Ilvyn sometimes wakes up, and when Ilvyn wakes up Arhys falls asleep. She reasons out that their lives are somehow connected.
        4. It’s finally revealed that the princess was slain by Cattilara when the princess tried to sleep with Arhys. Arhys, in the process, was killed as well.
        5. The princess, who was possessed by a demon, transferred her demon to Catty upon death. Cattilara used her demonic magic to save Arhys’ life, reviving him as something of a zombie. She forced Ilvyn into unconsciousness, using his life as fuel for sustaining his undead brother.
        6. The Jokonans attack again, in revenge for their dead princess. Ista barely escapes capture. Ista discovers that Joen, the leader of the Jokonans, is infested by a POWERFUL demon, the demon ringleader.
        7. That night the Jokonans lay magical siege to Porifors, their demons destroying everything in the building. They have no hope of fighting back. Arhys chooses to make a final stand.
        8. Arhys rides out on his warhorse, and kills several of the enemy demon sorcerers. He keeps fighting even after sustaining multiple mortal wounds, on account of the fact that he’s a zombie. But in the end the enemy chop him into enough pieces to kill him for good.
        9. Arhys is left a sundered soul, cut off from the afterlife due to Catty’s magical attempt to keep him alive, unable to go to heaven or hell.
        10. Ista, in light of this tragedy, is empowered by the gods to save Arhys’ life… but she can’t do it. Because she never forgave herself for failing to break the curse twenty years prior, the curse which cost the life of Arvol dy Lutez, she’s now unable to break this curse which threatens to damn the soul of Arvol’s son.
        11. Ista realizes that the present situation is an echo of the situation which drove her mad twenty years prior. Cattilara is playing the role Ista herself played, Arhys is playing the role of Arvol, and Ilvyn is Ista’s husband Ias. This revelation, and the resulting empathy she feels for them, gives her the mental fortitude required to forgive herself.
        12. Ista forgives herself, and Arhys’ soul is saved and sent to heaven.
      3. Act 3
        1. Ista saves Arhys’ soul, and then surrenders to the Jokonans to prevent any more lives being lost. Ista is the mother of the queen of Chalion, and thus a fine hostage.
        2. The Jokonans drag Ista her before the desecrated corpse of Arhys to make her despair.
        3. Ista questions her rediscovered faith, wondering if the gods have abandoned her again. But she remains strong, even in that bleak moment.
        4. But when the time is right, Ista channels another divine miracle, defeating all the demons in Jokona and sending them back to hell.
        5. Ista and Ilvyn then retreat from Jokonan captivity, returning to Porifors. They hold out long enough for the Chalion army to arrive and rout the Jokonans.
        6. Ista’s old caretakers come to take her back to her gilded prison in Valinda, but she declines to return. Not only has she grown so spiritually large that she can’t be confined in a gilded cage again, but there’s no need for her to return. She was initially imprisoned because she failed to break a curse; now that she has broken a curse, she’s symbolically proven she deserves freedom.
        7. Ista and Ilvyn get together. Ista has forgiven herself for failing to save her first husband twenty years prior, so now she’s willing to experiment with maybe having a second husband.
  5. At this point, you’ve both determined the general slope of the character’s personality over the course of the book, and have figured out the order of events in which your external plot takes place. Next you have to line up the twists and turns of the plot so they more or less line up with those character changes.
    1. Remember that external plot=the genre story you’re telling (ie mystery, thriller, fantasy…) while internal plot=your protagonist’s character arc (ie fixing their flaws, like rage, hate, pride).)
    2. To line them up, take your story beats and compare them to story beats you’ve read in other books. That should help sync up the internal and external story beats in correct places in your book.
    3. For example,
      1. When the mentor character dies (external), that should coincide with an emotional low point for the protagonist (internal).
      2. When the protagonist loses their job after being fired by the antagonist (external), that naturally coincides with a very stressful lowpoint(internal).
      3. When the protagonist and the love interest swear their undying love for one another(internal), this should be caused by a moment of bonding between the two of them, such as them barely surviving a battle together or beating a disease (external).
      4. When the protagonist has a major depressive episode (internal), they fail an important test/trial because their depression holds them back (external).
    4. As you can see from these examples, the changes in internal plot are due in some way to changes in their environment, or vice versa. Go through your entire story and make sure that all the important internal/external beats not only cause one another.
      1. THIS IS HUGELY IMPORTANT! Important external beats should ALWAYS cause your protagonist emotional strain. Fight scenes should always have consequences (such as character death). Characters arguing with one another should have consequences (such as they don’t talk to one another anymore). Too many books suffer from having been undercut by the author refusing to make the protagonists suffer the consequences of their actions.
    5. Now I’ll provide a few, final examples from ‘Paladin of Souls.’
      1. For example, the external story beat of Ista’s mother dying is synced up with the internal story beat of Ista having a minor breakdown and emotional release.
      2. The external story beat of Ista saving Arhys dy Lutez is synced up with the internal story beat of Ista being released of her regret about killing Arvol dy Lutez.
      3. The external story beat of Ista confronting Joen of Jokona, the primary antagonist, is synced up with the internal story beat of Ista confronting her own spiteful and petty character traits, and overcoming them.
        1. (This is because Joen approximately the same age and social status as Ista. Joen is filled with spite and malice, just like Ista. Joen is basically a Dark Mirror Universe of Ista. By confronting Joen, Ista confronts the less than palatable aspects of herself.)
    6. Go through your story, find the various internal and external story beats, and make sure that they relate in some way to one another. I chose ‘Paladin of Souls’ as an example in this case because it is a story in which the plot and character developments are extremely synced up, but for many books the internal and external story beats won’t be quite so lined up. That’s okay, just do your best.
  6. Now that you have lined up your internal and external plot beats, you now know the general shape of your story.  At this point you should be able to figure out just how many acts your story has.
    1. An act is more than just a collection of story beats; it should have both an initial state and a resolution of it’s own, not unlike a mini-version of a story itself.
    2. When you examine your story, try to find natural points where multiple story beats begin and end all at once.
    3. For example, let’s examine ‘The Curse of Chalion’ using the 5 Act format. (Curse of Chalion is the prequel to Paladin of Souls. You should read both)
      1. Act 1 ends when
        1. the protagonists leave Valinda (External plot beat) to go to the Zangry.
        2. when Cazaril has a heart-to-heart with the March dy Palliar, admitting the truth of how he’s an enemy of Dondo dy Jironal (External Plot) and
        3. he admits to dy Palliar that his brain is a bit strung out after spending a year and a half being a slave (Internal Plot).
      2. Act 2 begins when
        1. When they arrive at the Zangry (External plot beat)
        2. Cazaril is introduce to Umagat and Oricho (Internal plot beat)
        3. and Caz is confronted by Dondo and Martou (External Plot beat).
    4. Looking at this example, you can clearly identify a natural end to an act due to
      1. A change in location (leaving Valinda and going to the Zangry)
      2. The introduction of a new external conflict (Cazaril vs Dondo)
      3. The introduction of a new internal conflict (Cazaril having PTSD & dealing with godly matters as a result)
    5. Go through your story and try to find all the locations where there are multiple natural beginnings and endings. Those locations are the locations of your act breaks. If you cannot find any such places, then consider reorganizing your story so as to create such breaks.
      1. You want to have story beat resolutions coincide with one another because having story beats coincide helps amplify their impacts.
  7. Now that you have found all the acts in your story, you must ask yourself, ‘What is each act in my story trying to do?’
    1. Why ask such a basic question? Because that’ll help us re-write and re-structure the story.
    2. I’ll use ‘The Curse of Chalion’ again as an example, as I just finished re-reading it. I’m going to use the 5 Act format with this one again.
      1. Act 1’s purpose is to introduce the characters in a low-pressure environment, and introduce the basis of what makes the fantasy setting unique.
        1. Cazaril is an ex-slave-turned-tutor who has serious PTSD after a year and a half rowing in the slave galleys.
        2. Iselle is a princess who is destined to marry someone for the benefit of her kingdom.
        3. Ista is Iselle’s mother, and a madwoman (foreshadowing the Curse plotline)
        4. Cazaril is meek and wants to remain unnoticed by Dondo.
      2. Act 2’s purpose is to begin the external plots.
        1. Princess Iselle is now under siege by Dondo, who wants her hand in marriage (external political plot).
        2. Caz wants to prevent this marriage, because Dondo and Martou sold Cazaril into slavery (Cazaril’s slavery plot).
        3. We meet Oricho and Umagat at the menagerie (foreshadowing the future Curse plotline).
        4. Cazaril is pissed off by Dondo’s depredations.
      3. Act 3’s purpose is to up the stakes. This is the ‘no going back’ moment of the plot, when the characters make choices which determine the climax of the novel. The actions in this act foretell the climax of the novel.
        1. Cazaril kills Dondo, and is now haunted by Dondo’s ghost. (external political plot + slavery plot)
        2. Cazaril falls ill as a result of being haunted. Iselle saves Cazaril’s life. (Internal Curse plotline)
        3. Cazaril learns of the Curse of Chalion which has infected Iselle, Oricho, and the rest of the House of Chalion. (External Curse plotline)
      4. Act 4’s purpose is to provide an emotional low point, and give the heroes a setback that they must recover from.
        1. Iselle’s brother Tediez is killed, and now Iselle is the heir to the throne. Now more than ever she’s under siege by the dy Jironals. (Political plot)
        2. Cazaril goes to Ibra to secure a marriage contract with Prince Bergon dy Ibra on behalf of Iselle, only to discover that Bergon is an ex-slave he knew from his time in the slave galleys (political plot, slavery plot).
        3. Cazaril falls seriously ill as a result of being haunted by Dondo (Internal curse plotline)
      5. Act 5’s purpose is to draw the story to it’s natural conclusion, bringing to a close the themes of family, marriage, free will and faith.
        1. Iselle and Bergon are wed, out from under the thumb of the dy Jironal clan (political plot).
        2. Dondo’s older brother Martou tries to kill Cazaril, but is instead killed himself. (Slavery plotline)
        3. Cazaril’s illness is miraculously cured, Dondo’s ghost dispelled and the Curse of Chalion is lifted (Curse plotline, both internal and external)
        4. Cazaril finds peace, and he and Beatrez get married. (Internal plotline)
      6. Using this story as an example, we see that
        1. Act 1=introduction and the status quo
        2. Act 2=the external world upsets the status quo, and begins the plots
        3. Act 3=no going back moment, when the protagonists make choices which will have ripple effects through the rest of the novel
        4. Act 4=A dark twist, combined with the emotional fallout of Act 3
        5. Act 5=the conclusion of the story
    3. Now do the same for your story. Decide what the purposes of the different acts of your story are. Identify all the different plot arcs and character arcs in your story, and divide each of those arcs up by each act. Identify how those character arcs change in each act, and figure out how they fit in with the purpose of each act.
  8. And now’s for the final step: reorganizing and rewriting your chapters and story beats so that they line up better. This is otherwise known as the point where you infuse structure into your story.
    1. If you’ve already written your story…
      1. This is the hard part. I’m afraid that there’s no way around this final step: you’ve got to re-write your story. You’ve identified a new structure for your story, and now you have to make it real. The only method how is blood, sweat and ink. Also tears. Lots of tears. Editing sucks.
      2. When I write I frequently don’t have natural act breaks, due to the fact that I am a seat-of-the-pants writer and don’t use an outline. To solve this problem, I like to separate out my chapters into individual documents, and shuffle them about so that the natural moments of internal/external story beats line up with one another.
      3. Once I have the story re-organized so the story beats are in the new correct order, I go back in and make narrative/prose changes to the inside of each chapter so the narrative actually works.
    2. If you haven’t written your story…
      1. Good news! Make changes to your outline so that there is a natural flow in the structure of your act breaks and story beats. Then you’re golden to begin writing!

This blogpost is getting a bit long, so I think I’ll wrap it up here.

Go write.

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