On Pacing and Structure (Part 8): The Fundamental Principles- What is an Act, and How do you Use them? TL;DR version

I was reading over last post, and decided it was too long. I’m adding a simplified how-to guide to explain my thoughts more concisely. I’m excluding the examples from this for the sake of brevity.

When I structure my novels, I initially focus on the protagonist’s personality. Only after that do I focus on the plot. Why bother with this ‘acts’ business at all? We’re determining where your acts are to make it easier for us to analyze your story, so we can edit and improve it as much as possible. Studying your plots and locating your acts helps you understand, cultivate and fully realize the tenor of your story. This is a tool, nothing more.

  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 is your protagonist struggling to address? Is your protagonist 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. How does your protagonist react to Event X at the beginning of the book? How has their reaction changed to the same (or a very similar) Event X at the end of the book?
    4. What important choices does your character make throughout your novel?
    5. What scenes contain emotional high points for your protagonist? What scenes contain emotional low points?
    6. 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.)
    7. 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. What is the protagonist’s personality in the beginning? How are the different in every subsequent section of the story? How do the choices the protagonist makes force the plot, and the protagonist’s personality, to change?
  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.) Study the external plot, figure out which story beats are important to it, determine how the external plot changes from the beginning to the end.
    1. In mystery stories, the mystery is the external plot. In fantasy quest novels, the quest in the external plot. With that information in mind, determine what the external plot of your novel.
  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 external plot so they more or less line up with those character changes in the internal plot.
    1. When your protagonist suffers a setback in the external plot, their internal plot should also suffer a setback. When your protagonist is successful at some stage of the external plot, they should also progress in their internal plot.
    2. The inverse can also be true. If the protagonist suffers an external setback, the protagonist might become wiser and progresses in their internal plot.
    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 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.
  6. Now that you have lined up your internal and external plot beats, you now know the general shape of your story.  Next you find all the natural act breaks in your story.
    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. When trying to identify your natural act breaks in your story, look for self-contained changes in external and internal plot in a confined area.
      1. As an example,
        1. Internal: the protagonist might start an act as a recovering alcoholic, but the external plot causes them to stress out and they relapse.
        2. External: The protagonist volunteers to take on a hard job at work and become stressed out by it (causing the relapse).
    2. When you examine your story, try to find natural points where multiple story beats begin and end all at once. Here are some ideas of what to look for when looking for the natural act breaks in your story:
      1. Does the location of the story change? If so, it might be an act change.
      2. Is one or more minor narrative conflict wrapped up? If so, it might be indicative of an act change.
      3. Is one or more minor narrative conflict initiated? If so, it might be an act change.
      4. Is a new important side character introduced? Possible act change.
      5. Does the protagonist suffer an important setback/breakthrough? Possible act change.
    3. A word to the wise: acts don’t always end on one page, only for another to begin on the next. There is often (if not always) a grey zone between acts where the story transfers into it’s next stage. It’s even possible to write ‘actless’ novels.
  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. By determining where your acts are it makes it easier for us to analyze your story, so we can edit and improve it as much as possible.
    2. 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.
    3. For example,
      1. Act 1’s purpose is to introduce the protagonist and Pre-existing Conflict A.
      2. Act 2’s purpose is to introduce New Conflict B, upsetting the balance Act 1’s static world.
      3. Act 3’s purpose is to have the protagonist lash out against either/both Conflict A/B, and have the world lash out back against the protagonist.
      4. Act 4’s purpose is for the protagonist to lick their wounds in preparation of the climax.
      5. Act 5’s purpose is for the protagonist to solve both Conflict A &B.
  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. I write by the seat of my pants, so my novels aren’t structured naturally. This final step is very hard for me. I frequently have to edit/rewrite/move around entire chapters just to make things work.
  9. One more thing! I suggest you look up the Five Act Format, or The Three Act Format, The Hero’s Journey, the Seven Act Structure, or Save the Cat! structure to help you get a good idea of what you’re looking for. Study your story using those structures as well. The more the merrier! Each new structural tool you use helps you find different things which can be adjusted in your story.

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