Tools and Techniques, Part II: The Three Act Structure

The Writing Process

The three-act structure is an intuitive approach to laying out the bones of a manuscript before setting pen to paper.

This post is going to set up the foundation for the three-act structure and how to organize a novel using that structure. Then, in later posts, I’ll go into a bit more detail.

Two books I recommend dedicated to the three-act structure as used in novels and movie scripts are Alexandra Sokoloff’s Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and David Trottier’s The Screenwriter’s Bible. Both books are similar in method and analysis with the following difference: Trottier devotes his book to scriptwriting while Sokoloff includes novel adaptation.

For simplicity, let’s say novels are 400 pages long. The first 100 pages belong to Act I. Pages 101 to 300 are dedicated to Act II. Act three, of course, are the remaining pages: 301 to 400.

Each act ends with a climax: a set-piece that creates a lasting image and impression in the reader.

Each act is also broken into sequences. Acts I and II have two sequences while Act II has four sequences and two climaxes.

Each sequence is broken into scenes. A chapter in a novel may have many scenes. My chapters tend to be about 12 pages long, so in each sequence I’d have two or three, maybe four chapters.

Sequences end in set-pieces. Act I, Sequence 1 ends with the inciting incident, the event that draws the central character into the adventure, action, story. However, this doesn’t mean the central character is committed to the call to adventure.

Basically, an entire manuscript may be broken into a grid, a timeline of sorts, that would look like the table below.

Sokoloff gives each sequence ten scenes but makes the reader full aware that each sequence doesn’t need that many scenes or may even have more. It’s all dependent upon the narrative.

In the table above, the blank squares are each a scene. I fill each of those squares with a notecard that has some key points that happen in the scene. Sequence one of the manuscript I’m currently working on, CHRONICLES OF A WITCH-HUNTER, has eight scenes. The first chapter has three scenes and the second chapter has five. Each of my sequences hovers between five and eight scenes in each sequence.

This may all be confusing, so in my next post, I’ll go into  greater detail and include some images for clarity.

Author: Chuck Lang

Chuck Lang is a writer of science fiction and horror. Influenced by his years as a carpenter, four years serving in the US Navy, and his fifteen years teaching literature, he holds an MFA in Writing (Fiction) from Lindenwood University. After completing his first manuscript, the supernatural horror novel DEAD GODS, in 2019, he has begun work on its two sequels, DEAD GODS: INHERITANCE and DEAD GODS: RESOLUTION. He is currently developing two additional projects, an urban fantasy horror novel and a military science fiction novel. He lives and writes near the frequently flooded Red River in Fargo, ND with his wife and two redhead sons.

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