The Three Act Structure, Part V: Act I Climax and a Reflection on Form

Tools and Techniques

The Act I Climax, big event, or set-piece is what locks the central character or characters into their adventure which was introduced in the inciting incident. In a 400-page novel, this’d happen around page 100. For shorter novels, it’d happen sooner. For longer, later.

Act I Climax in Blade Runner

In Blade Runner (1982), Rick Deckard is brought into the police chief’s office and introduced to all the androids (called replicants) he needs to retire. Through an undertone of threats, Deckard unwillingly accepts the adventure.

This isn’t an action-packed scene. However, as an audience—who may not have read Philip K. Dick’s book—it’s a big reveal, a huge reveal: androids with emotion nearly indistinguishable from humans who are assassinated legally. This is the point where the story moves forward with clear purpose: Rick Deckard will attempt to assassinate the designated replicants.

The audience now knows the direction of the story, but they may not be aware of how the movie will evolve to focus on the human condition.

Reader Consideration & Awareness

While going through my MFA, I noticed a certain amount of impatience with readers waiting until page 50 for the inciting incident. That, of course, was a fairly finite readership: many of whom may not have been readers of specific genres. Nevertheless, it’s good to keep in mind the modern reader and their willingness to wait to be drawn completely into the story.

Referenced Reading

Again, much of what I’m referencing comes from Screenwriting Tricks for Authors by Alexandra Sokoloff and The Screenwriters Bible by David Trotter.

CHRONICLES OF A WITCH-HUNTER: Three Act Structure Mapping

While writing this post, I’ve come to realize (again, actually) how soon my novel will reach the Act I Climax. In this climax, many people die which forces the central character (the witch-hunter) into aiding the other central character. These deaths lead to the rabbit hole of reveals, revelations, tension, and conflict.

Before I continue, take another look at my current three-act structure of CHRONICLES OF A WITCH-HUNTER:

You may recall I’ve said most of my chapters hover around 12 pages. At 250 words a page, 3,000 words per chapter, and a total of 20 chapters, CHRONICLES OF A WITCH-HUNTER is a 60,000-word novel. That brings this novel right to the lower end of the 60,000 to 75,000-word range for urban fantasy. Most likely, it’ll end up being a bit longer than 60,000 words by the end of the first draft.

60,000 words. That’s not much. Therefore, the inciting incident comes in at page 24 and the Act I Climax comes in at page 48.

In a 400-page, 100,000-word novel, the Act I Climax would come at page 100. It’s tough to see a reader that’d wait that long. They’re out there. I’m one of them. However, reader awareness is key when writing specific genres.

The Three Act Structure: Breaking Form (Pantsing & Planning)

In CHRONICLES OF A WITCH-HUNTER, I’ve already deviated from my original scene structure. I had the two central characters go to a diner after the inciting incident. That didn’t make sense, at all. It didn’t make sense because as I was writing, the direction of a specific scene became darker, more violent, more tragic. That tragedy changed the direction of Act I.

My point is, it’s okay to deviate from this structure as you’re writing. The notecards I have posted above my computer can be moved around, thrown away, replaced. The story evolves and probably should evolve as a writer writes.

Pantser or planner? Don’t lock into a category. Just write.

My Next Post

I’ll continue the three-act structure in my next post by defining the climaxes beyond Act I.

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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