Writers don’t like rules. Actually, most creative people don’t like rules.
But the fact is that you must follow certain basic rules in order to tell good stories. And this is nothing new — it hasn’t changed since the ancient Greeks.
All good storytelling has three acts. And no, this isn’t just “the beginning, the middle, and the end.” There is a structure that should be followed in order for your story to have the greatest impact.
Now, some of this is common sense that a good writer knows instinctively. However, I’ve never taken any writing classes and never really thought about it much until recently, as I’ve been trying to educate myself. (Hence the purpose of this blog).
Act one is the introduction of the main character and the conflict he or she faces. (This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start in the middle of the action — you want it to be gripping and exciting, of course.) Here is where the reader gets an impression of your character and decides whether the character is likeable or at least interesting enough to follow.
Act one can theoretically be quite short, but it’s the foundation upon which the rest of the book rests.
Act two is where the main character is pulled into the conflict in some way that he or she cannot avoid.
Understand that the conflict mentioned here doesn’t mean action. It could be a moral conflict, or a lover’s disagreement. It must however be something that requires the character to do something to resolve it. The character can’t just wait around talking about it, and the character should not have someone else solve the problem for them.
Act two ends at the lowest point in the character’s attempt to resolve this problem. He or she looks defeated; there seems to be no way out.
Act three then is the character’s redemption and salvation. This is the resolution, and like act one, it may be very short in comparison.
You can see this very clearly in good movies. Well, actually, you can also see it in bad movies that don’t follow this formula. Usually it’s because the writer hasn’t paid enough attention to act two — the conflict is not serious enough or the character can easily avoid it.
Now for the disclaimer.
This does not mean that you should think of your story as existing in three equal acts. You can see a three-act play and the “second act” of the story can take place ten minutes into the first act of the play. Even one-act plays have three “story acts.” Hour-long TV show scripts have seven “acts” (to allow for commercials).
That’s why I think it’s much better to think of your story as having three unequal parts. If you think of three “acts” you invariably begin structuring your story too much. Give your character a conflict; make it unavoidable; and then resolve it.