Monday, July 12, 2010

The Three-Act Structure: Part 2

Last week, we talked about act one of the three-act structure. Now, let’s look at act two.

Many beginner writers mistake the middle of the novel, act two, as a simple transition period between the start and end of the story. With a misconception like that, it’s no wonder there are so many saggy middles out there. Instead, act two should be given just as much importance as acts one and three. While the beginning must hook the reader, the middle must keep her interested. That’s not done by adding backstory dumps to fill the pages and increase the manuscript word count. However, some backstory should be added at this point. When properly executed, this is the optimal time to show us a little more about the characters so we can better understand their motivations.

Act two is the place to deepen the reader’s understanding of the story. Add more challenges for the hero/heroine to overcome. Heighten the conflict and show the reader that life for the protagonist can’t continue unless something is done about the situation. If appropriate, show the ticking of the clock, that the deadline is fast approaching. The characters should become more emotionally attached to their goal. Raise the stakes and the characters’ motivations. Show that the protagonist is able to change, but set this up carefully. She can’t be unwilling to change in one chapter and then open to it the next. It must be a gradual change. Maybe she shows signs of change as she overcomes some of the hurdles put before her.

This act ends with a crisis, where the protagonist must face her worst fear. At first, she’ll react to the situation by cowering away, but will eventually realize she has no other choice. She must rise to the challenge, and once she does, there’s no turning back.

We’ll discuss act three on Wednesday.

How is the middle of your story? Is it sagging? Hopefully, this post will help you determine whether or not it is and how to fix it.


  1. I'm loving these posts. Every writer needs to know this. I've always thought of the three act structure very simply.

    Act 1. Meet the characters.
    Act 2. Put them in the worst conceivable situation they can not possibly get out of.
    Act 3. They get out of it.

    Of course, genre plays a big role, but that's how I see it. Can't wait to read more about act 3.

  2. I have often heard that a person will read a few pages in the beginning and the middle to determine whether they will like a story. I'm not one to use this approach, but I would suspect these individuals especially want a killer act two.

  3. I think I did okay with the middle. My second act definitely ended with my main character facing a crisis he feared.

  4. Sagging middle=the bane of my existence. I'm afraid I'm going to have to check that again...

    Thanks for the advice!!

  5. I think that middles are my favorite parts of novels (reading, at least). I love that you get to meet the characters a little more and there is still a pretty thick amount of pages left so you know that there is still more fun to be had :-P