• Julie Gray

Three Magic Words: Three Acts



Stories are generally told in three acts. Beginning, middle and end. Another way to express that is: set up, complication, resolution. Or, first act, second act, third act. These are all saying essentially the same thing.

First there is a situation, then something happens to set that situation into motion and then everything heads on a collision course so that there is some kind of resolution.

Here is an easy example, taken from a major movie that most everybody has seen:

First Act: A giant shark terrorizes a holiday beach town.

Second Act: A group of men set out to find and kill the shark.

Third Act: But the shark is ferocious and huge.

Notice that here, I left the third act as a cliffhanger, and did not describe the outcome. But there will be an outcome. That's what makes the reader want to keep reading. A huge shark is terrorizing a town! What will the town do? They will try to stop the shark. But - what if this is not an ordinary shark? Then what?

Character driven stories have the same basic set up, but the "stakes" are relative to the story. A story asks a question: what will happen? Can this be resolved? How? And later, when we talk about theme, the reader then can ask, so what did that all mean? What was the subtext of that story?

A useful way to think of the first, second and third act of your story, as you articulate and outline your book, is to use the words "when, then, until" as place holders that indicate set up, complication and resolution.

WHEN a giant shark terrorizes a holiday beach town, THEN a group of men set out to kill the shark UNTIL they realize the shark is a real monster.

Try using these three words, When, Then and Until for your story. Can you write a description that hits those marks of dramatic narrative?

That's okay if that doesn't work immediately - writing is a process. Maybe you don't yet know the "until". Or maybe you're still working out the "then". But ultimately, you should be able to describe - and then write - your story using this simple tool to make sure that the structure of your narrative is sound.


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