Want More Drive in Your Plot?
Apply the Three-Act Structure to Each Chapter and Section!
by Brent Hartinger
According to Aristotle, every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
In other words, a story has a set-up (which introduces a protagonist, and his or her wants and needs, and also a specific plot goal); the rising action (with complicating factors and obstacles getting in the way of the character achieving his or her goal); and an ending (where the character's goal is met, or not, and the story is resolved in some interesting way).
Many modern stories are more complicated than this, but most still conform to this basic outline. We now call it the Three-Act Structure. (Some people get confused by this terminology, because unlike an actual play, the three acts are not the same length. The first and third acts are typically short, and the bulk of any "story" is in its second act.)
In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy desperately wants out of her dreary life on a Kansas farm (Act One). She is unexpectedly transported to Oz, but is determined to find a way home (Act Two). Finally, Dorothy does find a way back to Kansas, and realizes she was wrong to ever want to leave in the first place (Act Three).
For generations of writers and readers, this basic structure has made for very satisfying storytelling. At the start of the story, a question is asked. By the end of the story, that question is answered -- but hopefully not in a way that the audience expected.
The longer I write, and the more I study plot, the more I've come to the conclusion that the Three-Act Structure can be applied to more than just the overall story. In many cases, it can also be applied to individual chapters, even sections and scenes. (You might even say that the basic building block of all writing, the sentence, conforms to this pattern, with a noun [a starting point], a verb [an active, complicating factor], and an object [some kind of resolution]!).
If you have a plot that seems to be sagging, or if you're looking for more drive in your story in general, look for ways to apply the Three-Act Structure to each individual scene. But of course the structure will be a little different than your overall structure.
First, identify the point of the individual scene. How does it move the story forward? What specific role does it serve in your plot? If a scene plays no obvious role in your plot, ask yourself: Should it even be here?
As you continue to break down the scene, ask yourself: What specifically does the main character want here? Who or what is keeping him or her from getting it -- and why? One way or another, zero in on the central "conflict" of the scene. Conflict is inherently interesting -- it's what drives all plots. So build your scene around that central conflict.
Introduce that conflict as early as possible, and connect it to the description of the scene. Maybe a woman is having strange visions of the future, so she goes to visit a fortune-teller. She's desperate to be told that her visions are meaningless, and that her future will be just fine, but she's very skeptical of fortune-tellers. Right away, she notices that the fortune-teller's crystal ball is a cheap one, made in China. This could even be the opening of the chapter: "As she waited for the fortune-teller, Marlene picked up the crystal ball. The writing on the bottom said, Made in China."
Next, develop the central conflict of the scene in strange and unexpected ways. Make a point to give the scene rising tension. Meanwhile, continue to wrap the scene and its description around the central conflict.
In our example, the fortune-teller begins the reading, even as Marlene scoffs to herself how silly it is. But then the fortune-teller says something accurate -- too accurate to be a coincidence. Marlene has no choice but to start taking the reading more seriously. The cryptic warnings of the fortune-teller become increasingly dire. The candle on the table smokes heavily; outside, thunder rumbles, and it begins to rain. Finally, the fortune-teller's eyes widen in terror: she sees great tragedy, something even she did not expect!
Finally, "resolve" the central conflict of the scene in some interesting way. But since the overall conflict of the story must stay unresolved, the scene-resolution typically involves spinning the story off in some unpredictable new direction. The "scene" conflict is resolved, but the overall plot is not. So at the end of the scene, consider introducing the conflict that will be the focus of the next scene.
In our example, the fortune-teller has just warned Marlene of great tragedy. She is initially frightened, but then decides the reading has all been the set-up to a scam. Now Marlene is certain the fortune-teller will ask for a huge amount of money for some potion or spell that will somehow stave off the tragedy. But the fortune-teller doesn't ask for money; instead, she is so scared by her own vision that she pushes Marlene out of her house, slamming the door in her face. And the scene ends with Marlene standing in the rain outside the fortune-teller's house, more certain than ever that some great tragedy awaits in her future. But then she notices footsteps in the fresh mud underneath the fortune-teller's window. Someone was listening to the reading!
In other words, at the beginning of the scene, we asked a question: Are Marlene's visions real? By the end of the scene, we've answered that question, but not necessarily in a way that the reader expected: Yes, they're real -- and even worse than Marlene thought! Finally, before the scene is over, we've asked a new question: Who else knows about Marlene's visions -- and why?
Lather, rinse, and repeat, all the way to the end of your story, when your overall conflict is resolved too.
If your book lacks drive, the problem is probably somewhere in your structure. But when analyzing your structure, don't forget to look at the structure of your individual scenes.
About the Book:
THREE TRUTHS AND A LIE by Brent Hartinger
Deep in the heart of the forest, four friends gather for a weekend of fun.
Truth #1: Rob is thrilled about the weekend trip. It’s the perfect time for him to break out of his shell…to be the person he really, really wants to be.
Truth #2: Liam, Rob’s boyfriend, is nothing short of perfect. He’s everything Rob could have wanted. They’re perfect together. Perfect.
Truth #3: Mia has been Liam’s best friend for years…long before Rob came along. They get each other in a way Rob could never, will never, understand.
Truth #4: Galen, Mia’s boyfriend, is sweet, handsome, and incredibly charming. He’s the definition of a Golden Boy…even with the secrets up his sleeve.
One of these truths is a lie…and not everyone will live to find out which one it is.
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-- posted by S.P. Sipal, @HP4Writers