Understanding The Three-Act Structure

Writing a book using the three-act structureToday I’m pleased to present a guest blog from Erick Mertz, author and ghostwriter, who is an expert when it comes to structuring a book. I asked him to write this article to give my readers a good foundation in the three-act structure.

Writing a good book, one that connects with readers, requires the mastery of story fundamentals. You must understand characters, the “who” of your book, as well as the setting, the time and locations where your story takes place. No element, however, is more richly rewarding than the plot.

The plot describes the series of events that take place throughout the course of your story. It is the action, those challenges your character faces on his or her path toward achieving their end goal.

A lot gets written about how to properly formulate a plot. Structuring the events in a story the right way leads to a higher degree of readability, meaning your readers will simply enjoy the book more. Getting the right events in place is important, but the right events in the wrong order will leave your readers confused, or unsatisfied, which ultimately leads them to put your book aside in frustration.

Don’t let that happen. Once your readers get into your book, you must do everything that you possibly can to keep them engaged. Getting the right events in the right order is critical to achieving this. One of the ways you give yourself the best chance of achieving this is to follow a classic story structure that has been around and engaging readers for nearly two thousand years.

What Is The Three-Act Structure?

The three-act structure is used in books as well as playsThe first thing you may have thought of when “three-act structure” was mentioned was the theater. Stage plays breaks into acts, usually two or three, with an intermission between them. This is the time when the stage changes form and you can go out into the lobby for a quick breath of fresh air.

Using a three-act structure in a book or a screenplay is not indicated by a roadblock break in the action. There is no end of Act I break written on the page. In a book, structural shifts are seamless. While some changes may come in the form of a chapter break, there isn’t a callout anywhere that says, commencing Act II, as there would be in a stage play script.

Rather than roadblocks, a writer signals changes in the act by way of subtle shifts in the focus of events. Instead of being told the act change has happened, the reader senses it through the events that unfold. Events in a three-act structure build off of one another, behaving like emotional building blocks. Early scenes set the tone for future events, always narrowing in focus and increasing in intensity until the very end when the main character — your protagonist — reaches their goal.

Three-Act Structure & Character

Before diving into the elements of the three-act structure, it is important to establish a fundamental understanding of core character archetypes. In the most rudimentary terms, characters break down into three main types: protagonist, antagonist, and ancillary characters.

The main character, or the protagonist, is the central focus of the story’s central journey. They are the person (or creature, force of nature, or animal) whose path of change we are following. Change comes to all characters, but the protagonist’s change is the one we really care about the most.

Opposing the protagonist is the antagonist. This is the story’s villain, the force putting up the resistance to the main character’s change. Their actions are focused on holding back, slowing down, or stopping the protagonist on his or her way toward their goal.

By and large, ancillary characters are along for the ride. They attach themselves to either protagonist or antagonist (although sometimes they act alone) and are the ones helping achieve those ends. Think of them as the cast of fun, interesting, helpful, or hindering partners that move the story along.

When we refer to events within the three-act structure, they come in reference to what the protagonist is doing and where they are. In rare instances, those events connect to what is being done to them. You will see that the other character roles are usually there to affect what the protagonist is doing.

Act One

During the first act, setting and character are established. This is what writers call the ordinary world, where the main character has their roots planted before the real story starts. We see this is how they were living before the “inciting incident” an event that happens during this section.

Act One is important for a couple of reasons. First, it provides the necessary context. We need to see who our hero or heroine is before the adventure. At some point in this story they are going to change — hopefully drastically, in the direction toward a better self — so this is our chance to see their life before.

The other reason Act One is important is because it is where the “inciting incident” occurs. Every hero receives a call and it usually comes in the ordinary world when they least expect it.

Act Two

Gears in motion as you write your bookThe demarcation between Acts One and Two is the moment when the story’s hero chooses to accept their call to action, something they may have denied before. They’ve debated about the ordeal long enough. They’re no longer thinking about doing something extraordinary — they’re on the path to doing it.

Act Two is the book’s longest section. It comprises roughly 50-60% of the length. This act comprises most of the action, from the early part of the adventure to the introduction of antagonist forces to the set-up for the final conflict.

Every hero is faced with a unique challenge all their own. In Act Two, they are meeting that obstacle, learning about the mountain they must climb, and actually climbing it. This is where they stumble and fall down, before getting strong enough to make the push to the end

Any storyline can be thought of this way, from fiction to memoir to business book. All of our lives and journeys, real or imagined, are filled with conflicts that require acceptance, practice, and trials before the climactic moment on the path to ultimate success.

Act Three

Act Three commences moments before the final challenge is breached. It is arguably the shortest section of a story, centered around the climactic confrontation and falling action.

What is the climactic confrontation? Think of the moment in the story when the hero meets the villain, opposite forces facing off against one another. The protagonist has been moving steadily toward meeting their goal and the antagonist has been pushing back. This is when push comes to shove, the moment when someone has to triumph.

What constitutes the falling action is everything that happens after the climax has been resolved. Maybe the antagonist is vanquished, and the protagonist receives the proper laurels. In one way or another, the journey of transformation has been completed and the hero can return home.

The Three-Act Structure In Action

DumboPerhaps the simplest visualization of a three-act structure is through the Disney classic, “Dumbo”.

In Act One, our protagonist, a baby elephant with ears too big, is born into an unforgiving world. He is an outcast in the circus and struggles to find his worth in a world cruel to misfits.

Act Two begins when Dumbo works to find his place in the circus. His journey is to find his means of fitting in despite an outcast status he is helpless to do anything about. At first, he fails in his big change, but with some grit and determination (and the help of his guide Timothy Q Mouse) he works to find a place for himself. Through this process, he learns that he may have the ability to fly.

At the beginning of Act Three, Dumbo on the edge of trying out his new trick of flying in front of a packed entire circus tent. After much trepidation, he is successful, which ultimately solidifies his place in the circus as an equal to his peers. The antagonist of prejudice has been vanquished.

The Three-Act Structure — In Conclusion

Understanding how to employ the three-act structure is an invaluable tool for reaching your readers. While the idea of a structure might seem rigid, it actually works quite the opposite way. Knowing where certain events should fall makes structure intuitive and leads to happy readers.

Biography:

Erick Mertz, Author and ghostwriter

Erick Mertz is a ghostwriter/editor/manuscript consultant from Portland, Oregon. You can read more of his thoughts about the business and craft of writing at his website here.

World Building: One Step At a Time

World Building in Star Angel by David McDanielAre you interested in world building?

Today I’m pleased to bring you a guest post from author, David G McDaniel. Dave writes in the sci-fi genre, with two book series to his credit.

His latest, a pentalogy (5 books), is the young adult series, Star Angel. Star Angel follows a girl on modern Earth and a boy from another world as they’re thrown into a fight for their lives, only to discover they may both be connected to events in the distant past far more epic than either can imagine.

As with any sci-fi or fantasy story, David faced a certain amount of world building in order to create Star Angel. Any time imaginary worlds are used as settings, when advanced technologies are introduced, when fictional races and governments become the backdrop, the author must build a new universe of rules

As the complexity of the story increases, more world building is required.

World building lays critical elements of your fictional world, which then gives you a strong framework on which to hang the rest of the story. I asked Dave to share his thoughts and experiences, when it comes to this important foundation of the story.

Happily he agreed to be my guest…

Hello & Welcome

Thanks to the Friendly Ghostwriter for having me. And thanks for the introduction! Laura, you’re awesome (insert smiley emoji here). Today, as mentioned, I’d like to talk a little about world building.

Most sci-fi and Fantasy writers do world building, some more than others, and in fact there have been heated debates about how much is needed.

I recently watched a video interview with George RR Martin, the author of “The Song of Ice and Fire” (Game of Thrones) where he was talking about the degree to which he builds out the underlying foundation — the world, the universe — for his characters and stories. He mentioned that there was another author (can’t recall his name) who was of the opinion that world building was overrated.

Martin was (rightly, I believe) disputing that view, pointing out the fact that the other guy’s stories had major slips in continuity. If memory serves, the other author believed the story was all that mattered and the rest was a waste of time.

In his opinion, the story would take care of itself.

I couldn’t disagree more.

World Building

World building for a science fiction bookWorld building is important. I can tell you from experience the story does not take care of itself, and without a clear idea of how everything fits, your characters end up living in a vague space with no real definition and, consequently, no guidelines for their actions.

Imagine a game (your story) played with no field, no rules, no setting, no guidelines — no world, basically. With you just making it up as you go along.

What kind of game would that be?

An unsatisfying one, that’s for sure.

With no creation of a world, your reader will feel disconnected from the story. They will be left with the feeling that anything could change on a whim at any moment.

But, you might be wondering, isn’t that what a story is? Something that could change at any moment?

Well, a story, yes. Of course and absolutely. But not the world. You don’t wing it, merrily making it up as you go, when it comes to the world. If you do, your readers will never be able to become fully invested in the story you’re trying to tell. That approach can create a sort of low-level vertigo with your audience.

Like life, a story needs a setting in which to exist.

My First Rodeo

I’ll admit to you that with my first series (not Star Angel, but one called the Saga of Ages) I had to stop early on and take the time to flesh out the full history and universe in which my characters were playing. I just kept getting hung up on all sorts of details.

This was my first time writing a series. Every time I tried to advance the story, I found that I kept going back to figure out the elements of the world that were influencing the actions of my characters. Finally, I realized what I had to do.

There needed to be something consistent to hang it all together.

That was my epiphany. My big realization. Instead of dreaming up the universe as I went, I needed to put the story on pause, go back and create the elements of the world first.

Duh.

Once that realization hit me I felt a profound sense of relief.

By the time I was done, the write-up of my world turned out to be 60 pages. I had sketches, pictures, references, galactic maps and more. I covered everything from past races to current governments, along with the framework and mechanics that made everything click.

When I wrote Star Angel I knew to begin the process with a lot of research about that world I created an historical timeline from 100,000 years before the stories take place, along with write-ups for all major events. I call it the “Star Angel Companion”.

No one will probably ever read it.

Earth is easier

Using Earth for World Building is easyAt the end of the day world building is a selfless thing. You’re doing it to save everyone’s sanity, not least of all your own. It helps. Greatly.

Especially in a fictional world.

Writers of stories in a modern or historical setting have it a bit easier, as their “world” is pre-built for them. Stories that take place right here on Earth, in the “real” world, have our entire existence to draw from. It’s the world we know. For instance, we all know the details of World War I. It’s there for anyone to access, and we all know exactly how it shaped our modern world and how it might lead to any character motivations.

That’s a huge advantage for any author and his readers. Everyone knows the world we live in.

This isn’t always the case if you’re creating a fictional universe. Depending on how “fictional” your universe is (is it a slightly alternate version of Earth? Or is it Star Wars fictional?), you may not be able to draw much from our shared reality at all.

That means you must craft your own.

A Few Ideas

For your story to work you need to at least have the basic elements defined. If you don’t your characters will be swimming in an ocean with no direction and no land.

World building is important. Did I say that already?

Here are some components you might consider taking the time to define for your story:

  • Maps
  • Historical data
  • Beliefs
  • Legends and prophecies
  • Races and their cultures
  • Lineages and hierarchies
  • The physics of the planet
  • Rules of magic (and other fantastic knowledge)
  • Languages
  • Technologies
  • Governments

Now, keep in mind, you may never use many of these factors in your story. But when you do, because you’ve got it all laid out, interconnected, it becomes very easy to write and your readers can easily lose themselves in what’s really important.

The story.

It’s Your Universe

Stan Lee, of Marvel fame, once said:

“The best way to rule a universe is to create it.”

Great quote. Great dude. Great message.

Take the time to flesh out your world, your back stories, your historical motivations and all else that shapes the universe in which your characters live. This can be work, no doubt. But the reward will become clear the further you forge into your story, when you see how easily things hang together, how well the pieces fit, and how much what your characters are doing makes sense.

Doing so ensures continuity. It removes distractions for the reader. And, if you take the time early on, it most definitely makes it easier in the long run for you, the writer.

Thanks again for having me.

As always, keep writing!

If you’d like to learn more about writing a book, here are some articles for you to read:

Write and Publish a Book in 2020

How to Write Three-Dimensional Characters

Help! Help! I Need Help Writing a Book

How to Hire a Ghostwriter

Learn to Become a Ghostwriter

Now Is the Right Time to Write a Book

 

 

A Writer’s Community

Eric Mertz, writer

Guest Blog by Erick Mertz

One of the most difficult things for writers to achieve is that sense of community. Yet, regardless of what “level” your writing practice may be, professional ghostwriter or newcomer, finding your tribe is critical to success.

Sure, writers are by nature solitary creatures. Often we write in quiet rooms with the door closed. If we’re lucky, our loved ones will  give us that necessary time, explaining to friends and family that, well, it’s just what they do.

It’s OK. They’re happy in there.

As writers, sure, we’re happy to have that solitude. It is a necessary element in the process of creating narrative art. Perhaps only the muffled din of a coffee shop can rival silence for the writer at work.

But as much as we require solitude while in the process of writing, creating a community with other writers is critical. Solitude gets that good writing down on the page, but a vibrant community, helps get the page out to the world.

Modern networking has allowed our sense of community to evolve beyond “in person” scenarios. Sure, in person handshakes are a part of it (and we’ll go into that in just a bit) but writers are no longer forced to mingle, body to body with their fellow scribes in stuffy hotels.

Here are three ways to effectively network with other writers.

Facebook Groups

Social media is a part of our lives, for better or worse. Logging into your Facebook or Instagram profile the most time efficient way to keep up with your Uncle in Austin who ties flies, as well as your close-but-not-too-close friends and how they’re getting by as members of their local PTA.

More and more, however, Facebook Groups are becoming the preferred way to network on the world’s biggest social media platform. These groups are great because they are laser focused on a single topic and, unlike the basic platform, are governed by administrators who make sure content stays on topic.

Tired of the political morass on your feed? Then joining a Facebook group around your specific writer niche is the way to go.

Also, what defines a “niche” is fairly broad. Just for me personally, I’m part of groups geared toward the professional ghostwriter, local feature writers, as well as my unique brand of paranormal mystery fiction.

If you can dream it up, there is probably a group in there for you.

Direct Contact

This may sound too obvious to believe, but it bears mentioning here. Writers and authors have websites or Facebook pages. On their sites are contact forms or buttons to send emails.

If you like someone’s writing or have something in common in the terms of subject matter, contact them. Send an email. Fill out the form. I’m amazed at how many times I meet people in person and they tell me they were on my site and they shyly defer, saying they weren’t sure about sending an email.

Send the email… Writers may be (largely) introverted, but that just means that they are probably sitting there, on the other side of the computer, waiting for an email to come through. So many of my professional and personal writing connections have come from simply sending a cold email. Many of the companies I work with as a ghostwriter, as well as colleagues in the mystery-writing world, all came by reaching out.

Direct contact has always worked and will continue to for the rest of time. Regardless of how big and nuanced the digital wall becomes, people are always going to feel good about someone reaching out to say hello.

Writers Conferences

All right, you caught me.

I know, I know, I started this blog out by saying you didn’t have to go out and rub elbows. And you don’t, I promise…

But, if you’re feeling up to really going for it, I highly recommend the writer’s conference experience.

People tell me I’m an extrovert – I’m not. But when I get around a room full of writers, another side of me comes to life.

Other writers are, for me, a genuine source of inspiration. Everyone has a unique project they’re working on and are passionate about taking to another level. In that, you automatically have something in common.

I could write another half-dozen blogs (and have on my website) but I firmly believe that the writer’s conference experience is a little slice of heaven. There is nowhere better I can think of to go and eat mediocre hotel catering, catch classes on niche topics in your specific medium and meet other writers.

What makes the writers conference environment so helpful for me is that you get a chance to see writers of all stripes. You meet everyone from those just starting out, all the way up to authors at the top of their game.

It assures you of where you are and gives you something to aspire to.

Most importantly though, you get to meet a lot of very cool people. By the end of the weekend, my pockets are always stuffed with business cards of new contacts, connections and friends.

And, yes, at the end of it all, I get to close the door all over again.

Erick Mertz is a ghostwriter and editor living in Portland, Oregon. When he is not writing manuscripts for other clients, he enjoys cooking, spending time with his family and writing the paranormal mystery series, The Strange Air.

Progressing as a Writer

Guest blog by Dan Sherman

Few things can match the satisfaction a writer feels at capturing, in words, their mind’s vision. Even the description of an actual place or event gives a kind of permanent record through which the author’s style and insight shines through.

For these reasons, and perhaps as many others as there are writers, a great many of us find pleasure in writing. Some will simply record daily events to keep the juices flowing, but most who partake in this endeavor have gripping stories to tell. The stories may be short or long and of any genre, fiction or non-fiction. All the same, each tale is told in the unique voice of the author.

Unfortunately, many writers never pursue their craft. Some might make an initial stab, but wind up shelving it, unsure how to proceed. How many writers have the intention to “get back to it at some point? Sadly, they can put this wonderful endeavor off until retirement, or forever.

So, how does one walk down the road as a writer? If you follow the path I give, you will both develop your craft and have a body of finished work to show for it.

Determine your medium

For some writers, determining their medium is a simple matter. They always think in terms of a grand plot that will take at least a couple hundred pages to give its due; or the reverse, of shorter and separate plots, each its own work. A specific genre, such as action or mystery, may even be preferred.

The purpose here is not to limit you. If you look over the careers of your favorite authors, very few novelists do not have at least one collection of short stories, and the best short story writers have tried their hand at full-length work. And who is to say that a novel would not also make a good theatrical play or a good screenplay, or vice versa?

No, the purpose here is to get started. Examine your ideas. Choose the vehicle that best places them on the written page. Be sure you are familiar with the medium you select – an old-fashioned trip to the library brings one to the best teachers, whether of novels, short stories, screenplays, etc.

Outline a project

Depending on your project’s length, and depending on your own style, your outline will vary in length and maybe format. At the very least, it is important that you delineate what will happen in each chapter or section of a book. This will remind you what to include as you write, as well as guide you on your path of the plot.

With short stories, treat each as you would a full-length novel, even if you wish to complete a good many. Give each one its own heading in your outline, along with any notes you think necessary.

There is no need to follow a formal structure, as the outline is a communication from you, to you. You just need to draw your road map, so that you can write your book without interruption.

Complete your writing project

This advice may seem comical in its apparent simplicity. Now, we’ve hit the pen to the paper phase. This is where the rubber meets the road, as they say. There’s no way around it, you need to convert your idea into words; it’s the great make-break moment for any writer. Have no fear though. You have your outline, your vision for the course your story will take.

If you find you never have the time to complete your book or you struggle to make productive use of the time you allot, please refer my wife’s article, Writing Tips: How to Avoid Distractions. She gives a lot of good advice on how to keep on a steady path.

The bottom line is that you’ll need to sort out your own ways of handling challenges you encounter. Under what circumstances do you produce the most? When you find yourself getting stuck, what frees your mind up and gets you rolling again? Those will be your go-to strategies.

Continue with the project you have outlined until you are finished. If you must change elements of the plot as you proceed, or even find you must go back to alter some earlier portion, do so. Just limit these impulses as much as possible. Remember, the goal is to have a completed product.

Where to go next

Once you complete your first draft, you will feel a wonderful sense of accomplishment. Many experience a huge feeling of being unburdened. Save editing for a later time; give yourself time to enjoy the moment: you’ve completed your first book! The process you just went through of developing a plot, creating and resolving a conflict, and describing your ideas in words, has improved you as a writer. No dissertation on the subject can substitute. After a week or two, take the time to review the manuscript for edits and begin that whole process.

When you have completed your book, I’m sure you’ll have a few new projects ready to consider. Every step, from the initial spark of inspiration to the final written word, will become more grooved in with experience. You are well on the path to creating a good body of personal work.

Dan Sherman has been a ghostwriter for two decades. He specializes in fiction and memoirs. He welcomes emails from all his readers.

Three Ways to Avoid Being Scammed by a Publisher

A flair for writingToday I asked Donna Erickson to share her thoughts on self-publishing. Donna is the author of No-Hassle Publishing: An Author’s Guide to Today’s Changing Industry and the owner of aflairforwriting.com, a writing/editing/and publishing service. She has 25 years of experience in the industry, and her company offers a full array of quality services for authors who are self-publishing.

By Donna J. Erickson

Many new authors are opting to self-publish their print books and e-books because it’s much quicker and easier than trying to break into traditional publishing. Self-publishing also allows the author to have more control–especially in the areas of cover design and publication title. When new authors begin exploring their options, they often conduct an online search for companies offering self-publishing services, which leads us to this critical question: Are the most popular listings for self-publishing companies on the Internet necessarily the best?

The answer to that question is “no.” The companies on the top of the list have simply paid the most to appear there. These companies pay top-dollar to pay-per-click search engines to get to the top of the list. Does that make them better than the others? Absolutely not! They are just paying more money per click to have you visit their site.

In fact, some of these big-name companies (also known as vanity presses) have been sued and found liable for not delivering what was promised. And many authors have brought their nightmare stories to Internet discussions. So how can you avoid becoming the next casualty? Here are some red-flag suggestions on what to watch out for:

  • Beware of Offshore Affiliates

Many of the big names outsource their customer service to the Philippines, India, and other remote locations. Authors have complained that these individuals are often not knowledgeable, inaccessible, and hard to understand. This could be a sign you’re headed for trouble. A credible company should have in-house services with a qualified and helpful staff to assist you. Some companies may have in-house customer service that disappears once they have your money. Try to get feedback from other authors who have done business with them before you give them your money.

  • Beware of Poor Quality Editing

All editors are not alike. A less-than-reputable company will hire inexperienced editors who will work for low pay. I’ve heard of an instance where an author ended up with more mistakes after the editing process! Find out about your editor’s background, location, and level of experience. Ask to see a before-and-after sample edit. If they refuse, walk away.

  • Beware of Inflated Pricing

Like any major purchase, you need to shop around. If Company A can provide the same services as Company B, why are they priced twice as high? Company A may not care about you or your book. They may just want your money. Some of these outfits are really not about publishing books; they are only about making money. If a company accepts any manuscript–rather than being selective in their process–that sounds like a scam.

Before you give any money to a publisher, make sure you research their background and policies–especially on contracts and refunds. For more detailed information, you can read my book, “No-Hassle Publishing: An Author’s Guide to Today’s Changing Industry.” I’ve uncovered some facts that could save you a lot of grief. Read actual testimonials from other authors. Check discussion boards and join social media groups (such as LinkedIn and Facebook) for comments and feedback. You don’t want to become the next victim with a “horror story” to share about vanity presses.