The Magic of Three
The first thing they tell you in any creative writing class is that all stories are divided into a beginning, a middle, and an end. The reaction the speaker usually gets to this infallible wisdom is an eye roll, a shrug of the shoulders, a muttered ‘duh’. Obviously that’s true. Of course things have to start somewhere and stop somewhere and have a middle part in between. We know this.
The thing is, if you don’t consciously apply this rule to your stories, they have a weird way of not conforming to this ‘obvious’ rule. It is entirely possible to write a story in which the central characters end up in the same place they started. It is also possible for them to change so much, and go from one situation to the next with such chaotic abandon, that there are a hundred beginnings and middles and endings over the course of the book and nothing makes any sense.
Part of the problem it’s so easy to slip up is that when you read books, you aren’t immediately aware of their structure unless you’re looking for it, in the same way that you never get halfway through a great book and say to yourself ‘Gee, I haven’t seen a single spelling mistake yet!’ It works in part because you’re not aware of it.
Even when it’s not there, you’re only aware of its absence in a subconscious way. It arrives as a feeling of indifference to the outcome of the tale, or mild confusion.
The worst offenders are books which are all middle. They start in medias res (in the midst of things), and you dutifully follow the main character through a series of obstacles and problems, all of which he overcomes, and then he meets a girl and they fall in love, and then the book ends with a standing ovation or some bullshit. The characters don’t change or suffer, the stakes remain the same, and the end looks like the beginning because it’s really all the middle. It’s like walking around the block and calling it hiking.
Then you have to consider the length you want each section to be. If you’re a long winded person, you might write sixty thousand words of beginning, panic when you realise nothing has actually happened, and then try to wrap up all one hundred loose ends you’ve laid out in a twenty thousand word sprint.
I had a crazy Scottish lecturer at university. He used to give out free cask wine in class, and we’d spend many lectures drinking beer and eating burgers at the pub, and as far as I’m concerned he was the only guy who really knew what he was talking about. One of his many tricks was this easy way to avoid overly long beginnings: when you edit the first draft, delete the first two or three paragraphs. If it’s a novel, the first two or three chapters.
So beware of long beginnings and hasty endings. The best approximate distribution for a novel (taken from one of Shawn Coyne’s books) is roughly 25% beginning, 50% middle, 25% end. Only a guide, of course, but one I’ve found extremely valuable.
The middle is longer because you should be spending it ramping up the suspense and tension as much as possible to keep them turning pages. The climax happens at the beginning of the end, and once the climax is done it’s all about closing arcs and trying to get that feeling of lingering resonance that a good book delivers, but that can stale pretty quickly if you spend a hundred pages post-climax describing how characters go about their lives in the aftermath of whatever Big Event they experienced.
And speaking of the Big Event…
Be aware of the climaxes. There’s only one major one, and it should occur around the end of the middle (second act). Have you ever noticed how, during hand to hand combat with the bad guy, the good guy spends the first two thirds of the fight always gets his ass kicked all over the place? But then at the last minute he has some kind of a realisation, or he sees something he didn’t before, or he changes in some fundamental way? And suddenly he starts kicking major ass? That’s the end of the act two climax in a nutshell. It’s the scene in the matrix where Neo gets shot full of bullets and then realises he can stop them with his mind and fights multiple Agents one handed. God damn, what a badass scene. We love it. How much worse would the movie have been if he could kill agents one handed from the beginning?
Act two must belong to the villain. It is his (or its) job to heap horror after horror upon the hero, who is then forced to prove what he or she is made of. The climax is the hero realising something or changing in some way and then using that change to turn the course of events; it is the hinge upon which character development turns.
So to summarise: Act one is all setup. Introduce your characters and give your reader the clearest picture of them that you can without waffling on. Plant them in a setting and establish the current relationships and situations. Most importantly, raise a lot of questions about things, because questions are why people continue to read a book they’ve just started. They want to know what’s going to happen – and they won’t want to know unless you give them a question they need to answer.
Act two must contain at least the following, (and much more that I haven’t learned yet): 1. Every scene must raise the stakes and make everything more dangerous for the main characters. 2. The hero must suffer as much as possible at the hands of the villain. 3. Almost everything should go the villain’s way. 4. There must come a point of total despair, where it looks as though the hero can’t possibly win. 5. At this point, the hero changes in a fundamental way, or finds just the thing they need, and it must not be done in a contrived or lazy way (hey, I just remembered I hid a gun in my pants and forgot all about it!). 6. The hero will then use this to win the climatic confrontation and turn things in their favour.
And finally we arrive at Act three. Here the hero has beaten (mostly) the villain and the climax has come and gone. The first part of act three is usually the process of the characters returning to a state of normality, and if done well it shouldn’t be easy for them – even if the villain is done. Sauron is destroyed, but Sam and Frodo must still escape from Mount Doom. Indiana Jones has obtained the Holy Grail and healed his father, but now he must escape the crumbling temple.
Once this part is done, the story is over – but at the same time it isn’t, because the story was never really about the story – it was about the characters. So the End is where you need to show how they’ve changed, what the results of their actions were, and try to do it all in such a way that the reader is left with a lingering sense of… something. Sadness or happiness or relief or love or even horror and dread. The extent to which you achieve this resonance is partly skill in terms of how you go about those final scenes – Frodo returning to the Shire – but it is also dependant on the depth of your story leading up to that point. If you didn’t sufficiently raise the stakes and develop the characters over the course of the book, it will be impossible to leave the reader with a sense of resonance at the end.
So, as the Red King said: ‘Begin at the beginning, and go on until you come to the end: then stop’. Simple advice, no? Ignore it at your peril.
– BP 2/9/17
Caveat (A note from 2019)
Reading this post again, I’m compelled to add that while the three act structure is indeed a very useful tool… at the end of the day it is one tool of many. There are more advanced and diverse ways to structure a book, so it would be a bad idea to take the three acts as gospel and never deviate. That said, I stand by this particular tool as a solid foundation. If you are lost when it comes to structure, the three acts will save you. But always remember that in writing, there is no singular way, no recipe or reliable instruction: there are only tools, and the wisdom to use them (or not). Take Bruce Lee’s advice: adopt what is useful, discard what is not.