Writing a Novel in Three Acts

…wherein I milk the classic story structure concept for a blog post.

A writing acquaintance (heretofore known as WA) contacted me this week, in a panic because although she’s written a couple of novels, she’s been requested to write a short story. As she put it, a 90,000 word story is a snap; an 8,000 word story is an insurmountable task that kept her pacing her office two nights running.

A mutual friend told her to read my “Evie” post, describing my story-in-a-day writing approach. WA wanted me to tell her how to do that, because she’d love to get this puppy out of her life in a day. Luckily, she laughed when she asked. As an experienced writer, she understands that everyone has his/her own approach to story building. A snap to one is the other’s insurmountable task.

But I wanted to help. When WA called, I’d just finished working on a blog for Writers Who Kill which discussed the classic three act structure. It struck me that the three parts of that–Set-up, Conflict, Resolution–applied to the writing process as well as to drama itself.

So, let’s have a little fun:


ACT I: The Set-Up, aka The Heady Rush

Players: A Writer and an Idea

Opening Action: Writer gets an Idea, maybe out of the blue, maybe from a news story, maybe from a passing tidbit offered by the gossipy old lady who lives on the corner. Wherever Idea comes from, it lands in Writer’s brain and begins to grow characters, scenes, plot points, voice.

Once this growth develop a buzz as persistent as those Vuvuzela thingees at the World Cup games, Writer has no choice. She must embrace Idea and start writing it out.

As often happens when writing out a sparkling new Idea,  Writer’s words just fly. There’s a catchy opening line, a little bit of build up, and then something quick and funny—or evil and dangerous—happens. A body (probably a relative) drops, or is discovered, or goes missing. Characters appear and start talking, and their individual speaking styles help to define what they look like, or vice versa. The setting plays its role by offering ambiance or interesting hiding places.  A possible lover appears. Someone nasty (probably a relative) drops a line that’s loaded with hints of secrets from the past.

Writer types. Things fall into place with astounding ease. The pages seem to write themselves. Writer feels almost high—this is so easy! This puppy is going to write itself!

A few internal warnings play in the back of her head. Is this too much back story? Am I introducing too many characters, too early on? But Writer heeds and ignores these warnings at the same time. She’s not going to tinker and make it perfect now; she can do that later, in editing. The goal now is to keep a forward momentum, to reach that plot point that is elemental in plotting: the Vow. Her main character has to marry herself to the story, to decide that she will do whatever it is Idea needs her to do, no matter the cost, danger, embarrassment or inconvenience to her and hers.

Writer reaches this point at about 100 pages, and it happens. The character makes the Vow. Yippee! The character is committed to hanging in for the rest of the story.

Writer sits back and takes a breath. Whew!

Then the heady rush fades. She re-reads the pages she wrote in record time, reviews the set-up and the characters and all the outcomes and possibilities that Idea may provide.

And Writer thinks, “Oh crap. What do I do now?”

Because it isn’t just the character who’s made the Vow to stick it out until the end of the story, despite the cost, danger, embarrassment or inconvenience. Writer has taken the Vow, too.

Congratulations, Writer. You’ve just completed Act I of Writing a Novel in Three Acts.

Tune in next week for Act II, which stars Note Cards, Outline, Research and The Dark Night of the Soul.


4 thoughts on “Writing a Novel in Three Acts

  1. The very idea of having to write a short story is terrifying. I don’t much care for reading short stories simply because they are too short. The idea of having only x number of words to write to tell a story is too confining. Thank GOd I do not write and call myself “a reader”. Hats off to those of you who can pull it off and tell/write a short story.


  2. Short stories are tough. I’ve barely warmed up by the time I hit the word limit. I haven’t written one since my last creative writing class, but I admire those who can. Using the three-act concept is a good idea.


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