Write Tip: Three Act Structure

The following is an excerpt from my book How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, Chapter 2:

A sketch that will inform your outline, the three-act structure nonetheless identifies the core dramatic points of a story. Some of you may be discovery writers like me, preferring to let the story unfold organically. But at some point, you will be required to outline as a professional writer. And when faced with a tight deadline, the more organized you are, the more efficient you can be. The first thing you need to do is understand the dramatic structure that underpins your story. So we are going to talk about a very simple, basic way to identify key points that can help you write more quickly and efficiently to meet a deadline.


While outlines are multiple pages of detail, the structural diagram will be no more than a brief paragraph or a few sentences describing each required point accompanied perhaps by a paradigm sketch. The paradigm shown is based on Screenplay by Syd Field, a classic writing teaching book employed by many film schools, but in Western literature, the principles also apply to any dramatic story, including those told in prose. The outline is for three acts. In a screenplay, those are act one, which is 30 pages, or a quarter of the text; act two, which is 60 pages, or half; and act three, which is 30 pages, or a fourth. Your page numbers will vary, but the fractions for each portion should wind up roughly the same.

The key turning points between acts are called plot point 1 and plot point 2. These are events which force the protagonist, and sometimes the antagonist too, to turn in new directions and take new action in pursuit of resolving the conflict. Plot point 1, at the end of act one, will require agency, or action, from the protagonist in pursuit of finding the solution and determining what must be done. Plot point 1 propels the protagonist into act two, which is an ascending action involving discovery and a journey to find the solution and achieve the goal without yet knowing all that is required. In the course of act two, the questions will be answered until you reach plot point 2. Plot point 2, at the end of act two, will occur when the protagonist discovers what must be done and where, and with whom, to resolve the conflict and achieve the goal. And thus, it propels him or her into act two, which is the climactic, descending action to reach that point.

When I write any story, I always start with some idea of what my plot points will be and how it will end, to give me a sense of focus and direction as I write, even when allowing it to unfold organically. Now, just as the overall story has three acts, so will each plot and subplot, and each act. As such, each has a mini turning point called the midpoint or pinch that twists the action a bit and propels us into the second half. In the first act, this is called the inciting incident. This inciting incident often provokes a change in the protagonist’s routine—something new they experience that could either challenge or encourage them. In The Silence of the Lambs (1991), FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) meets with Dr. Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter (Anthony Hopkins). The confrontation of both parties is nerve-wracking. But it intrigues us and sucks in Clarice and leads to the rest of the story. Other examples are Indiana losing the golden idol to Belloq at the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which then sets up a rivalry that drives the later journey as Indiana Jones seeks to get the Ark before Belloq. Morpheus choosing Anderson in The Matrix sets up all that follows after. In The Sixth Sense, without the opening confrontation and gunshot, nothing else that follows could occur.

In act two, you have a pinch point for each half, and in act three, you have the climactic confrontation before the denouement. These may not be as dramatic as the inciting incident of act one, but they nonetheless inspire the protagonist or antagonist to take further action and move forward on the journey. Whereas the plot points are both major dramatic developments, the inciting incident, midpoint, and pinches can be more internal than external but of significance to the characters’ hearts and minds such that they cause them to change course and move in a new direction or with renewed vigor toward the goal. These are like lesser plot points, in a way, but nonetheless significant points in the framework of the overall dramatic arc that drives your story.

Let’s talk examples. In Star Wars: A New Hope, the inciting incident starts with Darth Vader’s ship attacking Princess Leia’s rebel ship and forcing her to load the Death Star plans into R2-D2, the droid, and send him to escape. He lands on the planet with his companion, C-3PO, and they wind up in the hands of the hero, Luke Skywalker. When Luke discovers a message from a princess that reports danger and points him to a mysterious figure named Obi-Wan Kenobi, he sets off to find out what it means, and that leads him to Old Ben Kenobi, whose shared surname is an obvious clue. Kenobi rescues Luke from Sand People at the midpoint of act one and takes him back to his own home. There, they view the message and Kenobi gives Luke a lightsaber and tells him about the murder of his father, a story Luke never knew. The Empire and a Rebellion, which until now have been mostly rumors far away, have entered Luke’s life, and when Kenobi takes him home, they find that the Jawas who sold Luke’s family the droids have been murdered and torched. Fearing the worst, they race to Luke’s home and find Luke’s aunt and uncle have been murdered and their homestead torched. Plot point 1 is when Kenobi tells Luke they must go rescue the princess together and find a way to deliver the plans hidden in R2-D2.

Act two starts with their trip to Mos Eisley spaceport where they must find passage, and they end up recruiting Han Solo, evading Stormtroopers searching for the droids, and head off for Alderaan. Then, we see Luke in training for the inevitable confrontation, while Vader and Tarkin attempt to extract information from Leia, and ultimately destroy Alderaan. Luke, Han, and Kenobi’s discovery of this is our pinch point for act one. That determines they must rescue Leia themselves and deliver the plans. Then they are caught in a tractor beam and pulled aboard the Death Star. The midpoint comes during the attempted rescue in the Detention Block when they are trapped. The pinch point for act two is when Kenobi confronts Vader to help his friends escape with the droids to the rebellion. Plot point 2 is after they fight their way clear and escape to the rebel base, where the plans reveal the Death Star’s flaw. The Rebels unveiling their attack plan propels us into act three. Act three is the Rebel attack and the Imperial counterattack, and the climax comes as Luke faces off against Vader in the trench run and ultimately destroys the Death Star with surprise help from Han.

So, now that we have seen how this plays out in a story we are all familiar with, it’s time to identify this structure for your story. Keep in mind that this is only a blueprint. Plans can change. As the story evolves, if required, your plot points, as well as pinches and midpoints, and even your climax, may change. The point of this is not to set anything in stone but to have goals to guide your work. It will help direct you as you write and set up each character and point required to reach each marker. If that ultimately requires the markers to change, it’s okay because these are tools to help you achieve a whole.

Here are the things you’ll need to know to develop this paradigm outline.
Who is your protagonist?
Who is your antagonist?
What are their goals?
What are the obstacles each faces in reaching that goal?
What growth must each undergo to make success possible?
And finally, what do you think the final confrontation needs to be?

Answering these questions is just a temporary means to an end. The answers may change, but the idea is to think through key elements of your story to allow you to write with blinders off and have some goal points along the way to work toward. That will allow you to write faster and spend less time wondering what the heck you should do next. As you actually write, these goal points may need to change, and that is okay.

To download a free copy of How To Write A Novel: The Fundamentals of Fiction, click here.

Tomorrow: Part 2-4 Act Structure
Friday: Part 3-How To Structure Scenes

Write Tip: 10 Tips For Getting Past Writer’s Block

I did a Write Tip before on Fighting Off Writer’s Block in which a lot of published authors offered their advice. But the other day a friend told me she’s been stuck forever on her book, and I realized there are some tricks I can suggest as well, so here are my 10 Tips For Getting Past Writer’s Block.

1) Identify What Went Wrong. If you’re stuck, it’s usually because something went astray at some point. You’ve either tried to push the story where it doesn’t want to go or taken a wrong turn that your subconscious can see but your conscious can’t and thus are having trouble moving on. It may not be in the previous scene you wrote or even the previous chapter. It may be a little further back, but it’s in there somewhere and so the best way to get past it is to identify it.

2) Know Your Plot Points. Whether you write it intentionally or not, Western storytelling tends to be structured around three acts and key plot points. Your first act is your set up and then a major turning point happens that requires action from your characters and propels you into Act Two, the longer middle of your book. A second major turning point happens propelling you toward your conclusion and Act Three. In screenplays, the first turning point is around page 30, and the second page 90. But novels are a little different in page count. Between each major plot point (about every 15 pages in a script) are minor turning points. Also, each storyline will have this same structure, so turning points for subplots may occur in different places as well). The trick is to find these turning points and make sure they are paced correctly and that each propels your story on toward the next, keeping the momentum. If anything pulls it off track by slowing it down, taking it on a detour, etc., that may be why you’re blocked and you can fix it. Often times, writers have not formally studied this but do it on instinct, having learned it from their reading, etc. I don’t even think about it anymore but just write it. I studied it to death in college though. Yet if you don’t realize you’re doing it, you need to be aware and finding these plot points can help you get unstuck when you experience a block.

3) Rewrite From Page 1 To Where You Are. This may violate your “that’s not how I work” sense of craft, I realize, but truly, going back to reread and then polish from the first page through where you are stuck is a great way to not only identify plot points but find inconsistencies and issues you don’t even realize are there. It also gets the whole plotline and all of the arcs fresh in your mind, making it easier to figure out where the story wants/needs to go next. It really works. And often, along the way, whether conscious of it or not, you’ll fix that issue which caused the block. In the process, you’ll also rediscover your enthusiasm and momentum for writing the story.

4) Outline Your Plot and Character Arcs. I get it. You’re a pantser. But your story takes on stucture as you write it regardless. Taking a moment to go through and write out the outline as it now exists on what you’ve written so far doesn’t mean you have to outline the entire book, just what you’ve got on paper. In the process, you’ll find those pesky plot points or realize where they’re missing and probably figure out what works and what doesn’t to remove that block. It doesn’t have to be a lengthy outline. Just identify which scenes go with which plotline and character arc and write a one or two sentence description of events that move it forward.

5) Give Yourself Permission To Write Crap and Write Anyway. Even Robert Silverberg has told me he writes junk from time to time. It’s okay. Everybody does it. No one has to see it but you, but if you don’t give yourself permission to write, exercising your muscle, releasing your creativity, you might stay stuck. Write anyway. You might actually write past the junk and start producing good stuff again.

6) Skip To The Scene And Come Back Later. Paul S. Kemp doesn’t write linearly anyway, which amazes me. K.D. McEntire starts with the ending then goes back. There’s lots of ways to do it. I tend to write in chronological order or what I think it will be. But sometimes, a particular scene just isn’t coming along, and one way around that is to skip it for scene you can picture more clearly and write that first. In the process, sometimes things will come out that steer you in the right direction for the scene where you’re stuck and allow you to write it. It’s jogging the muscles a bit, perhaps, but it can definitely work.

7) Work On Something Else To Clear Your Head. Taking a walk, doing dishes, playing with the kids, watching TV, reading—all kinds of activities can be used for this. OR you can switch to another writing project and fiddle with that until your head clears. Often the worst thing you can do is to sit there and stress out, trying to force it. Release the tension, take a break, switch gears and see if the block resolves itself. Often by going off to something else, I find my mind working 0n the story anyway and, in the process, discover how to write the scene which had me stuck. Earlier today I did that and plotted out the scene, came back, and wrote 2000 words in a straight shot. Give it a try.

8 ) Don’t Be Dismissive. It happens to most writers from time to time. I’ve had writers tell me they don’t believe in writer’s block and I laugh. It’s a silly thing to say. Writer’s get blocked. We all deal with it differently, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It’s like someone who’s rarely been sick saying they don’t believe in disease. No, you’ve just been really lucky. Don’t insult everyone else. So don’t be dismissive. Admit you’re blocked. Admit it happens. It doesn’t mean your story is crap or that everything you wrote is worthless. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer or won’t succeed. It has happened to many writers who are NY Times Bestsellers. They got over it and so will you.  But know this: the way to get through it is not to deny it and do nothing. Like anything else, it takes work. And you may have to try several things to find the right path through.

9) Deal With Life. Sometimes your creative blocks come from external sources rather than within your manuscript. When I wrote The Worker Prince, I wrote 2-6k words a day for four months straight. It was great. Then life fell apart and got stressful with work layoffs, my wife’s health issues, marital issues, money issues, etc. From January 2010 to July 2012, I struggled and felt lucky to get 1000 words a day. 12-1500 was a great day. Then July 30th, as I started The Exodus, my third Davi Rhii novel, I started having 2500 word days again regularly. I’ve had a few 1k days in there but I also had 3k. I’ve written 57000 words since then. The life issues which affected me were a big part of the problem. The unemployment issue is still a problem but the marital and health issues went away. I found my focus again and it’s made a huge difference. Sometimes living life takes priority and you have to surrender to that.

10) Journal It Out. I am not a journal writer myself. Instead, I blog a lot. But I know many writers who’ve told me that writing it out is a great way to work through these types of issues. Just sitting down and writing about their day, their thoughts, their struggles—anything that comes to mind—can be a huge release for writers. For one, it gets them writing which helps keep the writing muscles and creative muscles in shape but also allows them to clear their minds of pent up junk that might be inadvertently blocking them. For another, it provides a way to emotionally release stress and feelings that they’ve been carrying around, which might also be part of a mental block. You don’t have to start a formal journal to journal through troubles like this. You can throw it all away when you’re done but just get it out there.

So there you have it, 10 Tips For Getting Past Writer’s Block. Not all of them work for everyone because every writer and every block is different. But like any tools, having an arsenal at your disposal gives you options to find a way through that wouldn’t be there otherwise. Please let me know how they work for you. And, by all means, if you have other tips, share them in comments so we can all benefit. For what it’s worth…


Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince(2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. A sequel The Returning followed in 2012 and The Exodus will appear in 2013, completing the space opera Saga Of Davi Rhii. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Books For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Lost In A Land Of Legends (forthcoming) appeared from Delabarre Publishing in 2012.  His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012) and is working on World Encounters and Space & Shadows: SpecNoir with coeditor John Helfers, both forthcoming. He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

Write Tip: How Screenplay Structure Can Help Plotting & Pace In Your Novels

I am a film school grad of California State University, Fullerton. I spent several years working in TV and film and had a script in development at Disney. It never got made. I never got rich and famous. But the lessons I learned from film school and, particularly, the books of Syd Field about story structure have stayed with me. In Screenplay, field presents the standard for screenplay structure: 3 acts, the first and last of 30 pages (a page equalling approximately a minute on screen) and the middle being 60 pages. This is called the Three Act Structure.

On a basic level, it works like this:

The First Act sets up the setting, characters, etc. We are introduced to our protagonist, antagonist and their problems, i.e. the issues which will cause them to clash later on. Around page 30, a major plot point occurs, called a turning point, where something happens the compels the protagonist to react and takes the story in a new direction. He or she must respond and struggle to save the day, solve the problem, win over the girl, or otherwise deal with their life being turned upside down in a major way to get back to happy again. This act tends to move fairly tightly and concisely. And a good steady pace is helpful to get people into the story and make them want to stay for the rest.

The Second Act is the middle. The first major plot point has happened and the character must now respond, going on an adventure or quest to solve the problem. The antagonist, meanwhile, is working to get there first or keep the protagonist from succeeding. Act Two is full of complications. The first half propels us toward a middle plot point which in some way turns the story and compels them to action toward the second major plot point at the end of the act, around page 90. Although pace is important here, at times, in Act Two, one can slow down a bit and develop characters, etc., allowing the story to breathe.

The Third Act is the wrap up dealing with the results of major plot point two and all the loose ends from throughout the story. Like Act One, this act moves quickly, and more quickly than any of the others because it needs to feel driven to carry us to the climax.

Those are the basics of Three Act Screenplay structure, but further breaking it down is where it really becomes useful for us as novelists. In screenplays, stories consist of beats.

There are three types of beats:

1. Story Beat (Plotting) — these are action points upon which the story is framed. They build together like a puzzle. These include the major turning points at act breaks and usually the halfway beat for Act Two. But many smaller beats occur as well (we’ll get to that shortly). Major Story Beats typically include:

Opening (Normal World)
Inciting Incident (Act One midpoint)
Act 1 Break (Plot Point 1)
Midpoint (Mid-Point of the Act 2, takes us into the second half of Act 2)
Act 2 Break (Plot Point 2)
Climax (Resolution)

2. Emotional Beat (Character Arc)–We’re all familiar with “character arcs.” These are made up of emotional beats: events wherein the physical action of story creates an emotional reaction within your character. These show us what motivates the next action within the character. By connecting the emotional beats, you see the character arcs.

3. Reversal (Emotional Beat Within a Scene)–Unlike the others, this refers to specific moments within a scene where a character undergoes an emotional reversal. Example: Bob confronts Joe who killed his mother. Bob wants to kill Joe. But then Joe explains Bob’s mom viciously murdered his mom years before. Not only that but Joe is Bob’s half-brother from his father’s affair. Now Bob is reconsidering his initial emotional reaction.

Something major happens every 15 pages. While the major act turning points occur at page 30 and page 90, these in between breaks matter too. They are beats. And some are emotional, some story and some reversals. Reversals are powerful and must be used with care, but you can use more than one to provide some mystery and twists and turns to your story as long as you use them wisely.

How can this help novelists?

By thinking of your story with this framework, you can make sure you keep your plot moving at a steady pace. You can avoid long periods where “nothing happens” and, instead, focus in on beats and plot points which push things forward. It doesn’t matter if you’re a pantser or an outliner, this can work for you. I tend to be a pantser and that’s how I write. I ask myself: what could happen next that would surprise the characters and take things in unexpected directions? Sometimes, I surprise myself. The Returning, my second Davi Rhii novel, is full of moments like that. The Story Beats lead to Emotional Beats as characters affected by the events of the plot react emotionally. Examples: A friend’s life is threatened, the protagonist takes action to protect and/or save the friend. A secret past is revealed and the protagonist struggles to come to terms with it and redefine who he/she is. See how it works?

Novels don’t share the same paging as screenplays, so you have to set aside the specific 15,30,60,90 pages marks in this case. But screenplays consist of sparse description/action and lots of dialogue, so thinking through this structure should still make things come out fairly close to the same as you write. By incorporating these beats and plot points, something many of us do on instinct, you can be more deliberate about arranging your story so it moves at a good, even clip and avoids needless sidetracking or lags. The end result will be a tighter, better paced story which hooks the reader and keeps them interested to the end.

How do you structure your novels? I’d love to hear your thoughts in comments. For what it’s worth…


Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. His second novel, The Returning, is forthcoming from Diminished Media Group in 2012 along with his book 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids from Delabarre Publishing and the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 which he edited for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. As  a freelance editor, he’s edited a novel for author Ellen C. Maze (Rabbit: Legacy), a historical book for Leon C. Metz (The Shooters, John Wesley Hardin, The Border), and is now editing Decipher Inc’s WARS tie-in books for Grail Quest Books.  He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping For The Wind and SF Signal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.‎ Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.