Creative Writing, His Majesty's Secret Passion, Lord Of The Rings, Three Act Structure, Wizard Of Oz

The Birth Of A Book, Part Four: The Basic Three Act Structure For Creative Writing

By Antonio Litterio
Is your story running out of control? Is your character development less of an arc, and more of a ramble? Save time and keep your plot on track, no matter how many threads it has, by finding out how to apply the Three-Act Structure to your work. 
I started out as a pantster—writing novels free-form, with no overall plan. A dramatic scene would come to me. I’d think about it until I’d developed characters and a plot. Then I’d write the first three chapters, followed by the last one, to make sure every loose end was tied up. After that, I’d go back and fill in all the gaps. That worked well, but what sounds like a fast process turned out to be slow in the end. Making things up as I went along meant lots of re-writing and refining. Sometimes I’d have to discard days of work when it didn’t fit with the revised storyline. Often the finished manuscript and my original synopsis might have been talking about different books, with only names and places in common. 
I needed to get organised. The 2014 RNA conference put me onto Scrivener. You can find out more about that here.

Once I got the hang of using this package, I could see the Three Act Structure (which has been used for centuries to create novels, plays and other works) fits in perfectly. The Introduction, Action and Conclusion model provides a skeleton you can build on and articulate, by breaking the action down into small segments. 

I haven’t turned into a dedicated planner overnight, plotting every move my characters make right down to the last cough and sneeze, but it’s definitely easier for me to keep my first draft on track these days. In turn, this saves a lot of time, which I devote to polishing my full manuscript. 

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I’ve created a template on Scrivener which includes divisions within the basic Three Act Structure. Most are self-explanatory. You don’t need to write scenes for all the headings—in fact, it would be a very bad idea to follow this template down to the smallest detail. In trying to fill every box, you’d end up producing the literary version of a painting-by-numbers, rather than your very own Mona Lisa. 

As you write, you’ll find some sections will merge. The order will change, and the lines between some will  blur. You might want to skip some altogether, or change the order within the acts. Do whatever suits you, within the basic story arc of scene setting, followed by action and rounded off by conclusion.

Here are the basic headings I work with:

ACT ONE—This introduces your story world and characters, and sets up all the drama to come. 
Scene setting: The trick is to drip feed information about the who, where and when of your story. Don’t drop it in lumps. Personally, I like to start with a bang, such as the “shark attack” in His Majesty’s Secret Passion.
Inciting Incident: A stranger comes to town is a classic opening. You could also use an accident, a letter, or a misunderstanding.
And So…For every action there’s a reaction, as Isaac Newton said. Keep that in mind as you move forward, heaping up troubles and questions for your characters to confront.
What happens then? Don’t forget to add variety to the ups and downs in your story. Give your reader time to catch their breath, and reflect on what’s been happening.
Pressure Builds: Once you’ve got your characters up a tree, throw rocks at them. 
Force: As you make things worse for them, they are forced to take more action
Plot Twist/Revelation We know where we are, and who we’re dealing with. Or do we? Throw in another development to increase problems for your hero.
George M. Hill Company, Via Wikimedia
ACT TWO—Action stations! This act should make up the bulk of your story, powering it along with increasing drama, and working on the tension.
All Change: This is the point where Alice has gone through the looking glass, and Dorothy isn’t in Kansas any more. There’s no way back. They’ve got to create a new  existence, and fresh ways of thinking.
Learning: Your characters get to know their new world.
Back And Forward: Draw contrasts between their old life, and the new rules they are learning.
Tension Builds: Foreshadow future disasters. In The Lord Of The Rings, Gandalf rages at Pippin for doing something as simple as dropping a stone down a well. We’re told that’s not a good thing to do in a place like the Mines of Moria, but we don’t know why. Yet…
Breathing Space: The contrast of action and peace. Your readers and heroes can all take a rest, but just when they least expect it—
Bang! More trouble arrives, and it’s big.
Action Your hero throws themselves into the situation. This is a fight to the death, either physical, mental, or both. It takes all their resources and ingenuity to cope.
Reapplication: This is it: hero must make one last huge effort, and dedicate themselves to getting the ultimate prize of true love, treasure or whatever else you’ve dangled in front of them. This means death—or glory!
ACT THREE—This is the climax and conclusion of your book. Everything has been building towards this point. 
More Trouble/Another Crisis: Things are getting worse and worse.
The Black Moment The point when a romance seems doomed, all projects are heading for disaster and there is (apparently) no way out.
Hidden Powers The hero delves even deeper inside themselves to draw on resources they didn’t know they had.
Last Big Push toward reconciliation, or the final battle.
And Finally… It’s all over.
Look Around: Characters take stock of their new story world, relationships and their changed understanding of themselves.
Climax: the big reconciliation, or reveal.
Resolution: This is the place to give your characters their Happy Ever After moment, or let them announce their determination to stride forward into Book Two of a series. At least give them a satisfying conclusion.

There are lots of possible variations on this basic layout, but this one has worked well for me. It’s the way I kept Sara and Leo heading for their happy ever after in His Majesty’s Secret Passion, despite all their troubles, and reversals on the way. 

Do you plan, or write freestyle? How do you fancy working in a different way?

There’s a signed copy of His Majesty’s Secret Passion on offer for a comment picked at random after 16th February.
His Majesty's Secret Passion, Jewel Under Siege, Pantsing, Planning, Scrivener, Snowflake, Three Act Structure

Birth Of A Book, Part Three: Find Your Writing Style…

By Antonio Litterio

Does your novel have a beginning, a muddle, and an end? Do you want to find out the secrets of a well-rounded, satisfying story? First, discover what kind of writer you are by answering these 3 simple questions:

1.     At the supermarket, do you:
a)     dash round grabbing the first things you see because you’ve run out of food, time, or both
b)     Visit once a week at exactly the same time, with a list (and a full stomach).

2.     Fancy a holiday?
a)     Yay! When do we go? I love surprises!
b)     No, thanks. Every year I rent the same little cottage for two weeks in August, in a place where all the locals know me.

3.     Is your working day…
a)     A roller coaster of triumphs and disasters, with snack and/or cigarette breaks here and there to liven up the mix
b)     A production line of completed tasks and problem solving, and you always get ready for the next day’s work before you leave.

If you answered a) to those questions, you’re more likely to wing your way through your writing, without much forethought. Answering b) means you like the order outline and planning brings to your life. I’ve written successful novels using both methods, and each has their good and bad points.

ADVANTAGES: Just sitting down and letting the words pour out is a great way to get a first draft finished in record time. If you’re a planner who’s written their way into a cul-de-sac, letting your mind wander and writing free-form for a change can pole-vault you over your problems.

DISADVANTAGES: You don’t jump into a car without some idea of where you’re going (I hope). Winging it while writing might turn your original short story into a 100,000 word epic, which still has no end in sight. On the other hand, if you’ve planned in so much detail any suggested revisions have you reaching for the gin bottle, you’ve lost sight of the release (and enjoyment) writing can bring.

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I wrote my historical novel, Jewel Under Siegewithout any formal plan. Researching a non-fiction project on the eleventh-century daredevil, Robert Curthose, I discovered 3 things:

–  Robert would make good comic relief for a serious story,
–  Not all mediaeval ladies culled florets and sighed in solars—some rolled up their sleeves and ran successful businesses, and
–  Talking rather than fighting is the best way to counter ignorance and bigotry.

I sat down and blasted my way through the first three chapters, and then wrote the last one. This was to give me an idea how my characters would get their Happy Ever After moment. Then I went back and filled in the thousands of words which were missing from the middle of the book.

With the first rough draft finished, I put the manuscript aside for a while to let it marinate (to find out why this is always a good idea, however you write, take a minute to read this).

In second and subsequent drafts of Jewel Under Siege, I tightened everything up, made sure timings agreed and all the continuity was right. By the time it was published, I’d had a whale of a time, but the whole process took me several months longer than the writing of my next release, His Majesty’s Secret Passion.

Before starting to write His Majesty’s Secret Passion,  I spent a lot of time thinking how the internal conflicts of Sara, my career-obsessed heroine, could strike sparks off hero Leo, a man who has abandoned his own career for the sake of family loyalty. Once I’d filled out a sheet of details for both Sara and Leo, I was ready to start my first draft.

Send an email with the words Character Sheet in the subject line to christinahollis(at), and I’ll send you a copy of the detailed form I fill in for each of my fictional characters. 

Order your copy here!

I’ve written here about the joys and woes of the Scrivener writing package. It’s a kind of virtual filing cabinet where you collect every link, image and note you need, and produce your manuscript, all in one place. You can have hours of fun naming folders and dividing every chapter into individual scenes, complete with sidebar of notes for each one. If you use the basic Three Act Structure for your novels—I’ll be talking about that next time—writing sessions become an easy matter of opening your Scrivener project and seeing at a glance what you should be doing next.

I’m a Scrivener devotee, but I’ve also used Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake system with success. This is a more free-form approach. You start by identifying the big idea at the heart of your novel, then gradually add layer on layer of more detail. In the same way every snowflake is built up of simple shapes, your book grows organically into a novel of many facets. I like Snowflake a lot, but Scrivener stops my desk disappearing under a sea of Post-It notes and scrappy bits of paper!

If you don’t want to use a commercial word-processing package like Scrivener or Snowflake, try making a simple “And Then” list of all the important and exciting events in your story. This way you can make sure you’ve got plenty of page-turning action, and juggle the order before you start writing.

Here’s the “And Then” list I could have used for the beginning of His Majesty’s Secret Passion‘s first chapter

Sara—shark attack? And then…
Leo saves her, and then…
She’s embarrassed —it was a false alarm. And then…
Attraction tussles with suspicion, until…
Leo’s distracted by his jealous PA, but…
He’d rather help an injured woman than socialise, although…
Sara’s recent history makes her put up barriers, and so…
Leo takes direct action…

There’s an added benefit of this type of brief list. It makes creating a detailed synopsis easy later on, when you’ve settled on the content and order of your story.

When it comes to writing, are you a free spirit, or a planner?