Writing Tip: Your Plot in Three Acts

2010-05-22

During my work break at the library, I was skimming through the Entertainment Weekly magazine. In one of the articles, the author Miriam Toews made an interesting statement about how she constructs her novel:

You must first establish tenderness, [Mariam Toews] says. Then the excitement will build, as you put “the violence and agony of life into every note” until you must make an important decision: either return to tenderness or “continue on with the truth, the violence, the pain, the tragedy, to the very end.”

I love books that follow this construct. I try to follow this arc myself when I write.

Without this three-act structure, I lose interest in a story fast. And by the three-act structure, I mean, the beginning introduces the conflict, the middle is when crap hits the fan, and the ending is how that conflict is resolved. According to the filmmaker Edoardo Nolfo:

The three- act structure is intrinsic to the human brain’s model of the world; it matches a blueprint that is hard-wired in the human brain, which is constantly attempting to rationalize the world and resolve it into patterns. It is therefore an inevitable property of almost any successful drama, whether the writer is aware of it or not.

During my work break, I ALSO discovered the literary agent Paula Munier’s book PLOT PERFECT, where she gave a breakdown of the conventional beginning, middle and end:

Love Story

Beginning: Boy meets girl.
Middle: Boy loses girl.
End: Boy gets girl back.

Murder Mystery

Beginning: Someone gets murdered
Middle: The cops, detective, or amateur sleuth investigates the murder
End: The murderer is brought to justice

Coming-Of-Age-Story

Beginning: A young person longs for adventure — and new acquaintances and events conspire to make that happen
Middle: With the help of the new friends and mentor, the young person undergoes a series of transformative experiences.
End: Armed with this newfound knowledge and experience, the young person triumphs against overwhelming odds — and comes of age

War Story

Beginning: Our hero (or heroes) learns of the mission.
Middle: Our hero (or heroes) plan out, train for, and undertake the mission
End: Our hero (or heroes) must go above and beyond to overcome the enemy — and the mission is won

Each model shows that by the middle of a book, the Main Character should be tackling some kind of conflict. This conflict should threaten what the MC wants most in life.

 

What does the character in your book want most in life?

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Writing Tip: Your Plot in Three Acts

  1. Cris

    This is a great tip to teach literature one of these days. Thanks!

    Like

  2. Awesome tips — that quotation by Mariam Toews has really got me thinking! I guess tenderness is like creating empathy or interest for your MC.

    Like

    • Yah, I think tenderness is creating empathy/interest. One of the most important aspect in writing a novel, in my humble opinion, is that readers need to feel sympathy for the character. So even when it comes to anti-heroes/heroines, the writer still needs to be able to make the character sympathetic. One example off the top of my head is LOLITA by Nabokov.

      Thanks for dropping by!

      Like

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