Three-act Structure Eureka!

Okay, I’ve heard about the three-act structure for quite some time, from a variety of sources, and had it sketched out for me in at least one workshop.  Quite frankly, it didn’t seem all that relevant.  But I finally picked up a copy of Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat:  the Last Screen-writing Book you’ll Ever Need (on the advice of Mercedes Lackey, among others), and found a more coherent breakdown of what the structure means–and discovered something interesting.

Snyder offers a Beat Sheet, which not only includes the three act structure, but also the main beats in between, followed by a description of each and his rules for when they must occur (yeah, “must”–he’s pretty firm about this stuff).  His version is, of course, for the standard 110 page screenplay, but I’m writing novels about 120,000 words, so I wanted to translate his story proportions into my medium.  This is what I came up with:


act descriptor Beat number Beat name Description Page number
Thesis: 1 Opening Image sets the tone for the work, shows the hero “before”  
The 2 Theme stated by another character to the hero 21
World 3 set-up 6 things that must be fixed (trouble with “before”)  
Before 4 Catalyst forces the hero to change 52
  5 Debate how/why to change, asks a question, answered by pt. 6  
  6 Break to act 2 hero chooses a new course 108
Antithesis: 7 B-story the love story that carries the theme 130
The 8 Fun and Games set pieces that display the premise  
World 9 Midpoint all appears lost or won (opposite of pt. 11) 240
Inverted 10 Bad Guys Close in    
  11 All is Lost Worse off than at the start 326
  12 Dark Night of the Soul  
Synthesis: 13 Break to act 3 Hero dusts himself off to fight back 370
Two worlds 14 finale    
combine 15 Final Image   480

So I’m going to poke around with this tool and see what it can do for me.  But the thing that jumped out at me right away was that Act 2 entry point, at about 108 pages.  See, it’s long been my experience that a book will stall out at about page 100.  Pretty much every time. Why?  Because that’s when you’re done laying the foundation.  You’ve got all the actors on stage, set the scene, sparked the conflict–now you have to work with all the elements you’ve already established.  The hero must step forward from the world “before,” the world you likely put a lot of work into, and across the boundary to discover what it really means.

It’s the moment when your Mom says you’ve got plenty of toys already–now you have to play with the ones you’ve got.  If you’re persistent, have already given yourself lots of cool toys to play with (and don’t spend a lot of time moping around), you will find a way forward.  But many books, at this stage, are simply done.  And, if you credit Blake Snyder, that’s because you have to embark into Act 2.

After making this observation, linking the three-act structure to what I’ve already noticed about fiction, I’m curious to see what else I can learn–for instance, by looking at the entire series through this new lens.  It’s also part of an on-going effort on my part to be more deliberate about what I do and how I do it.  Once more unto the breach!


About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
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2 Responses to Three-act Structure Eureka!

  1. Michelle says:

    This is very interesting – I will likely be watching for this everytime I read now!

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