The Three Act Hack
What is three act structure?
My first introduction to the three act structure was in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. When I wrote my first novel, I knew how to tell a story but I didn’t know a damn thing nothing about story structure. As a result, my first attempt was 120k words long and while it had moments of greatness, it was essentially a bunch of shit happening to Yves Santiago until I ran out of things to do to her. In 2011, I joined a critique group and they told me in the kindest words possible that In Her Closet was a whole lot of what-the-fuck and needed to be completely rewritten. In a matter of months, I had reworked In Her Closet into three books and published them. Moreover, I knew that this third or fourth iteration of In Her Closet was the best it could be. and I attribute most of that to reading Save the Cat. I say this without sarcasm…Save the Cat saved my fucking life. I know that sounds hyperbolic, but I’ve always known that I was an author and part of being an author is sharing your stories. I would have never had the courage to do that if I had not mastered the three act hack.
Often used in screenwriting, the three act structure divides your narrative into three parts and is based on the fact that every good story has a beginning, middle, and end. Each plot point is a “beat” and I’m going to beat this out using plot points for a contemporary romance.
So let’s begin at the beginning!
This is the most important act of the book. That’s not an exaggeration. Act One is where you introduce your characters, set the hook, and set up the romantic conflict. Basically, Act One is where you make your readers give a fuck.
1- Opening Scene: This is where you introduce your main character, usually the heroine, but it could be the hero. Give the readers a taste of her “average day.” We need to know her normal. It’s also to important to find a way to inspire the reader to empathize with them. This could be something like “her life would be perfect if…” or “his life was perfect as long as he avoided…” It doesn’t have to be in those exact words but you get the gist. Show us what they lack.
**hint: It’s usually romantic love.
2-Inciting incident: If the opening scene ends with you showing the reader what the hero/heroine lacks, the inciting incident is the moment when you introduce that thing/person that will fulfill that lack, but in a highly undesirable, inconvenient, poorly timed package. They are absolutely right for each other, but not right now.
3-End of the beginning: So your characters have been introduced. They’re attracted to each other but their brains overrule their hearts and body parts and they deny that attraction, or attempt to in the name of common sense. At this point in the story, you introduce something that brings the characters together. The reason can be random or like in The Truth of Things, Ava is in the police station filing a complaint for her damaged camera lens when she runs into Levi…dripping with sweat…in grey sweatpants.
Yeah, so this is also when Ava agrees to go out to coffee with him. This is the internal relationship arc. The characters are acknowledging their attraction and make plans to act on it.
Actually…now that I think about it, this is both internal and external relationship arc. Here’s why: the external relationship arc happens when they are “forced” together. Ava is a staff photographer scrapping by on a measly salary. The lens that was broken during her detainment (this isn’t a spoiler. It happens in the first chapter) is one that is on loan to her from the newspaper. She would be responsible for any damages or replacement which was an expense she couldn’t afford. So she had to file a damage report and complaint in hopes that she might get reimbursed. Levi works nights and is finishing up his shift with a run to decompress when they “bump” into each other. See? The external arc or PLOT brought them together.
In this act, the hero and heroine are acting on their desires, but the conflict the one BIG thing that keeps them apart rears it’s ugly head. It’s back and forth, one step forward, two back, a ttug of war of emotions that builds the tension to a crescendoooo…
1-First pinch point:So we have a hint of how perfect these two will be fore each other, but at this point in the story, you have to create a little bit of conflict that hints at the BIG CONFLICT, also known as THE BIG MISUNDERSTANDING. This pinch point is mean to apply some pressure to the relationship’s perceived perfection.
2-Midpoint: The two lovebirds have overcome the minor conflict presented in the first pinch point and now they are even more certain of their relationship. This is a good place for the first sex scene.
Each character is dealing with their own internal conflicts. After they have consummated their relationship in some way, they think everything is gravy except..when they get back to their “norma” they are confronted with the ways this new relationship conflicts with their goal or identity.
3-Pinch Point 2: This is another opportunity for you to introduce the conflict that keeps them from relationship bliss. It should be a bigger problem than the first pinch point.
4-Crisis: At the crisis point, the external character arc issues have been mostly resolved and the challenge in the crisis is internal. They are realizing when the external plot arc presents that they really aren’t compatible in this one area that is super important to them. At this point, the hero/heroine has to decide if this is something they can overlook and live with or if it’s a deal breaker.
*Side note: It works better if one character is 100% married to this thing that they think is a deal breaker and the other is just kinda meh…but won’t budge beyond the meh.
This is where the hero/heroine is the point in the story where one or both allows themselves to be vulnerable.
The mask comes off.
1-Climax: The hero/heroine is completely exposed. All of their fears are out on the table and they are asking their lover to acknowledge that and adjust because this is their deal breaker. Either the hero doesn’t get it or it’s still not a big deal to them so the treat it like a nonissue. The character that considers this a deal breaker (internal arc) ends the relationship or presents some of ultimatum that their lover doesn’t meet. This is the black moment.
The heroine that has broken off the relationship is sad and hurting but they know that they have done the right thing. Their lover is lost without them, and while they know what they need to do to make things right, they resist it, wrongfully assuming that they aren’t right for each other. However, something occurs that demonstrates how wrong they are and how much of it of a mistake it was to let their lover go and they reunite!
*This is usually the place for the second sex scene.
2-Final Image/Resolution: This is where you show us there happily ever after or their happy for now ending! It doesn’t have to end with a wedding or an engagement or a baby. Not that there is anything wrong with those endings, it’s just good to know that HEA is meant to show the main characters together and happy.
So that’s the Three Act Hack! Remember this is just a blueprint to help you nail down the major plot points. You make the story your own in the scenes you build around the plot points and the characters you create!
This is my last post for NaNoWriMo prep, but be on the look out for writing prompts and motivational posts from here on out.
And now I’m gonna dive into the writing cave and finish up my own prep.
Until next time!
Often accused of navigating life without a filter, Tasha L. Harrison has managed to brand herself as the author who crafts characters and stories that make you feel all of the feels. She writes African American, interracial, and intercultural erotica and erotic romance with heroines just as brazen as herself and heroes that know they are messy and dramatic, but love them anyway.
She lives in Upstate South Carolina with two not-so-smallish men and one super needy boxer dog. When she’s not writing filth, she’s pretending to be a photographer and riding around with the top down on her Jeep Wrangler, Amber.