Basic Structure Overview

Illustration of four blank white books on a blue background

This is really basic stuff. You will find hundreds of versions of what I’m going to say here, and the honest ones will say, “This is basic stuff.” Many others, however, will present this basic stuff as if their take on it is revolutionary. This latter group is either (a) lying because their how-to books and workshops are more profitable than their fiction, (b) possessed of mental inflexibility that takes the ideas of others absolutely literally and believes their own slight rewording is an entirely new and superior idea, or (c) all of the above because mental rigidity and being arrogantly derivative seldom result in great fiction.

There are 500-page tomes drilling down into the specifics of what goes where structurally. There are master’s degree programs that get into the nitty gritty of structure. Specific nitty gritty is beyond the scope of one blog post. Take the basics and refine with specific nitty gritty as you acquire it, which is an ongoing process for every serious craftsman.

I look at stories in three acts.

  • Act I takes place in the Ordinary World, where the status quo rules.
  • Act II takes place in the Unknown World, where new rules must be learned and mastered. This is the meat of the story and twice as long as the other acts, which has led some people to split it at the midpoint and pretend they’ve invented four-act structure by renumbering three acts from the middle. Functionally, nothing changes when you do that. I stick with the precedent of three acts, so bear that in mind while you’re doing whatever works for you.
  • Act III takes place in the World of the Protagonist’s Making. Assuming the story isn’t a tragedy, this is where the protagonist takes everything she’s learned and triumphs.

I’ve focused here on character arc. A plot arc is nothing more than the specific events in a given story that dramatize character development. In other words, plot is the specific nitty gritty of character and thus beyond the scope of one blog post.

Act I

In the beginning, the status quo is established. We meet the protagonist in her natural habitat and get to know who she currently is through her actions in a familiar environment — how she survives, how she does or doesn’t deal with conflict, her coping mechanisms, her way of relating to others, her skills/weaknesses/fears. This is the baseline measurement against which the changes she undergoes during the course of the story will be measured.

Act II

The threshold between Act I and Act II is a transition from the status quo to the unknown. This can take the form of a physical displacement (big-city journalist goes to a ranch on assignment, girl at garden party plunges down a rabbit hole that leads to Wonderland) or a mental displacement (ferociously independent woman agrees to pose as her friend’s doting fiancée, woman with mundane existence finds out vampires are real). Whichever is the case, the terrain in Act II is suddenly unfamiliar to the protagonist.

The first half of Act II is therefore dedicated to figuring out this new world. The lay of the land must be assessed. New rules must be learned (a stylish outfit doesn’t impress anyone on a cattle drive, countering insanity with logic makes her look like the crazy one, a doting fiancée has to cleave to her other half, driving a stake through a vampire’s heart is easier said than done). She will instinctively behave as she did in Act I, and she will be penalized each time because her old-world strategies don’t work in this new realm. She must adapt, either by tweaking her old strategies or developing new ones that work in this environment.

By the midpoint of Act II, the protagonist has her new circumstances figured out and is playing her role with confidence. She’s no longer making amateur mistakes. It’s time to prove herself in the new world. Whatever problem or goal she has for the story, her attacks upon it now have a plausible chance of success. She doesn’t yet succeed because (a) the antagonist is still stronger/more experienced/in a fortified position and (b) she’s still playing a part as if all this is temporary and grabbing the brass ring will send her back to the status quo — she hasn’t accepted that this experience has changed her, she’ll never squeeze back into her former life, and there is no going back, only forward.

Act III

The threshold between Act II and Act III is marked by some form of death. It could be literal death (a battle in which lives are lost, the death of an ally, a sick animal that has to be euthanized) or approximate (the protagonist or an ally nearly dies but recovers) or figurative (the protagonist’s refuge burns to the ground, hope is shattered, a lover leaves). Whatever form death takes, it’s a wakeup call for the protagonist. She realizes now this is not a game, not pretend, not temporary. Win or lose, there can be no going back to the way things were in the beginning. Even if the status quo remains completely unchanged, she no longer fits in her old place in it and every moment she remains there would be a chafing, stifling nightmare, not the comforting familiarity she’s been yearning for.

This last part of the story is therefore about seizing her new place, where the evolved version of her belongs. This is where the big-city journalist convinces the rancher she loves and her boss that living on a ranch and traveling on assignment is a doable arrangement. It’s where Alice exerts her independence and convinces her father to stop treating her like a silly child (in the movie version, at least — it’s been so long since I read the book, I have no idea how it ended). It’s where the reluctant fake fiancée admits being in a relationship hasn’t hurt her independence and claims her man for real. It’s where a choice must be made between the human world and the world of monsters, and her found family in the monster world is the one worth fighting for. The choices the protagonist makes during the end of the story show the reader how much she has changed since the beginning.

In summary:

  • Act I defines the protagonist through her actions in her native habitat.
  • Act I transitions into Act II with a physical or mental displacement from the known to the unknown.
  • The first half of Act II involves learning through trial and error the rules of surviving these new circumstances.
  • The second half of Act II applies that hard-won knowledge to confident attempts to solve a problem or achieve a goal.
  • Act II transitions into Act III with a literal, approximate, or figurative death that shakes the protagonist and makes her realize the only future for her requires victory.
  • In Act III, the protagonist, changed by her experiences during Act II, does whatever she must to carve out a new life suited to the new her.

(NB: I love structure! I like reading books that have a traditional narrative rhythm, and I’m a huge fan of having the landmarks when I’m writing. There are lots of successful authors who sneer at structure and tons of readers who like what they do well enough to make them successful, so read and write however you want. This post is not an attempt at mind control.)

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