Saturday, April 3, 2010

Three Acts--A Way to Organize the Monster That Is Your Book Manuscript

A well- structured book is like a clear trail. The reader can follow it. So can the writer.

But many writers get bogged down during the process of planning, writing, and finishing a manuscript. A writing project as big as a book can make us confused and overwhelmed. We get lost, even forget where we are in the journey.

I ran into this pretty often when I was involved my first books. I saw that there was a real need in most book writers, no matter the genre. We wanted a system, an easier way to navigate a book-length manuscript, make the path easier to follow--not just for our eventual readers, but also for us, as writers.

Many writers think that books are just expanded shorter pieces of writing. I thought so too, at first. I came from writing short and sweet, as a newspaper columnist for twelve years, and short pieces fit my creative impatience. I liked the closure of writing something each week, limited and succinct. I could work hard, get the writing done, and move on. But I really wanted to dive into a book.

I was naive in those days, innocent enough to think a book would be similar to the process of writing weekly columns. Just longer, right?


I learned that lesson pretty quickly. Books are far from a series of short pieces linked in a line. Books require special treatment, a new understanding of organization. An overall arc. This arc provides the reader with a trail to follow, a sort of logic so each part of the writing feels as if it belongs with the others.

I had a good editor in those early days of my first published books--something that doesn't happen very often in publishing houses nowadays. The editor helped me navigate the journey. When the manuscript felt overwhelming, he showed me our map. So I could complete a book and publish it without too much pain.

Three Acts Make Life Simpler
Five books later, I was on my own again. My editor had moved on and I had a new book contact, sans help. I struggled mightily once more, although I knew I could use my new map-making tools. They helped. But it wasn't until I came across the idea of a three-act structure, a way to think from the end of a manuscript, that my writing life got simpler again.

Here's how it works: You imagine how your manuscript could be divided into three parts, not equal, but each concluding with some turning point in understanding or event. Then you imagine what your reader would need to experience at each of these three junctions in your manuscript. Then you organize all the chapters toward that experience.

It puts you in the reader's chair. No longer the writer's. It helps you weed out what's not helping the reader have the experience you intend for that section of the story.

What Each Act Requires
I'm certainly not the first to use the three-act structure. It's ancient. One of the most helpful books about how to use it in writing is The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler. Vogler adapts Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey model and makes it very easy to implement in your book manuscript.

Studying both Vogler and Campbell, and my own and others' published writing, I have come up with a quick overview of the three acts and what each needs.

Act 1 must
1. Introduce the main players, container, and conflict or question of the book
2. Answer the question "Who is fighting whom for what?" (from John Truby, Truby's Story Structure)
3. Leave us with a greater problem by its end
4. Introduce the main helper/mentor/ally--whether person or concept
5. Present the "refusal of the call" (from Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey)

Act 2 must
1. Mix the volatile elements
2. Enter the darkest mystery, cave, biggest question--and come out changed
3. Provide tests and new systems to explore
4. Deliver a surprise
5. Present the final crisis at its end

Act 3 must
1. Resolve or redeem the crisis or main character
2. Present new arrangement of players, situation, learning
3. Create a loop with the beginning (an echo of elements)

This Week's Exercise
Adapted from a writing exercise I taught in my two-day book-structuring workshop this past weekend at the Loft Literary Center, this allows you to explore the three acts via desired qualities. It forces you to consider the reader's point of view.

1. Ask yourself how your book could be divided into three sections, or three acts. These don't have to be the same length. Ask yourself where there are natural breaking points, given the requirements above for each act.

2. Brainstorm what you would like the reader to have experienced by the end of Act 1. Then do the same for Act 2 and Act 3. Maybe some qualities you desire for Act 1 are "full engagement with my characters," "an understanding of their basic dilemma," and "a strong sense of the container of the story, or its environment."

3. Using these desired qualities, begin to go through the chapters or "islands" you have designated for Act 1. Ask yourself if each of them connects well with your desired qualities. You may find misplacement as you do this exercise--it's very common for writers to frontload the book with too much given away in Act 1. Move some of these sections to Act 2 or 3.

This exercise is a very helpful one to begin organizing your book and making each Act strong and sure. It can take several hours, or longer. Do as much as you can at one session then come back to it.

Use these qualities as a template for deciding what goes where in your manuscript.


  1. Thanks, Mary. A very timely post. I'm grappling with several aspects of the plot of my book right now and am pretty dissatisfied with the options I've come up with. I'll try this exercise and let you know! It's got me excited about my book all over again...

    Pune, India

  2. hi.. just dropping by here... have a nice day!

  3. I'm thankful to find your advise here. Just became overwhelmed with the mental organization of my book; and accidently ran across your, thank you

  4. 'With many notebooks of "My Life" looking fof sort of a blueprint or ladder or chart to get my manuscript all together.
    thanks for your help

  5. Glad it's a helpful blueprint! Thanks for visiting.