Sunday, August 22, 2010

Dilemma in Three Acts--Story Arcs and the Big W

Almost the end of August, and the leaves are starting to change color here in New England.  I'm getting my teaching notes together for my new classes in September.  This year my classes are both virtual (online) and in person.  Both have me thinking about story arcs again.

August was a writing month for me.  I've been working on finishing my book about book-writing, Your Book Starts Here, which will be available later this year, and on editing the final act of my novel-in-progress, Breathing Room.  

Both books are built with the three-act structure of story arc that I teach in my workshops and classes.  I call it the big W.  It's a system that's
been around for a long time, this classic story structure, even promoted by Aristotle himself as being the best way to bring emotional catharsis to an audience.

Classic three-act story arcs are based on beginning, middle, and end sequence.  It works because that's the way real life works, or so said Aristotle. Past posts give more details on this three-act story structure (look at April 3 and June 12, 2010, in the archives of this blog, using the lists on the left column or the search button above, right column).

I recommend revisiting this three-act system often because it will help you doublecheck the strength of your book’s dilemma by looking at its “rising” and “falling” action.

Rising and falling action is best understood with the big W. Imagine a giant W.


Act 1 is the first leg of this W, the line that starts at the top left corner and goes down to the first juncture. Notice it's a line that falls. So in your book's first act, something needs to happen. Something that brings up a question or a quest, to trigger the falling action at the beginning of the book, to set up the need to read on to find out more.

Simple, yes?

Just think of this triggering event as a question or a quest, and make sure it begins right away, within the first few pages if possible. It's the falling action that moves along the first leg of the W.

The Hero's Journey and the Big W
Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, a classic definition of mythic structure in storytelling, says that the first part of a story is where the hero faces the initial crisis (the triggering event) that propels him into action and things tangle soon after.

In Act 1, dilemma must continue to escalate—otherwise, why would we read on? Knowing this, you need to study your storyboard’s Act 1 for sufficient obstacles that enhance your book’s dilemma. A great example is the fairytale. The opening chapters always set a hero on a quest. But very soon the hero learns that the quest is much more dangerous or more difficult than imagined. This is the falling action, and it accelerates the momentum, eventually driving the story into Act 2.

It’s important to carefully choose your scenes and snippets (I'll call them "islands" below, after a term coined by Kenneth Atchity in his book A Writer's Time) when writing Act 1. No one sits around drinking coffee and thinking great thoughts during a falling action. There’s no time. Things are speeding up. The falling action of Act 1 is very much like a rollercoaster taking its first big swoop downward.

So when you look at your story arc, first doublecheck the triggering event, the beginning of Act 1’s falling action.

Ask yourself, Is the dilemma presented immediately and clearly? Is it big enough to propel the entire book? Remember that a triggering event should be an externalized action without which the story would not happen.

Your second place to check for sufficient dilemma is at the end of Act 1, the bottom of the W. Sometimes called the “first turning point,” this is where something changes. Things literally bottom out. From the triggering event which started this journey, we reach, at the bottom of the W, a point of no return. The tension has increased but now there’s a bit of a pause to assess what to do next.

Act 2 contains the next two legs of the W, a rising action that cranks the rollercoaster up a steeper slope (feel the tension building!), a tiny pause, then another falling action that drops us to the second turning point, the second bottom leg of the W.

Often the first chapters of Act 2 contain hope—so you need to choose “islands” that show a new level of understanding, or a new clue, or a new friend. We take time to regroup and gather strength.

But soon the action changes, things get worse again and tension builds. New complications take us to the end of Act 2, the second turning point, where we encounter a crisis of greater magnitude than any other moment in the story. Things really fall apart now. The tension is intense, with a sense that there’s no way out.

Look again at your storyboard to see if you have these turning points in place. Does your peak of the W show a change from hope to complication? Consider the “islands” you’ve chosen for the peak of Act 2. The dramatic action should change now from hopeful (rising) to oh-no! (falling).

If these “islands” are not located in the exact center of Act 2, that’s perfectly fine. The W doesn’t have to be symmetrical. One leg can be longer or shorter—each book’s story will determine that. But make sure you have some peak in your W, some change to show things getting more complicated as we slide down to the second turning point.

Does the second turning point in Act 2 contain the worst moment in the book? If not, then think about ways you can show the dilemma worsening. What complications can you add to heighten the tension? Make sure what you are revealing feels much more complicated than at the first turning point.

Wrapping Up the Book--Act 3
Act 3 is what my weekly classes at Hudson Valley Writers' Center will be focusing on this semester. The week of September 20, when we gather for the first time, we're going to look at the final leg of the big W and how our books' story arcs move us into Act 3.

Notice the W again in your imagination--the last leg is an upward movement, which means simply that another rising action is taking us to the end of the book. Most books have some new revelation or realization or discovery at the end of their storylines. In nonfiction, it might be the new understanding of what's been discussed through the book--a recap of sorts. In memoir, something is realized by the narrator, hopefully, despite the trials and traumas of the previous two acts. In fiction there is often a final crisis in Act 3, a final battle that’s propelled by the second turning point.

So whether something unexpected is revealed, a new level of understanding brought to light, make sure the dilemmas of your book is resolved or if not resolved, at least talked about why it's not resolved.

Act 3 is a big exhale of tension, and it usually delivers a new level of clarity about the story or subject. This is where your characters realize how much they have grown, and how overcoming all those dilemmas earned them their insights, also called “earned outcome.”

What's that? some writers wonder.  I did too, when I first heard the term.  In my classes we're going to explore this, but basically it's tracing back through your three acts to make sure everything you present in the final pages of your book makes sense, because you've set it up to be anticipated.

In August I checked back through my storyboard for "earned outcome" as I worked steadily through Act 3 of my two books-in-progress.

In the novel I could immediately see that the ending crisis was not "earned" enough, so I built in some new scenes to make it more logical. In my nonfiction book, I traced back from the end of Act 3, through the final chapters, to make sure the material I was concluding with was also "earned."

Not all writers like this big W theory of story structure, but it has been a lifesaver for me. It's helped me produce and publish so many books, that I can't imagine not having it in my back pocket for times like these, when I am needing to check my creative flow against something solid and structural.

This Week's Writing Exercise
This exercise is from my forthcoming book, Your Book Starts Here. It's called "Raising the Stakes" and it shows you a few very cool ways to increase dilemma in your story. Try it this week and post your comments here, if you wish. I'm always happy to hear how these exercises worked for you.

1.Choose a character or narrator in your book who feels distant, too safe, even bland. Take a look at these two lists of questions.

What do you like or dislike about your looks?
How do you feel about your age?
What five things are in your refrigerator?
What are your favorite shoes? Why?
What is your least favorite article of clothing?
What sort of work do you do? How do you feel about it?
What’s a favorite possession that you’d never let go of?
What’s your favorite music? When do you listen to it?

Who or what in your life first broke your heart?
What do people who know you think of you?
What or whom would you eliminate from your life?
What do you wish never happened to you?
What’s a secret you hide?
What is so painful you can’t let it go?
What makes you so happy you can hardly bear it?

2.Pick three questions from each list. Write down how the character or narrator might answer these questions. If you are writing about someone real, research the answers so they are accurate and true to life.

3. Do any of the answers give you a new insight on possible (and as yet unrevealed) conflict? Maybe you are suddenly aware of a desire or longing that person hasn’t mentioned before.

4. Freewrite for twenty minutes about how this new understanding could increase the conflict in that person’s story.

Look for answers that contradict each other: this is gold for writing dilemma. For instance, if one of your characters says he has no pain in his life, no one who ever broke his heart, but in the same breath talks about a woman who once told him he wasn’t very smart, go deeper. Two answers that challenge each other hint at something unresolved.

Upcoming Classes
If you'd like to take a workshop on this story arc system, please consider joining one of my classes.  This fall I am teaching a one-day workshop at Grub Street in Boston on Sunday, September 12; a six-week class on Act 3 at Hudson Valley Writers' Center in Sleepy Hollow, NY (near Tarrytown), on Wednesday mornings starting September 22; a two-day workshop at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis on Friday and Saturday, November 12 and 13; and a two-day workshop at Southern New Hampshire University through the New Hampshire Writers' Project on November 6-7.  Classes fill fast, so please contact the school of your choice, if you're interested, and register soon.  Names of schools above will link you to the right page of their website for more information and registration details.  Hope to see you there!


  1. hi Mary,

    I like the research questions you suggest and think they may help me over some rough spots in plotting. Thanks!


  2. Thanks for visiting, Jackie. Glad it helped!

  3. Dear Mary:
    This is a great post; I'm sure many will thank you for introducing them to the concept of Story Arcs and the Big W.

    The combination of genuinely helpful advice plus a weekly writing exercises makes your blog a "must read" for me from now on.

    As a fellow New Englander, I hope our paths cross at some point.

    Now, I'm off to Tweet this post on Twitter!

    Roger C. Parker

  4. Roger,
    Thanks so much for visiting and for tweeting this post to others. Enjoy the beautiful New England fall these next weeks, and do visit the blog again!