Story Composition


Story Composition

Story Composition

The Three Acts of Life – and Your Stories

Every story has three parts: the beginning, the middle, and the end. Even our lives must comply with this philosophy. We were born – our beginning. We live our life – our middle. We die – our end. So it is with your story—every story without exception if it is to be successful.

Hook the Reader

While a writer must hook the reader in the beginning, and keep them turning pages through the middle, if she doesn’t offer a satisfactory conclusion, then it would be like inviting friends to a wedding, showing them the beautiful cake, letting them smell it, cut them a big piece, but then never let them take a bite. Very unsatisfactory to your ‘ex’-friends!

Act One

So let’s look at Act One, a bit of a recap from my previous piece “The Hook”. Call your hero to his journey with the decision that leads to a crisis or a crisis that leads to a decision. Introduce all your players (refer back to “Cast of Characters”) in this Act, even if they don’t reappear until the end. This is where you’ll want to lay the foundation for your character arc, his growth.

Once all that is in place, then normally, the end of Act One comes with the first realization of how your hero is going to solve his main dilemma. If you’re writing a thirty-chapter book—approximately seventy-five to eighty thousand words—this insight will usually come around chapter ten. Maybe in Chapter Eight or Twelve, but around the first third of your story.

Act Two

The middle, or Act Two, is all about escalating problems for your hero and him overcoming every one. Continually throw rocks at your hero; one thing after another; when it rains, it pours.

However many trials and tribulations you hurl at your poor hero determine the length of your book. You can make his struggles as long and as hard as you want to. Your readers are learning more about your cast, and the players are learning more about themselves as they make mistakes and grow in character.

This Act will be similar in length as Act One or longer, depending on the completed length of your novel. Of the three acts, this one is the one to use in order to turn a seventy thousand word novel into ninety-five thousand words. The more tribulation, the more solutions, the longer the middle of your story grows.

Act Three

Act Three is the hardest part in my humble opinion, and every bit as important as that first sentence in your novel hooking your readers to go along with your hero on his journey. Have you ever read a book or seen a movie or even watched a TV show that left you flat with a sour taste in your mouth, no satisfactory conclusion? Like at the end of Part One – be sure to tune in next week…  Yuck-adoo!

While there may be a segment of society out there who loves to see and smell a cake without ever tasting it, they are few and far between. Wrap up every loose end. Catch every rabbit you’ve been chasing. And if anywhere in the story, you’ve introduced a blue suitcase or shown a gun on the mantle, then you better let your reader know why it was important before Act Three is over.

Defeat the Villain

But the most important, biggest, number one thing is after your hero defeats his villain, let him return with the elixir. Think of Michael Corleone after he’s finally defeated all his enemies returning to his father’s office and all is right in his world.

Which do you think is the hardest act to write successfully?

Next week, we’ll discuss ways to make your manuscript the best it can be and ready for publication!

  1. Avatar of Paula Boer
    Paula Boer says

    Good article, as usual. I think the hardest thing emerging writers struggle with is setting up the challenge correctly at the beginning of the story. Too many want to keep secrets from their readers, trying to be clever, only to end up frustrating the audience because they don’t trust them.

    1. Avatar of Caryl McAdoo
      Caryl McAdoo says

      Good point, Paula, and thank you! 🙂 Yes, that’s so true regarding keeping secrets! Instead, a good writer needs to give their readers a superior position–from the other characters in their story–through great internal dialogue, POV! I LOVE POV! And I tell writers all the time when editing, trust your readers! Very important, knowing who your readers are and writing FOR them!. Thank you for your comments.

  2. Avatar of Daphne Shapiro
    Daphne Shapiro says

    Each time I read your articles I become more frustrated with myself, and my obvious inability to get anything right the first time I write it down…
    But after I re-write my scribblings, my initial frustration makes place for a more positive view of what I wrote… Until your next article, that is. Then the whole process repeats itself 😀

    Thank you, so much, for helping us aspiring writers to better ourselves.

  3. Avatar of Andy Bachman
    Andy Bachman says

    Another fine piece, Caryl.
    Thank you.

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