Yep, no getting around it. We’re all familiar with the traditional three-act structure. Beginning, middle, ending. Any writer will tell you that’s how to set up a story, play, or movie. The beginning holds the inciting incident. It’s where you and the reader meet the characters, the problem, and the story world. In a good story, this part is a slam bang. An in and an out. Think of it as the man in the bowler hat who danced across the vaudeville stage. Enter stage right, exit stage left. Nope, I don’t remember it either, but it’s an appealing image! When done well, this section is no more than a quarter of the book/story/play. Sort of like birth through college in human years.
Some say the beginning should have its own arc and the arc should complete within the first quarter of the book. I respectfully disagree. The beginning should introduce a character arc that should arch across the entire book and not conclude until the very end of the book. After all, the beginning is about making us care about the character and the story. And, in mysteries, the victim. Don’t forget the victim. Without him, there wouldn’t be a story! So, in the beginning, there is—a beginning.
And that brings us to the middle. It encompasses approximately the next 50% of your book. Figure college graduation to retirement. It’s the meat of the story, and it has its own arc. This one is complete in the pages. It’s all about trial, success, failure, and renewal. The character makes a choice. Again, using mysteries as a genre, the choice is usually to take up the investigation. Something has to happen that forces your character to leave her comfy ordinary world behind and earnestly pursue an end goal. It’s time to leave the nest and venture beyond the known. The choice is also a big reason why the beginning has to be short. It’s hard to keep a reader’s interest once they have a handle on what the problem is. The reader craves action, and the middle supplies it. The middle also brings the book and the reader to the twists and turns of the plot. Two steps forward, one step backward, trial and error, red herrings and solutions to the red herrings. The middle needs two plotlines, one that shows progression toward the ultimate goal, and one that shows the forces of evil pulling the rug out from under that nice neat progression. Just like life.
The middle arc has an ending. In life it’s retirement and the new start we’ve worked so hard to attain. In plotting, it’s a disaster with the seeds of solution. The middle climaxes with the big twist. It traditionally takes place three quarters of the way into the book and it leads to the end.
The overarching character arc of the middle is also ongoing. There’s more work to be done to reach a satisfying end.
The last quarter of the book also has an arc. This one ties it all up. The protagonist builds on the knowledge gained in the twist and hatches a new plan. This part of the book moves swiftly, but deliberately to the climax. It can never feel rushed. There’s usually one more twist here. The protagonist has solved the main story problem, but there’s different problem, something personal to the character, that ups the stakes. A personal investment is at risk. And it‘s the solution to the personal investment that brings the character arc begun in the beginning of the book to a close.
The last bit of the ending is wrapping it all up. That’s not to say it’s a rehash of the story and how the protagonist got there, the reader already knows. The wrap up gives the reader a sense of closure and ties up most, but often not all, of the loose ends. It’s the sigh of a life well lived, of goals attained, dreams discovered, and moving on.
Life imitates art, a story in three acts.
What about you? Do you recognize a three-act structure in the stories you love? Do you see a three-act structure in your life?