Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Three Act Play In Your Novel

Most of my writing training doesn’t come from taking English classes in college or creative writing courses on the side. Granted, I wish that I had taken more writing classes back in my days at SWT (I’ll never call it Texas State University, people), but I was too involved in my Theatre courses. While I loved acting, directing really became my passion (I knew there would be a use for my bossy nature!), and it was through studying the works of some gifted playwrights and their use of the three act play, that I began to learn about the process of creating conflict, drama, and characters people care about.

Three things beginning directors learn to identify when reading a play are the inciting incident, the crisis, and the climax. Usually the inciting incident happens in the beginning of Act 1 or thereabouts. The crisis can occur in Act 2 and, that’s right, you guessed it, the climax occurs in Act 3. In case you don’t know, the inciting incident refers to whatever event happens to get the party started—someone dies, a discovery is made, a wicked spell is cast that affects the chances of beauty pageant participants. The crisis is the action a character takes that will ultimately effect the outcome of the play—the hero decides to murder the bad guy, someone decides to stand up to the abusive husband. The climax, sometimes called the resolution, is how the problem is solved.

If you start to think about your novel in this way, it can really help keep your writing tight and on track. I like to write might first draft rough and loose so I can go back and identify those three things. Once I do, I separate my novel into chapter sections that represent Acts 1, 2, and 3. This makes for easier rewrites, and I can hone in on sections at a time, making sure they are how I want them to be.

A good rule of thumb would be to have your inciting incident happen within the first 50 pages. Exposition is important in a story, but it doesn’t always forward the action. Keep us in the moment and only provide back story when it’s necessary. Remember, those first chapters are what the agent will be reading and if the action isn’t moving, they won’t keep reading. Act 1 typically ends with a small crisis.

Take a look at your novel. What is the climax of your story? Where is the big event from which there is no turning back? Hone it, refine it and make sure it raises the stakes—this is your Act 2 section.

How does it get resolved? This is Act 3 and it wraps up the story. I usually find Act 3 the most exciting to write—it’s fast paced and the pieces of the puzzle are coming together.

If you are looking for more information on what should be included in your “acts”, check out Jessica Page Morrell’s book Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us. She goes in depth on the importance of the three act play style of writing.

Happy writing!


  1. Thanks for the overview, Mary Ann! I can also recommend Morrell's book, even though I'm only half-way through it.

    Alexandra Sokoloff has detailed instructions on adapting an Act structure to fiction, too, at Go to the bottom to see links to her articles on How to Write a Novel from Start to Finish.

  2. Thanks MaryAnn! Morrel's book rocks. I just picked up "Story Structure Architect" by Schmidt and it is AWESOME! It shows different ways to develop the 3 Act play for different genres/outcomes and such. I will do a review on it here soon.