Improving Scenes with Three Act Structure

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It’s as easy as one, two, three. Many of the best stories ever written utilize the same three act formula to engage and retain readers’ attention. This structure is a great novel writing tool, of course, but it can help with the little things, too – namely, those pesky trouble scenes you just can’t get to sit straight.

Understanding Three Act Structure

Since this probably isn’t the first time you’ve heard of the three acts, we’ll just sum up quickly. Think of the acts as the beginning, middle, and end of your story. They don’t always share even screen time, though. You may have a very short first act, or a concise second act. That’s fine. So long as the scenes in each section do what they’re supposed to.

  • Act One – Here, we set the scene. Introduce your characters, establish their primary goals, and present the inciting incident that will propel the action of your narrative.
  • Act Two – This is your story’s meat. Rising action should carry through every scene. Keep upping the stakes while evolving your characters, and don’t make things easy for them. Use the midpoint to give them a fall, set them back, or change the game entirely.
  • Act Three – Everything comes to a head. Gather all your loose ends into a finished conclusion. Deliver on the promises set up in the first act, follow through on any themes, and – finally – release all that rising tension.

Determine Your Scene’s Place and Purpose

If your scene feels a little hollow, it helps to figure out where it belongs and what it’s supposed to be doing. For example, if the scene sits at the end of the first act, make sure it fulfills multiple introductory purposes. Do readers learn something new about the character and/or their goals? Is the threat revealed yet? Sometimes, going back to early scenes after you’ve finished your first draft is the best way to flesh them out with little hints and promises that support your third act.

Second act scenes are probably the hardest. Lots of writers lose steam writing first drafts right around the midpoint. According to the three act plot structure, though, this is just where you should shake things up and make them interesting again. Make life difficult for your characters and shake off that writer’s block!

Scenes in the third act should link back in some way to the first act, especially during the climax and denouement. Remember where you started. If you’re having trouble with these scenes, go back to the beginning and look around for loose ends and unfulfilled hints. Trust us, they’re there.

Does Your Scene Have Three Acts?

In many ways, each scene is an act unto itself. You establish who is present, where they are present, and what they are doing. They proceed with a conversation, task, thought, or some combination of the three. A good scene ends with some kind of revelation, advancement, or implied threat. This pattern should look familiar. If your scene moves too slowly, you may be focusing too much on the first act. Try skipping those furniture descriptions and moving into the second act a little sooner.

Remember, there is no wrong or right way to build a scene. But even if you prefer a less-rigid writing style in general, three act structure can help you hone the little things. Despite its name, this outline method helps you see and tweak your project to work as a whole.


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