Now you’ve got your stellar idea, let’s take a moment to discuss the foundation of all writing: structure. No matter your genre or writing style, this is for you! With the strong building blocks of structure, character, and scene under your belt, you’ll be primed for novel success!
The Three Act Structure is a foundation of your novel, whether your writing romance, thriller, or steam-punk action/adventure with an alien twist. Today we’ll cover the length and importance of each of these acts, and then we’ll see how that structure plays out in a generational favorite: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone! If you’re like the one person who hasn’t read or watched HP, be warned, there are spoilers!
Act 1 – 15-25%
In this act, your characters are introduced. We get a glimpse of their daily life before something disturbs their world. This disturbance kicks off the problem of the story. At the end Act 1, there will be a turning point that thrusts the main character (MC) into the next step of the story. Note: Make sure at the end of turning point number one that there’s no going back!
Act 1 in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
In act one we get a good look at what Harry’s life is like: he lives in a spider-infested cupboard with a truly horrific family. The disturbance comes in the form a letter. This letter sets off a chain reaction that leads to the first turning point: Hagrid’s arrival which is when Harry learns about Hogwarts and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. (19%)
Act 2a – 25-30%
Welcome to the murky middle. In this quarter, the MC is fighting toward something (he or she may or may not know their goal yet)… and losing. He or she is going about things all wrong and for every step forward the MC gets knocked two to five steps back. At the end of this act, the very middle of the novel, something happens to make the MC take a good look at his or her prior beliefs and decides a change is needed–turning point number two.
Act 2a in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
After a trip to Diagon Alley in which they pick up a mysterious package (important set up for later events) and Harry makes an enemy of Draco Malfoy. Then his problems begin in earnest. He can’t get on the platform to get to school, the Sorting Hat wants to put him in Slytherin, Snape hates him, and the list could go one. He takes blow after blow, and doesn’t even know why yet. So what’s Harry “something” that makes him take a look at what he’s previously believed? Nearly getting eaten by Fluffy, who he realizes is guarding the mysterious package. (52%)
Act 2b – 25-30%
The MC goes about trying to implement this new change… and gets knocked on his or her backside. During this section the MC will be collecting tools–physical or mental–that they’ll need in Act 3. At the end of this act comes turning point number three. This is a big confrontation in which the MC is so thoroughly defeated and alone that everyone hates him or her and it doesn’t seem like there’s any way back.
Act 2b in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Harry is determined to figure out what Fluffy is guarding, except he’s dealing with the small matters of a troll (and not of the internet hater variety), an attempt on his life during Quidditch, and the sirens’ call of his parents’ in the Mirror of Erised. Little did he know these would be important skills in the next act. Harry’s third turning point comes when he’s caught after sneaking Norbert the dragon out of the tower at midnight. They lose Gryffindor a collective 150 points (so EVERYONE hates them) and are sentenced to a night in the Forbidden Forest. (78%)
Act 3 – 25%
Surprise, surprise. The MC gets back up! He or she gathers all the knowledge (and physical weapons if that’s you’re genre) and gears up for the final “battle.” In this showdown, the MC finally overcomes all the obstacles and achieves their goal–be it getting the girl or conquering the galaxy.
Act 3 in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Harry and crew go down the trap door! The three of them use the skills they’ve gathered throughout the novel–casting spells, flying brooms, playing chess, etc.–to conquer every obstacle. Then he comes face-to-face with Quirrell who is a host for Voldemort himself. He uses his knowledge of the Mirror of Erised to get the Sorcerer’s Stone and fights with everything he has! He lives–there are another six books after all–and their points are restored. Take that Slytherin!
James Scott Bell’s favorite image to describe the three-act structure is a bridge:
The key foundational elements here are the two [or three] pillars, or pylons. These pillars are set down into the bedrock, allowing the suspension cables to support a solid and secure platform–the bridge itself.
When you ignore structure, your novel can begin to feel like one of those rope bridges swinging wildly in the wind over a 1000-foot gorge. Not many readers are going to want to go across.
It really is that important.
Want to dive deeper into structure? Check out the structure section of my Guide to Craft of Fiction books! Pick up your free copy here. These are books I’ve read and find highly valuable. I promise they’ll be worth your time.
Novelists, tell me your opinion! What aspect of structure do you struggle with the most? Tell me in the comments!
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