Understanding the Three Act Structure

Okay… there have been times before that I’ve expressed my distaste for the three act structure, as I previously understood it. Basically, I didn’t understand what differentiated Act II and Act III… I got the crossing of the point-of-no-return from Act I to Act II, but I was under the impression that Act III was just the “wrapping up” of the story. 

A couple of nights ago, I listened to the Writing Excuses podcast, which I’ve newly discovered, and absolutely love, and specifically, Season 2, Episode 8, which is on the three act structure. One of them (I haven’t been listening long enough to tell them all apart easily, and since I was listening before falling asleep, I’m a bit hazy on the details anyway) said that if he defined Act II as “try and fail, try and fail, try and fail,” he defined the crossing point from Act II as “try, fail, and learn” in that the characters have still failed what they were trying to do, but that they learned some critical piece of information that prepared them to go into the final battle and win.

I highly recommend you go listen to the podcast now, because there’s a lot of good information, it’s only 15 minutes long, and it’s free and easily accessible. 

The other source of information that I’ve found on Three Act structure is one of the writing books I checked out of the library last week, Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure, by James Scott Bell. I’ve only read the first few chapters so far… he definitely has a knack for naming and defining elements of writing. 

His chapter on the three-act structure is a great example of that… he describes it as “A Disturbance and Two Doors.” The idea is that the disturbance happens in Act I. Up until the Disturbance, your protagonist (or what he calls the Lead) has just been living his or her life. Then the disturbance happens, and at that point, a door presents itself. If the protagonist doesn’t go through that door (basically, chooses to walk away from the conflict) then the rest of the story doesn’t happen. But if he or she does go through that door, then you’re in Act II. (And later, the second door takes you into Act III.) 

What I like about this view of it, is that walking through the door is something that the protagonist deliberately has to do… she has to make a choice.

One of the things I realized in writing my first draft of Dexter Moon is that far too often, Dexter and Marie seem to be just along for the ride… This bit of explanation cements that in my mind, and one of the things I’ll be focusing on in my revision is finding a way for Dexter to literally make that choice to walk through that doorway early on in the story.

Quick Editing Update

So, I’ve been writing a lot about what I’ve been reading lately, and though I’ve considered yet another post about Twilight (which I finished last night while playing the surprisingly addictive iPod touch game, TapDefense), and am definitely planning one on Emily Climbs, by L.M. Montgomery, I kind of wanted to write a quick update about editing Dexter Moon.

So, I’m currently about 30 pages into my first draft… the first few scenes were definitely the most difficult, because I had to figure out what I wanted to do with the opening, and then there were a couple of scenes right off the bat that weren’t quite right, and weren’t quite wrong, either. But for now, things are going fairly smoothly… I hope to get another 20 or so pages done this afternoon. 

And, I found someone to Beta Read my first draft for me, which is exciting.

Also, I wanted to throw this out there if anyone interested. This idea is one I’m stealing from Jinx, over at Brain Lag. In short, I’m offering to trade NaNovels with anyone who’s interested. The catch is that we won’t qualify our trades with any preambles. No, not even about the bad grammer, or the un-spellchecked typos. Definitely not about the dropped storylines, or the way one of your characters’ names changed three times in the course of the first hundred pages.

I traded with Jinx, and there’s something so freeing about knowing that your unedited raw work is just out there in the world, being seen by someone other than yourself. Plus, it’s fun to see what other people have written.

If you’re interested, just leave a comment, or e-mail me.

A flash of inspiration.

So, I spent much of my free time today on I-10, and not much on Dexter Moon, but I wanted to at least get the first few steps of taking notes done tonight, because I know I’m going to have no time at all to do it tomorrow.

I wrote down my main theme, which has pretty much been the same for the entire project, and then started trying to come up with subthemes. One that struck me is one that I realize I’ve danced around several times, but never really put into words until tonight. How do we survive after tragedy?

This whole “defining a theme” thing is great, because it makes things simple–either what you’ve written fits somehow, or it doesn’t. And if there’s something you like, but doesn’t fit, you turn it into a theme, and figure out how to tie other scenes into it. (Within reason, of course.)

And as I was writing something else on the page, I saw that theme, and suddenly, it hit me. That’s how I tie Bolivia in. Or maybe it’s not Bolivia, maybe it’s something else, but suddenly, that thread that followed Marie in the beginning (and then got accidently dropped) has purpose. It fits. And I can do something with it.

Happy dance!

Changing Gears… or not.

So, I did read my current draft of Interstate-10 this morning. I haven’t done that in over a year, probably. Thought about it, took some notes, started writing things down… Learned some interesting things, caught a few little snippets of something interesting, started defining themes, subthemes, and story arcs, as described in One Pass Revision. And then I stopped.

It’s a tricky work. Bits of it have been written at two different times, and, as previously mentioned, I chopped out about 30,000 words. At least a couple of those scenes I remember, and remember kind of liking… The timeline is a mess.

It’s written in three different first person POVs, and I never really figured out how to balance that, so as not to throw people off. It mostly alternates between two of the main characters, and as those two are the strongest, in terms of character building, of the three main characters, I considered maybe just cutting it down to their two POVs… until I hit the last scene I’d written, in that third character’s point of view, and thought that maybe there was something there after all. And I have to say, it was that third character that kept pulling me back to the idea of this story as I was working on Dexter Moon.

But what really clinched was when I opened Scrivener, my main writing program, for something, and it asked if I wanted to open my most recent project, which was… Dexter Moon. 

I went, “aw.” And decided that I wanted to stay in that groove.

So I’m switching back to Dexter and Marie. I learned a lot about the project when I wrote that final scene, and I feel like I have an idea where I’m going with it. I’ll spend December editing and rewriting this novel, while I leave I-10 to marinate for a while. Dexter Moon is fresh, already present. I don’t want to lose my momentum on it. 

I-10’s been waiting for me… it can keep a bit longer. I may dip back into it occasionally as I work on the Dexter Moon edits, if something occurs to me. But I really think that I want to keep my focus on one project, on making this one project the best it can possibly be, before I move on to something else.

Tools for revision

So, using FedExKinkos’ PrintOnline service, I printed out my entire first draft for Dexter Moon, as well as my current working draft for I-10. Dexter Moon ended up coming in at 192 pages, and I-10 is 182 pages–Courier New 11-pt, double spaced (I knocked the font size down to save a bit on the cost. It’s still perfectly readable!). Altogether, it only cost $30 to print the two of them, which I figured was worth it since I don’t have access to a reliable printer. Plus, they each came in their own manuscript boxes, which is kind of exciting, in a geeky way. 

My plan now is to spend the next few weeks working on I-10, my 2006 NaNovel (and 2007 AugNovel), which is different from Dexter Moon in some big ways, particularly tone and POV (I-10 rotates between three first-person POVs). Also, it’s not finished, though I’d guess that probably a week or so of writing 1000-2000 words a day will get me to the end. 

But first, I’m going to read it. And reread it. And then maybe read it again.

I happen to like Holly Lisle’s One-Pass Revision Workshop, which I read ages and ages ago, and, because I read her blog (daily) have often seen how she puts into practice. I’ve never actually tackled a big revision like this before, but I like the idea of putting the big picture first and foremost, and mostly, not doing endless writing and rewriting and polishing. She advocates fixing what needs fixing, and leaving alone what doesn’t. 

I think some of it comes down to confidence in your own writing. I remember the first few times I did NaNoWriMo, or really, wrote any sort of fiction, and I had this feeling, as I was typing… It’s hard to describe, but it was as if half of my brain was writing, and the other half was reading what I was writing, and almost couldn’t believe that it could be that simple, that I could just make up these people, and what they were saying, and doing, and, and… There was an excitement to it, but also a kind of fear, and horror. What if it wasn’t good? I mean, really, what did I know? Who was I, to create these imaginary people and run their lives for them?

Eight years later, I have a certain amount of confidence in my ability to write, and to write well. I know that my first draft isn’t perfect, by any means, but I’ve become very confident in my writing style, which is heavy on the dialogue, (my aunt was looking through my printed manuscript, and said, “wow, you have a lot of dialogue!”) and not so heavy on beautiful imagery, poetic language, or long descriptive passages. I like that Holly Lisle gives you permission to have pristine, untouched, unedited pages, because they don’t need editing.

Anyway, going around the NaNoWriMo Writing 101 forum, there’s a link to a great article called an Editing Recipe, written by a NaNoWriMo participant. It’s the same kind of big picture style editing, and I think what it does is break down what Holly Lisle does in one pass into several steps that still result in only doing one major edit. And it starts with a lot of reading of your work, several times over, to get a feel for it, a sense of the pacing and flow, to check for problems and incontinuity, before starting any sort of real edits, so that the edits you make only need to be done once.

So, that’s what I’ll be doing this December. A few days to read, take notes, come up with a new ending, and then, write that new ending. I’m going to give myself until, say… December 10th for that. Then that leaves me 21 days to do edits. It would be great to get that done in December. 

And in January, once it’s had time to rest, I’ll go back to Dexter Moon.