Horror Writing

Horror Writing: The Three Act Structure

1, 2, 3 …

In my last letter, I mentioned the typical three-act structure that is present in most stories.

Today I want to talk a little bit more about this, as while it is not a complicated part of story craft it is where a lot of writers come into problems. What I mean by that is that whenever a story doesn’t quite ‘feel right’ or leaves the audience unhappy or unsatisfied, it’s usually because something in the three-act structure has gone wrong.

What is the Three Act Structure?

The Three Act Structure is a simple, but effective, way of structuring a story. It allows you as the writer/creator to craft a story in such a way that will engage your audience and leave them feeling satisfied at the end of the experience.

If you can follow this structure and work your story into each part well and organically, then your story will work. However, if any part of the structure is rushed through or forced in then your audience isn’t going to enjoy your story as well as they could had you followed the structure.

The First Act

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Your first act is your introduction, this is where your audience will meet your characters, your world and your plot will begin. You should use this initial part of your story to introduce everyone, explain their relationships with each other (show don’t tell!) and establish the driving point of the story.

However, with the above being said you really should work hard to avoid exposition. You will need to do the above in a natural and believable way. You should keep in mind the golden rule of writing, show doesn’t tell and don’t tell us who everyone is, how they relate with each other, how the world works, show us instead. Have events happen in the story that allows you to show us your characters etc. Remember your writing an engaging story, not a ‘facts about X’ book.

Usually, the driving point, also known as the inciting incident, will come towards the end of the first act, but it doesn’t have to, having it come early in the first act can give you what you need to establish characters, relationships and the world. But be careful of throwing your audience in head first, there does need to be a moment to allow your audience to find their feet with your characters and world.

The Second Act

The second act naturally follows on from the first act, this is where your action really gets going, where your character starts to combat the activity going on around them.

This will be the longest act of all three, the action can escalate and deescalate as the tension rises and falls according to the story. This is where the ‘meat’ of your story will be, where your characters will gain the skills and talents needed to overcome the antagonist (be it a person or a situation), they may attempt to and fail a few times but will continue to develop in this stage of the story.

The Third Act

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This is the conclusion, the ending, the grand final of your story and will probably be the shortest of all three acts.

You must remember that for your audience to leave your story satisfied you must have an ending which reflects the scales you raised in the story. Having an epic story that is resolved without a struggle etc. is going to be unsatisfying.

If you are writing a series then you will still need a resolution at this point, you won’t have to resolve everything but something significant should be resolved, otherwise, this is not an ending. You do not need to resolve all the external threats as an example, instead you could leave those remaining but resolve the emotional challenges or vice versa, or a mixture of both, or the existing challenge could be resolved to reveal a larger one in the future.

What makes the Three Act Structure work

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In a word, consistency.

The three-act structure is a simple and effective way of structuring your story, but it will only work if you employ consistency in your writing. By consistency I mean have your characters behave in a way that reflects the established personality you have given them, they can grow and develop, in fact, they should, but you need to show that development before having them act in a way that reflects the development. It will be difficult for your audience to comprehend a character acting out of character if you do not show why that might happen.
You need to employ this level of consistency in all aspects of your story, the world, the characters, and the ‘rules’.

If you stick with the structure and write consistently then your story will be strong.

I'd love to hear what you think, please comment below.

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