Turning Points: Three Act Structure for Novelists
There’s no magic formula for writing a fabulous book. But there are formulas that offer guidelines for constructing a satisfying plot. Scriptwriters have long used the three act structure handed down from theater, with additional “turning points” as guidelines indicating when to include high and low moments and surprises.
Doug Eboch, writer of the movie Sweet Home Alabama, scriptwriting teacher, and author of The Three Stages of Screenwriting (and my brother) says, “These ideas date back to Aristotle; they’re not some new Hollywood formula. Three Act Structure is really just a way to talk about literary concepts. So, for example, the first act is the section where we set up the character, their dilemma and the stakes; the second act is where the character faces increasing obstacles to that dilemma; and the third act is where we get the resolution.”
Following this format doesn’t mean the result will be perfect, but, “If you understand the concepts, they can help identify and solve problems in your story, or even prevent problems from occurring in the first place,” Doug says. “Think about acts and turning points as a way to organize your story and make sure you stay on track.”
Many authors find three act structure helpful when writing books. Cece Barlow, author of the team novel Plumb Crazy, says, “I adhere to five turning points: the moment everything changes (in the first chapter), the decision that launches the adventure, quest, journey, search, etc. (in the third to fifth chapter), the point of no return (always at the mid-point), the darkest hour (70 to 80 percent in), and finally the climax (directly after the darkest hour).”
When to Think about Structure
Most writers don’t focus on structure at the beginning of a new project, however. If you are a “pantser” who prefers to figure it out as you go along, that’s fine. Follow your characters and see what happens. Write a few drafts to figure out what you want to say, what the story is about, and where it’s going.
Janet Fox, author of middle grade and young adult books including The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle, follows this process. “I need to let my imagination soar and not be constrained by any kind of road map during my first and sometimes even second drafts. When I revise more deeply, however, that’s a different story. I really believe in the structure and in the importance of turning points, and need to impose that structure on my loose and random story. It helps to remind me that stories have universal elements that appeal to us all. Some of those universal elements are embedded in the structure.”
Story structure can be used earlier in the process as well. Personally, I like to thoroughly brainstorm and outline before starting. Matching scenes on the outline to traditional turning points is a way to identify weak spots or to discover when important plot points are happening too late in the story. This allows me to add complications or shift scenes around before I start writing.
Having an outline that includes turning points saves me a lot of time in the long run – at least two or three drafts. This was especially valuable when I first went from writing 35,000-word middle grade novels to an 80,000-word romantic suspense (written as Kris Bock). I wanted to make sure I had enough plot action to sustain a novel that long, and the outline helped. By the time I came to the end of the first draft, I had all the elements in place for the book that became The Mad Monk’s Treasure.
Tools, Not Rules
Whether you start with plot structure or consider it only after a couple of drafts, checking your work for turning points can ensure the story feels well-plotted and satisfying. But that doesn’t mean you have to force a story to fit the “rules” precisely.
“It’s more important to understand the concepts behind the structure than to take a fill-in-the-blank type of approach,” Doug says. “Sometimes people focus on the idea that the act one turning point should happen on page 28 [of a screenplay]. But the reason we bother identifying an act one turning point at all is that it’s the place where the hero takes on the problem and gets locked into the story. Without that, there’s no tension because the hero could just walk away at any time. It’s far more important that the act one turning point fulfill those requirements than that it fall on a certain page.
“Similarly, the act two turning point is the place where the hero seems as far as possible from what the final resolution of the story will be,” he adds. “This is important because it creates suspense and unpredictability. That’s what drives the suspense of act three.”
As a scriptwriting teacher, Eboch has many chances to see what works and what doesn’t. “Many beginning writers get into their story too late. Often, they don’t introduce the problem until the act one turning point and don’t trap their character in the story until the midpoint.” It’s not enough to have something happen, just because you need a turning point. “Many beginning writers have major events happen at the turning points that are unrelated to each other or even the main character.”
While turning points may seem simple on the surface, they are not a paint-by-numbers solution to plotting. Doug says, “All the turning points should be related to your main character and main story line and to each other. And each should be the result of the main character’s actions and choices. So even if the second act turning point involves the villain getting the best of the hero, the villain should be taking that action in response to what the hero’s done before. The turning points should grow out of what the character wants in the story and what obstacles stand in the way of that goal, including internal obstacles.”
Three act structure isn’t the only option, and even scriptwriting guides vary in how they list and explain structural turning points. Various resources identify and name turning points differently, but here’s a basic list of the most important ones:
- Act 1 (the first 25%): Introduction of the character and situation.
- The Inciting Incident/Catalyst (in the opening pages): Something that introduces a problem or goal for the main character.
- Plot Point One/Act 1 Break (about 25% of the way in): The point of no return, when the character embarks on the journey.
- Act 2 (the middle 50%): The character tries to solve the problem but faces escalating obstacles and rising stakes.
- Midpoint (in the middle of Act 2): A moment of seeming success, but it may twist the story in a new direction or raise the stakes.
- Plot Point Two/Act 2 Break (at the 75% mark): The moment when failure seems inevitable.
- Act 3 (the final 25%):
- Climax/Resolution: The big final scene where the character ultimately succeeds or fails.
Keep It Natural
Regardless of which structural template you use, or how you adapt it, the key is to understand the purpose of turning points and make sure they fit naturally into your story. Writers can get into trouble if they add random twists whenever they reach a turning point. Think of turning points and three act structure as tools you can use to build a better story, but don’t let the tools use you. Understand the purpose of these tools and how they function, and they can help you build a better novel.
Advanced Plotting, by Chris Eboch, includes essays by Doug Eboch and Janet Fox on using turning points, plus tons of other plotting advice.
The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler, explores the Hero’s Journey, another way of defining structure.
Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder, is a screenwriting guide that covers 15-beat structure. The Save the Cat website offers links to blog posts, podcasts, workshops, and online tools.
The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master, by Martha Alderson, and Alderson’s blog, explore plot structure.
Chris Eboch is the author of over 40 books for children, including nonfiction and fiction, early reader through teen. Her novels for ages nine and up include The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy; and the Haunted series, about kids who travel with a ghost hunter TV show.
Her writing craft books include Advanced Plotting and You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers.
Chris also writes for adults under the name Kris Bock. Kris Bock writes action-packed romantic suspense involving outdoor adventures and Southwestern landscapes. The Mad Monk’s Treasure follows a treasure hunt in New Mexico and Whispers in the Dark involves intrigue among ancient Southwest ruins. What We Found is a mystery with romantic elements about a young woman who finds a murder victim in the woods. Read excerpts at www.krisbock.com or visit her Amazon page.