My 3 Act example

To follow the last post, as an example, I’ll use my character Fred (Fred appears in many of my classes). Fred’s intense desire is to climb Mt Everest, to prove he is not an unemployed loser. He’s been out of work for a while, his dad is giving him a hard time, and his mother is, too. Mt Everest is his dream, what keeps him going on his worst days. When the story opens, we see Fred coping with all of this, looking for a job, wondering if he’ll have to sell his house. Then his father dies (inciting incident). Apart from his natural grief, Fred feels some relief that his dad is off his back. And also, Fred hopes Dad has left him some money. Then he can do something with his life. Underneath, Fred believes Dad has always thought Fred was a failure. This might be his chance.

On his way to the reading of the will, Fred passes a mountain climbing store that is advertising Everest climbs. This is his dream, suddenly attainable. Fred goes in, pays every last cent he has as a non-refundable deposit, and heads off toe the lawyer’s office, whistling cheerily. At the reading of the will, Fred discovers Dad has left it all to Mum, and warned her that Fred is a wastrel and not to give him anything. From the grave, Dad is still telling Fred he’s a failure. (Some people would argue this is the inciting incident – it doesn’t matter as long as action is propelling the story forward strongly.)

When Fred tries to persuade Mum to give him a few thousand, and is forced to reveal the reason (Everest), Mum shows she has a nasty streak of her own, and refuses, repeating the “failure” lines that Dad has always spouted. When Fred finally goes back to the mountain climbing store to try and get his deposit back, he meets Gloria, who is going to lead the Everest climb. He falls for her and, desperate not to have this wonderful woman also think he’s a pathetic failure, he agrees to somehow find the money and go on the expedition. (First turning point.)

Now, this is not War and Peace! This is just my example of how these structural elements work. In terms of character, Fred is impulsive, a bit of a dreamer, but likeable. He’s just been weighed down his whole life by parents who think he’s useless. Despite his flaws, Fred acts. He often makes poor or impulsive decisions, but he does make them! He doesn’t spend his life on the couch, dreaming.

The second turning point

When a major change in the story happens at the second turning point, it moves the story towards the climax, which happens inside Act III. In Fred’s case, that second turning point will probably come during the Everest climb. There will be a life-or-death climax, and Fred will come home older, wiser and less of a failure (unless his story is a tragedy).

Knowing this structure and using it helps avoid several things – predictability, boring one-track storylines, lack of surprise, lack of action and movement forward. But it can also lead to a major flaw – a sagging middle act. If the writer is aware of this, though, they can take steps to avoid it. One sure way is to constantly raise the stakes. Make things worse for the main character in some way. We often talk about a mid-act climax. This doesn’t mean a high point – usually it means the opposite. It’s the lowest point in the character’s arc, the moment where things look their absolute darkest.

Next I’ll look at the hero’s journey!

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