Archives for category: Three Act Structure


In the February 2020 Writing Tip on Patreon, I discussed the importance of the three-act structure for your screenplay, novel, or story as a means for maintaining narrative momentum and viewer/reader interest.
In the January 2020 Movie Review on Patreon, I gave a detailed analysis of the film Captain Marvel, which earned worldwide box office of over a billion dollars and made the screenwriter the hottest property in Hollywood. I watched the film twice, the second time with a stop watch and a notepad and pencil. The writer hit all the right marks.
And so should you. After you’ve finished a complete first draft (or second draft or tenth) and you’re still struggling to make the story move, consider analyzing the story with a three-act structure in mind.
In this post, I’m going to analyze my novel, Summer of Love, which remains my bestselling book (both in ebook format and as a trade paperback) after I first published it in the 1990s with Bantam Books (a division of Random House). The book was a Finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award and a San Francisco Chronicle Recommended Book of the Year.
: For the Bast Books edition, I edited out some 20,000 words of youthful excess and the book is still 100,000+ words.
Some fans, the kind of reader who rereads the book every year (seriously) didn’t like the edits and complained about the deletions (which this kind of fan notices).
Some fans appreciated and loved the edits and sent me emails saying “Thank you for doing this.”
You can’t please everyone, as the Ricky Nelson song goes, so you as a writer must do what you know is right. Editing out the excess verbiage made the three-act structure become clear to me and also clarified the relationships between the three main characters. Editing was definitely the right thing to do, and the book is much better.
Now then.
Summer of Love has its own internal complex structure. I found seven key days over the historical summer of 1967 during which some notable celebration occurred.  Within those seven days, three point-of-view characters tell their personal stories and perspectives on the events.
So there are twenty-one chapters. The trade paperback is 404 pages long.
Susan Bell (a.k.a. Starbright) is a fourteen-year-old runaway to San Francisco, to the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood where the Summer of Love took place.
Chiron Cat’s in Draco is a twenty-one-year-old time traveler from five hundred years in the future who has journeyed to 1967 on a vital mission to save the Universe.
And Ruby A. Maverick is a thirty-year-old, half-black half-white shop owner, a successful “hip proprietor,” who is a long-time resident of the neighborhood and the moral center of the story.
Act One is the setup of your main characters—where they start out in the story, a physical description of them, their motivations and goals, the initial obstacles set out for them, their initial physical actions.
Also, you should set up the location where the action takes place—but don’t get too hung up on this, you’ll have plenty of room to develop further location details as you go along. Also don’t get too hung up on physical descriptions of the characters—this too can be further developed.
In Act One, that’s a lot of material and complications to cover. Because an effective Act One should only be about 25 or 30 percent of the total length of the project. Act One should end with the plot spinning off in a new surprising different direction for your characters.
In Summer of Love, Act One is comprised of the first five chapters, ending at page 121, 29% exactly of the total length. (I’ll attempt to put as few plot spoilers in this analysis as possible!)
In Chapters One and Four, Susan arrives in San Francisco at dawn. She’s seeking her former estranged best friend, Nance, who ran away to the Haight-Ashbury a month earlier and sent her a postcard. Susan knows no one, has a limited amount of money. She meets a rock-n-roll band she idolizes and is seduced by their manager. She goes to live in the band’s communal house, works for free for them, and is sucked into the Haight-Ashbury life. She briefly meets Ruby, with whom she has a contentious meeting.
In Chapters Two and Five—(Note the book is internally structured on a round-robin between the three characters) Chiron also arrives in San Francisco via a time machine from the far future. He sets out on his vital mission, why he’s been sent here, and compares and contrasts 1967 with his own future time. Using a guideline, he seeks and finds Ruby at her shop, and is taken in by her. He works for a wage at the shop, lives in a room in her quarters above the shop, and sets about the investigative work he needs to do to accomplish his mission.
In Chapter Three, Ruby gives her personal view of the 1960s, her former relationship with the band’s manager, the idealism of the counterculture and also the corruption already beginning. She is suspicious of Chi and perhaps starting a new relationship with Leo Gorgon, a radical anarchist.
Chapter Six begins with a brief POV by Susan as she is betrayed by the band’s manager and wants to leave the band’s communal house, then switches to Ruby’s POV, as she encounters Susan again.
The plot spins in a new direction when the contentious meeting between Ruby and Susan becomes sympathetic. Ruby insists that Susan come to stay with her and Susan first meets Chiron, who wonders if she is the breakthrough he’s searching for to accomplish his mission.
Act Two, Chapters 6 through 16, involves mounting complications and difficulties for all the characters, and complications between them too, over that fateful summer. Also the community’s historical escalating violence and corruption. (No plot spoilers!)
Act Two ends when, again, you spin the plot and the characters off in a surprising new direction, which begins Act Three.
Act Three should only comprise 20% or 25% of the total project, during which you must accelerate the action and the fulfillment of the characters’ goals until you reach the denouement and conclusion.
Note:  I read a Booker Prize winning very long novel that dragged out Act Three so much, I no longer cared what happened to the characters at the end and skimmed through too many tedious pages to get to the freakin’ end, already. Don’t be that author.
To read my final analysis of Act Three of Summer of Love and to discover the very important Midpoint, please go to my Patreon page at
. Friends, readers, and fans, help me after the Attack. I’ve posted delightful new stories and previously published stories, writing tips, book excerpts, movie reviews, original healthy recipes and health tips, and more exclusively for my heroic patrons! I’m offering a critique of your writing sample per submission.
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Here ‘tis. (Next up is the March 2020 Writing Tip: A Three-Act Analysis of Summer of Love)
5.0 out of 5 stars I dig this book!
Reviewed in the United States on March 11, 2020
“Summer of Love is a beautiful work of literature encapsulated within the science-fiction genre. It invites you on an emotionally jostling roller coaster ride.
Lisa Mason is a prolific author who weaves a time-travel story that delves into many underlying themes at a micro and macro level during the famous “Summer of Love” pandemic in Haight Ashbury, San Francisco, in 1967.
The author also descends underneath the epidermis of the street’s kaleidoscopic and “groovy” ambiance to reveal what is and what is not through each character’s eyes — and whether or not we can rely on hope to wake us up the next morning.
I felt the characters (even the secondary ones), the moments, the sights, the sounds and the smells of the time. As if I myself was time traveling. I found myself not only reading but tasting each word; sometimes going back to read a sentence, a paragraph or a page again.
This is a novel I will not hesitate to recommend.”
Find the PRINT BOOK in the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Japan.
The ebook is on US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, BarnesandNoble, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo. On Kindle worldwide in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands.
So there you have it, my friends. Whether you’re a longtime reader or new to the book, I hope you enjoy this classic.
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Beginning, middle, and end.
The three act structure.
Sounds simple?
It should be. Storytellers sitting around a campfire in a prehistoric cave followed this natural progression of a story. You, the writer, should too. You, the reader or viewer, should look for that. If you’re having problems liking a film, story, or book, the first suspect is a writer who doesn’t understand three-act structure and doesn’t shape her/his material to follow it.
This is why Quentin Tarantino’s film, “Pulp Fiction,” profane and violent and experimentally plotted as it is, works. Even though plots are left in mid-stream to be finished later and a number of “chapters” are labeled, the film rigorously follows three-act structure.
And this is why Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, “Once Upon a Time….in Hollywood,” is in my opinion a failure. Aside from the fact that the film leads the viewer on a manipulative mind-tease about the real-life horrific, brutal, senseless murders of Sharon Tate, her unborn baby, and six other people (and the many other objections I have), first and foremost, it is a meandering mess.
This is why “Captain Marvel,” which I analyzed in detail here and on my Patreon page, earned worldwide box office of over a billion dollars. Because the screenwriter rigorously followed the three-act structure, even with a complex plot with a lot science fictional material happening, plus a moving personal story.
Beginning, middle, and end.
Many storytellers do this naturally, but if you’re struggling with a piece, look first to this problem.
Sounds simple, but what do I mean, exactly?
Many how-to-write experts will tell you to start with “an inciting incident.” An action-packed opening that draws the reader in, wanting to know more.
That’s good advice, as far as it goes. Five bad beginnings, as I saw in a recent how-to-write article, are (1) having your character dreaming some action sequence and then waking up to find, well, it was all a dream, (2) a description of the weather, (3) a description of an impossibly gorgeous character, (4) having your impossibly gorgeous character look at herself or himself in a mirror (5) having a character furiously being chased through a woods, precariously climbing a mountain, or whatever.
In good hands, any of these may work (Gone With The Wind springs to mind, “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom noticed that” and then Mitchell goes on for the first entire page to describe Scarlett’s looks), but you don’t want to tempt fate.
But wait, isn’t the inciting incident supposed to be exciting?
In a writing workshop I attended years ago, the teacher read the action-packed opening scene of a mountaineer scaling a treacherous mountain, slipping, falling, continuing to climb. The problem? It was boring! Boring because we readers didn’t connect with the character.
I’ve seen this same problem in many, many YA books.
Whatever ordeal or ordinary situation you put your character through in the inciting incident, you must make the character believable and sympathetic. You must connect the reader to the character in an emotional way so that the reader cares what happens next—to the character, first most, not necessarily the plot.
Even in a prologue—like in Water for Elephants by Sarah Gruen—that skips ahead to a later point in the plot, you must connect to the characters to the reader in a sympathetic way.
I’ve often told writers seeking advice, you have no plot without character.
But the beginning is just that—a set up of characters, time, place, and yes the initial glimmerings of a plot.
The beginning should take up about a quarter of your screenplay, story, or novel during which you should plant plot points of what is to come later. I always admire a good setup and good plot points that are then later “paid off.”
You reach the end of Act One, and initiate Act Two with a surprising plot twist that sends the action spinning in an unexpected direction. Take all your characters set up in Act One and send them on a quest, into a war zone, into betrayal by a lover, into a problematic marriage, into capture by hostile aliens.
The choice is yours, but make it a doozy.
To read the rest of the February Writing Tip, about Act Two and Act Three, friends, readers, and fans, please join my Patreon page at and help me after the Attack. I’ve posted delightful new stories and previously published stories, writing tips, book excerpts, movie reviews, original healthy recipes and health tips, and more exclusively for my heroic patrons! I’m offering a critique of your writing sample on Tier Five.
Visit me at for all my books, ebooks, stories, and screenplays, reviews, interviews, blogs, roundtables, adorable cat pictures, forthcoming works, fine art and bespoke jewelry by my husband Tom Robinson, worldwide links, and more!