Linear Structure: Acts

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The spaces between the turning points are called acts.
Acts are stories about the journey your protagonist is taking, made up of scenes strung together in chronological order, each one causing the next.

Acts

Think of each act as a short story or novella, complete in itself.  It has a protagonist and and an antagonist in a conflict over who will achieve her or his goal. It begins with an event that destroys stability, and ends with an event caused by protagonist and antagonist meeting in a climactic battle that changes everything, the outcome of which results in a new normal (there’s no going back to the way things were).

For all except the last act, that “climactic battle” doesn’t end the story, it ends the act that preceded it by changing the story so significantly that it feels as though everything that came before is finished.

Example:  In the first act of Welcome to Temptation, Sophie wants to protect her sister, Amy. But during the first act, she begins to fall in love with the mayor, and her story of “I just want to help my sister make a movie” changes into “I want to help my sister but I have to protect my lover, too.”  It’s the same novel, but the second act feels like a new story because it has a more complex plot and a much more difficult conflict.

Just like the turning points, each act shows the protagonist and the antagonist that the stakes are much higher than they thought, which makes them pick up the pace.  That means that the climax of each act has a greater intensity because the consequences are so much greater (turning points again), and that the acts get shorter as the story picks up speed, rushing toward the end.

There’s another reason the acts get shorter.  The first act is often almost a third of the book because it has so much it has to do–introduce the characters, the main conflict, and the subplots; establish the mood, tone, and setting; and get the reader invested in the protagonist and the story moving in its simplest form on the first page.  That’s a lot of stuff to accomplish while never letting the story sag, so it’s going to take up some real estate.

The last act is going to be the shortest because everything is done except for the final battle.  The protagonist has picked herself up, bloody but unbowed, and the last act is her charging back into battle, nothing left to lose.  The rest of the plot has been burned away by the conflict, so now it’s just the Final Battle and the resolution.  The last act may only be ten or fifteen percent of the story because things are moving so fast at that point that the story doesn’t need more room.

That leaves the middle acts–however many you feel you need–to handle the plot and character arc that take our protagonist from the low stakes of the first act to the everything-to-lose stakes of the last.  The middle acts are where complications arise, relationships become more complex, subplots kneecap the main plot, and everything in general just becomes more stressful for everybody, including the reader, as the protagonist fights ever more desperately for her constantly evolving goal.

The key to unifying a story’s separate acts is that the protagonist, her goal, and her antagonist never change.  Sophie will always sacrifice everything to protect her family; however her definition of what “save” and “family” mean changes because of the events of the plot.  Each act sharpens that goal and brings it into clearer focus as the protagonist learns more about herself and what she needs through her struggle with the antagonist.

Troubleshooting
If you’re having a hard time seeing each act as a narrative on its own, try giving your acts titles that show not only what the act is about, but how each act escalates, in order to focus that section of your story.

For other posts in this unit, see The Structure Unit Table of Contents

4 thoughts on “Linear Structure: Acts

  1. “Think of each act as a short story or novella, complete in itself.” This was an “ah ha” moment for me. I have trouble transitioning when I write. I didn’t even have wordage for my problem until I read this post. I think this is exactly the advice I need to fix my current story. Thank you! =)

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  2. carolc says:

    Do short stories and novellas have turning points and acts also? I would think they have to. Are they just shorter/fewer or are there other differences?

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    • Still talking about linear structure here (because there are many other kinds of structures), it depends on the length and complexity of the short story. Some short stories are just one scene. The longer the story is, the more complex it is likely to be, and the more you’ll need to look at structure as a way of making the story clear for the reader.
      So your short story may have only one scene or it may be the equivalent of an act, or it may be a microcosm of the novel structure with turning points. Structure always depends on the story being told; you choose the structure that best supports your narrative.

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