Acts of a Story

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I’m slowly outlining a series where every book has a 4 Act structure.  It’s rather defined too with a ‘mini-climax’ occurring at the end of each section.  This has been the style for this series for a while, but I’m finally getting a closer look at it.  In fact, I’m seeing how my other books have acts in some form.  Take Beginning of a Hero (you can for 99 cents!):

Act 1– Luke gets to the academy and starts his adventure.
Act 2– Luke deals with the Hellfire Elf.
Act 3– Luke deals with the Lich.

Going by this division, I can see a few things about writing a story with ‘acts’ that I never noticed before.  So I’m going to list them here and see what people think.

  1. Not every act is the same length.  Some are big at 6 chapters while others can run only 3.  It’s not the size that should matter, but the content.
  2. You don’t have to define the acts or make them obvious, but you should have some type of ‘action’.  If an entire book has mild cut-offs for legs of an adventure then it’ll come off as one long act.  This could lose readers.
  3. It doesn’t hurt to give titles to your chapters when working with acts.  This can help define them more and you can give big titles too.  Right now I’m thinking of not putting titles on my chapters because I have multiple events happen in each one.  For example, a chapter in Legends of Windemere can have Luke talking to Kira, Delvin exploring Bor’daruk, and Nyx battling a demon in a volcano.
  4. There’s probably a limit on how many acts you can have in a story.  I’d go with 5 only because of Shakespeare.  Then again, I could easily be wrong here.
  5. Acts is a tough word to say while paying attention to your voice.  It sounds like ‘axe’ when I say it, but I know there are other ways.  Definitely a word that one should say quickly and not linger on.

So, what do you think about acts in stories?  Do you do it without noticing?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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43 Responses to Acts of a Story

  1. I do it on purpose, and outline with it in mind. Three acts for me.

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  2. sknicholls says:

    Acts are essential when setting up your story arc. It’s what I was missing in RC&R. I didn’t outline that book, but I do with all my work now.

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    • Kind of like episodes too. I never really set out for acts though. Ever think there are acts in RC&R that are more subtle than people realize?

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      • sknicholls says:

        I’m sure there are the way the story is told. Act I is learning of the good doctor through others. Act II is Althea’s tragedy and resolution, Part Two has two Acts, the first being Sybil and Nathan’s relationship, the second her life without him. I supposed the conclusion is also another Act. I wrote it linearly, without an outline. It’s a natural progression of events…never really thought of it’s divisions. Naked Alliances certainly was structured differently. I outlined it.

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      • I remember being told that it’s like growing up. Childhood, adulthood, and senior years. Even smaller divisions there too.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Sue Coletta says:

    I’m a big proponent of the four act structure, but having all the same length. 25% each. Have you ever read Story Engineering by Larry Brooks? He goes into this in detail. I think you’d find it interesting. I know it helped me a great deal.

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    • To be honest, I’ve never read any books on how to write and story structure. I kind of take stuff from the fiction I’m reading. Not sure I can do a 25% across the board thing with this series. Some might be longer than others. Depends on how it comes out. Not by much from the look of a few of them.

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  4. tpolen says:

    I started using a beat sheet designed for three acts. Really helps me keep on track.

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  5. Reblogged this on Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog and commented:
    AUTHORS & Readers – What do YOU think of what Charles is doing? 😀

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  6. I don’t do detailed outlines before starting to write, but I always have a definite climax in mind. As I go along creating the scenes, I do a sketchy mental outline for the next few scenes. My chapter divisions are inserted by “feel,” so sometimes need to be adjusted during the revision process. Just for fun, I applied your illustration to the plot of my first book (The Friendship of Mortals), and indeed it does seem to follow that structure. Which suggests that books are organic entities that develop by structural laws, whether their authors know it or not. Interesting post!

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    • I was leaning toward the organic entity idea too. Seems very natural and can be broken down even further sometimes. In another comment, I mentioned seeing it compared to human life stages. That really rings true at times.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I.l.l.u.m.i.n.a.t.i.n.g. Thank you. 🙂

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  8. Now I’ll have to start counting. 🙂

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  9. mgill0627 says:

    Very interesting. I swear by “Save the Cat,” by Blake Snyder for story structure. You example has similar points.

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  10. noelleg44 says:

    I’ve never thought about this before but I might take some time and do it for each of my books so far. Mostly I’ve been keeping track of the up and down of tension and excitement, trying to keep people hooked.

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  11. I still like three axes. Good conversation.

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  12. Because of the occult theme of my latest work I deliberately split it into three acts with thirteen chapters in each act. I’m going to compare your diagram with how the acts shaped out, and with three protagonists it should be quite interesting.
    Chris

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  13. I use a 3-act structure, trying to keep it at roughly the same size. However, I also add a prologue and epilogue. The former allows me to break the rather rigid time frame (often by narrating events that happened much earlier) and introduce the book’s theme, while the latter sets up the next book.

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  14. Pingback: Friday Finds: Week 26 | Avid Reader

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