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Thread: The Three-Act structure

  1. #1
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin
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    Exclamation The Three-Act structure

    Hello! This thread will be similar -- and is related -- to the thread I started yesterday (or two days ago, I can't remember which :P), but it's still kind of a new question. I realized I might have caused some confusion in the last question, so this time I'll try to be more clear about what I mean.

    I have a fairly big story planned for this serial series I'm planning, but I'm having slight trouble structuring it into the three different acts. From how it looks like right now, the first novel will be kind of a more "related" prologue to the series -- I guess you could call it a longer Act 1 -- where I set up the story and the characters for the future novels, and then end it in a certain way that opens up a possibility for the real story I want told to be told. (Similar to the A Song of Ice And Fire-series; the first book: AGoT).

    My question to you: Can an entire book be one of the acts in a novel series, and contain multiple "smaller" acts? (What I mean is that the novel contains the different acts, just like any other would, but is still an Act 1 of the overall series).

  2. #2
    Travelling around the sun cbenoi1's Avatar
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    I think it would be easier to write the whole story and then chop it up in book-size chunks.


    > the first novel will be kind of a more "related" prologue to the series

    What if the first book doesn't sell?


    > {...} where I set up the story and the characters for the
    > future novels, and then end it in a certain way that opens
    > up a possibility for the real story I want told to be told.

    Wait. A book-length prologue? See my question above.


    -cb
    Last edited by cbenoi1; 12-07-2017 at 08:52 PM.

  3. #3
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin FrauleinCiano's Avatar
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    Unless those characters are growing throughout that "first act" novel, and is essentially broken down into its own Three Acts, I can't see too many sticking it through to read.

    Think about the Hunger Games for example. Three books, so three acts of an overarching story. However, in the first book, which does set up the characters and world, you can still break it down into the standard acts. Book Two Katniss is then thrust from what became her ordinary world into yet another change by living the life of a Champion. And the third book, much like a third act, seemingly changes tact. It's no longer focussed on just surviving the games, but from taking down the regime that created them.

  4. #4
    Return of the Coffee Shield Hoplite's Avatar
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    Yes, and it should.

    No novel is simply a prologue for the rest of the series. Each novel has its own story to tell, even if it's a small part of a greater story. Otherwise your reader will get bored before the end of your first novel and won't care to read future novels in the series.

    You specifically mention A Song of Ice and Fire (A Game of Thrones): AGoT had its own story (stories) and could be read and enjoyed without needing to read any further in the series. It didn't just introduce characters and set up future novels. It began and ended several major character story arcs by the end of the novel.

    Ancillary Justice did this as well: the first novel set up what was to come in the rest of the trilogy but it had its own story, with a beginning middle and end. If all it did was give an encyclopedia of character names and places I wouldn't have read past the second page.

  5. #5
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    Quote Originally Posted by cbenoi1 View Post
    I think it would be easier to write the whole story and then chop it up in book-size chunks.


    > the first novel will be kind of a more "related" prologue to the series

    What if the first book doesn't sell?


    > {...} where I set up the story and the characters for the
    > future novels, and then end it in a certain way that opens
    > up a possibility for the real story I want told to be told.

    Wait. A book-length prologue? See my question above.


    -cb
    It's not really that, a prologue of the series; the novel is still about what the future books will be, just ... somehow different. The characters have this common goal/dream, and start working towards it (partly fulfill them, also) in the first, but the ending of it will be where I kill off the character that caused them to want this too, and let the others promise that they will keep fulfilling it (I'd rather keep WHAT this goal is a secret).

  6. #6
    practical experience, FTW cornflake's Avatar
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    Does the first book stand alone, and have an entire, fulfilled plot, with a problem/goal, that's solved?

  7. #7
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    Quote Originally Posted by cornflake View Post
    Does the first book stand alone, and have an entire, fulfilled plot, with a problem/goal, that's solved?
    Yes, although it's not really standalone. There are problems and goals, although they are only partly resolved through the end of the first novel.

  8. #8
    practical experience, FTW cornflake's Avatar
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    Given this and the other thread, I'm guessing, just guessing, you're writing this for you, and it's notes, and you maybe haven't started the book yet.

  9. #9
    Living the dream CaroGirl's Avatar
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    You seem to determined to get the answer you want to hear. But I think the answer is, in fact, no you can't.

    Problem #1
    What agent or publisher is going to take it on? Agents and publishers are almost universally looking for stand-alone books from unknown authors. Even if a book has series potential, no publisher would take the risk of taking it on if it didn't stand alone (see Problem #2). If you were an established author with a fanbase, and publishers could count on those fans buying your book, you might have a chance. But not as a first-time author.

    Problem #2
    As someone said, even if you get Book 1 published, what if it doesn't sell? Then you have an essentially "unfinished" novel out there that no one wants to read. And you have 2 other books "unfinished" books out there that you can't sell either.

    Your best bet is either to edit it down to be a single book (this is easier than you'd think). Or restructure your plot such that each book stands alone, with its own story and character arcs.

  10. #10
    ....... Harlequin's Avatar
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    Questioner, I think I kind of know what you mean. My first MS grew out of a prologue and I did design the whole thing to be a series. However, it still has a complete arc within it. NOt everythign is wrapped up but a good number of things are, and new things started ofc.

    What genre are you writing in? Series are not uncommon in SFF and anyway, if doesn't sell, then you can choose to self publish. A book being rejected because its part of a series doesn't mean it deserves to never see the light of day. Providing the novel has an arc within it.


    There's no way for others to answer your question definitively, without having read it. Probably you need a beta reader or other objective feedback first.

    Edit: is this the one where it takes 50k+ words for the plot to begin? or am I misremembering?
    Last edited by Harlequin; 12-07-2017 at 10:03 PM.
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  11. #11
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    Quote Originally Posted by Harlequin View Post
    Questioner, I think I kind of know what you mean. My first MS grew out of a prologue and I did design the whole thing to be a series. However, it still has a complete arc within it. NOt everythign is wrapped up but a good number of things are, and new things started ofc.

    What genre are you writing in? Series are not uncommon in SFF and anyway, if doesn't sell, then you can choose to self publish. A book being rejected because its part of a series doesn't mean it deserves to never see the light of day. Providing the novel has an arc within it.


    There's no way for others to answer your question definitively, without having read it. Probably you need a beta reader or other objective feedback first.

    Edit: is this the one where it takes 50k+ words for the plot to begin? or am I misremembering?
    It is, but I just realized, after reading trough all the answers, that I have unfortunately confused everyone -- and myself -- once again. Somehow, I managed to confuse everyone (maybe even myself) that the first novel in this series had no story/plot at all, was just there for setting up the future novels, not related AT ALL. However, this isn't the case (lol); it does set up for the future of the series, yes, but these 50,000 words also contain the start of the real story, character development, the journey toward the characters' goal(s), and the reason the characters want this (this happens by the second chapter, about twenty pages in). Without that part, there would be no novel.

    Sorry! xD
    Last edited by Questioner; 12-07-2017 at 11:15 PM.

  12. #12
    ....... Harlequin's Avatar
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    Sounds alright, in that case.

    For me personally, I wouldn't sell ms1 as a standalone. I'd rather self publish than have the series be cut off. I'd rather write somethign else full stop, there are other stories which can be shorters. Everyone will feel different though.

    I mean, if you follow all the indie advice, you "should" be writing 1-2 books romance books a month and investing well in ads to make thousands per month *shrug* I wouldn't urge someone to do that if it didn't suit their writing goals, and the same (presumably, anyway) principle applies to your decision to write a heavily linked series or a potential standalone.
    Last edited by Harlequin; 12-07-2017 at 11:18 PM.
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  13. #13
    practical experience, FTW indianroads's Avatar
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    I've never written a novel series (although I am starting on one now), so consider that with regard to my answer.

    A series spans a wider scope than can be easily handled within a single book. A big story can be broken down into smaller chunks that have their own tale to tell. The story and the characters need an arc within each novel within a series. As a reader, I prefer the end of each novel in the series to have a sort of plateau where things are resolved, and ideally the characters are engaging enough that I want to know what they are going to do next. The series has an arc that each novel contributes to, and a grand conclusion at the end that leaves the reader satisfied.

    So yeah - I'm no help at all with regard to your question.

  14. #14
    Resist. Love. Go outside. Marlys's Avatar
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    If you're really worried about whether your story works, try writing a synopsis for it (even if it isn't all written yet--sounds like you've thought far enough ahead to get down the plot of the manuscript), and once you get to 50 posts you can put it up in Share Your Work (password is vista) for other people to comment on.

    Don't worry about keeping the plot a secret--it's unlikely that anyone here will steal your ideas, and because there's password protection it won't show up in searches.

  15. #15
    Living the dream CaroGirl's Avatar
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    If the first part is only 50K, and probably could be edited down at least 20% (most people tend to write too long), I'd boldly suggest (again) that you have one long book rather than three short ones. Many genres, like fantasy, SF and SFF are all cool at 120K. In fact, those readers expect a book of that length.

    BUT you also haven't said what your goals are with regard to publishing this book. If you don't want to pursue a traditional publishing route (agent>publisher), your question about whether your structure "works" is only at the reader level, and readers are fickler beasts than agents and publishers. Traditional publishing, as a new author, requires you to have a book that stands alone (with series potential), and one that falls within an accepted word count for your genre.

    I have no experience with self-publishing, if that's your goal, so I can't really offer much advice there.

    Best luck.

  16. #16
    practical experience, FTW cornflake's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Questioner View Post
    It is, but I just realized, after reading trough all the answers, that I have unfortunately confused everyone -- and myself -- once again. Somehow, I managed to confuse everyone (maybe even myself) that the first novel in this series had no story/plot at all, was just there for setting up the future novels, not related AT ALL. However, this isn't the case (lol); it does set up for the future of the series, yes, but these 50,000 words also contain the start of the real story, character development, the journey toward the characters' goal(s), and the reason the characters want this (this happens by the second chapter, about twenty pages in). Without that part, there would be no novel.

    Sorry! xD
    I don't think anyone thinks it doesn't have any plot -- you've said again that you've got nearly 60k words that are the "start"of the story. I think you haven't started the book yet and probably have a bunch of notes.

  17. #17
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    Echoing Harlequin's advice that if you have a series you're determined to tell, self-publishing may be the better platform.

    Do you have your entire series plotted?

    Break your overall series plot into book-sized chunks, and make sure each book-size chunk builds and resolves tension in a satisfying way. Think about the micro and the macro levels; it's even better if you can raise the stakes through the series, too. But one novel-length book full of exposition will need tension and conflict to draw the reader into the next part of the series.

    Have you also considered how the experience for the reader would be if the reader explored the series backwards, e.g., book 4, 3, 2, and then 1? I struggled with how to approach writing a sequential series for the first time recently, and thinking about readers reading my books OUT of order gave me great ideas about how to tie up each piece in a tight way individually... while still escalating tension through the series.

  18. #18
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    If it's a fantasy novel, and you're planning on going the trade publishing route, there's a good chance you would get a contract for three, or at least three books. Singletons are rare in fantasy, at least with Big 5 publishers. I imagine a complete standalone with no series or sequel potential would be a tough sell, actually. I can't remember the last time I read a debut author's adult fantasy novel that was a complete stand alone and not the first book in a trilogy or series.

    If it sells to a larger publisher (or at all), of course. In order to sell, the first book has to be really good and timely in some way. Whether it's a good idea to open a new series (as a previously unpublished author) with a prequel is another question. Most prequel novels I've read were published after the first trilogy or novel. Long series of related works tend to jump around in the author's world or universe, and the first one published may not represent the earliest time frame in the setting.

    I think it's a good idea for each story to have its own complete arc, though. It's not unusual for large publishers to pull the plug on a series by a new author that isn't selling really well, or for smaller publishers to go under.

    I don't know what kind of writing process you engage in, whether you lean more towards planning or pantsing, but my advice is usually to write the book first. Unless you are a really meticulous planner, one who has everything set in stone before you start writing, changes will likely occur as you write. The three act thing may take care of itself, or be resolved upon revision.

    Or your story may be one that doesn't actually fit that structure. As I understand it, it's more of a screenwriting convention than a literary one, though many novels also fit the pattern. However, stories that aren't "three act" do exist. Opinions vary about this.

    https://usaukwoods.wordpress.com/201...oes-it-matter/

    https://www.raindance.org/why-3-act-...-your-writing/

    https://writers.stackexchange.com/qu...-movie-scripts

    http://www.darcypattison.com/plot/plot2/


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    Last edited by Roxxsmom; 12-08-2017 at 12:04 AM.
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  19. #19
    Preparing for winter VeryBigBeard's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Questioner View Post
    My question to you: Can an entire book be one of the acts in a novel series, and contain multiple "smaller" acts? (What I mean is that the novel contains the different acts, just like any other would, but is still an Act 1 of the overall series).
    This may be somewhat tangential to what you were asking, I'm a bit unclear on that, but yes, you absolutely can divide things however you wish. Many, many books are not divided into three acts. The idea of three act structure is a useful analytical tool but it's used far more heavily in screenwriting than books.

    If I get what you're saying here, you want to do a serial story but divide it into more than three chunks. In which case, that's how most serials work--you might try reading some; I'd start with Dickens.

    Each book obviously needs to be satisfying in some way. (I much, much prefer "satisfying" to "standalone", which I think confuses people because a book can "stand alone" in a lot of varying ways.) That means you will want some sort of structure within each book, in addition to an arc for your macro story over the whole series. Your book will probably, broadly, have and need a beginning, middle, and end, which is kind of three-act structure at its most banal and high-level.

    But what you often see is a story that really has five acts (as do Shakespearean plays, and a lot of other theatre if you look carefully). You might take your "middle" and split it up into a series of connected plot events--novels are long-contact media, and they owe more than we think to oral storytelling and epic structures where one event builds upon the last.

    The only real rule is to do what works for your story. And, across the series, do what works for your story. You are likely to be the best judge of that. Trust your instincts, young Padawan.

    Quote Originally Posted by CaroGirl View Post
    Problem #1
    What agent or publisher is going to take it on? Agents and publishers are almost universally looking for stand-alone books from unknown authors. Even if a book has series potential, no publisher would take the risk of taking it on if it didn't stand alone (see Problem #2).
    When you query, the done thing is to query the first book as its own book, and say it has series potential. The rest comes later.

    But I've definitely heard of debut authors, particularly in SF, selling a trilogy or getting a three-book contract. Now, that contract will have out clauses for sales thresholds--if the first book doesn't perform, the publisher's not going to sit around losing money. That's just how it goes with any book.

    To say that you can't sell a series, even as a debut... I'm not an expert, but not sure that's accurate. End of the day, a great story well-written opens a lot of doors, too.

    Quote Originally Posted by Harlequin View Post
    I mean, if you follow all the indie advice, you "should" be writing 1-2 books romance books a month and investing well in ads to make thousands per month *shrug* I wouldn't urge someone to do that if it didn't suit their writing goals, and the same (presumably, anyway) principle applies to your decision to write a heavily linked series or a potential standalone.
    This.

    Know your goals. Figure out your best approach. Do what works for you.

    Mostly, write the book. Stories often change in the telling. That first book may end up branching somewhere else, the story may need to arc in a different way, etc., etc. All the structural stuff is for after you understand what you have. You can't shape something when you don't know what you're making.

    Likewise, whatever way you go with publishing, and how likely you are to succeed with it, is entirely academic until you have a finished book, polished to the best of your ability, read by beta-readers or some such, and polished again.

    Best of luck.

  20. #20
    writer, rider, reader...ex-pat! BethS's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Questioner View Post

    My question to you: Can an entire book be one of the acts in a novel series, and contain multiple "smaller" acts? (What I mean is that the novel contains the different acts, just like any other would, but is still an Act 1 of the overall series).
    Yes.

    A Game of Thrones is a good example of that, in that it does set up a lot of the overarching conflicts for the series. But it's also a story in itself, with plenty of conflict and complications, whose resolution (I use the term advisedly) functions as the kick-off for the next volume.

    A different kind of example would be The Lord of the Rings, which is one novel that was split by the publisher into three volumes.

  21. #21
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    Without knowing your story, I can't suggest too much. I'd agree with Harlequin on her perspective.

    You can definitely set up your series as you described - each book an act of a larger structure with an internal act structure of its own. I won't give you a book series, but probably the most obvious film example - Star Wars. Specifically the Original Trilogy. Each film is separate onto itself, yet continues a larger overall story. In ANH, the Death Star is destroyed and the heroes victorious. The Empire however survives along with Vader. ESB features their reprisal and ends with the heroes defeated but resolute. ROTJ wraps everything up.
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