3-Act Structure: Solving a Top-Heavy Problem


Using the 3-Act Structure: Adjusting Expectations

Most writers use a 3-act structure and for good reason. It works.

  • Act 1:
    25% of the length, sets up the story conflict and ends when the main character (MC) commits to doing something about the conflict.
  • Act 2:
    50% of the length, develops and deepens the conflict and ends when the main character begins to make a last, heroic effort to solve the problem.
  • Act 3:
    25% of length, is the last attempt to solve the problem and eventually ends in either success or failure (tragedy).

Top-heavy manuscripts fall over!

Looking at my WIP, I had structured it as a quest, which meant that Act 2 should begin at the point where MC crosses over into a new fantasy world. But that point was coming MUCH later, maybe half-way through the novel.

Somehow, in all the revisions, the structure has become top-heavy. Skimming those chapters or laying them out in a shrunken manuscript revealed that several scenes repeated; there was escalation with each repetition, so it wasn’t all bad. Still, I wondered if I could cut a considerable chunk from the first section.

Today, I cut 2000 words! Hurrah!

But, with a sinking feeling, I realized that it is still top-heavy. Could I stand to cut another 8000 words? Probably not. That would gut too much of the emotion and story.

Restructure the 3 Acts

The only answer then, is that I must restructure the story, must think about it differently, set it up differently. Fortunately, there are 29 plot variations or plot templates and at least three types of character arcs. Will one of those work?

As is, it’s set up as a quest: now in a quest, there should be character growth and often what the character sets out to discover is not what they need, not what they find. But it’s that definitely stepping into a “new world” that is bothering me in this story. The new world can’t be the fantasy world they find in the story because that now comes at about halfway through the story.

IF I consider this a story about maturation, and not a quest, then the current structure is very close. At page 21, out of 80 (single spaced, small font—just the way I like to work; I will reformat before I send it out), there is a first step of defiance of Father, a step into the world of adulthood, if you will. That’s about the 25% point and works perfectly. Likewise, the rest of the plot points fall into line.

Making this type shift is subtle: it’s not about the plot or actions, per se. Instead, it’s about setting up expectations in a reader’s mind. They intuitively understand this deep structure of dividing a story into acts, and subconsciously expect it to happen. If I set up the story, with subtle word changes, as a story of maturation, I think it will work. That crucial transition from Act 1 to Act 2 will be the move into the world of adulthood, of being responsible for your own actions, of defying parents and doing what you think is best. Act 2 will be the various problems encountered when you attempt to do things on your own, and Act 3 is the result of those actions.

My next task is to comb through the first twenty pages or so and make sure this structure is set up.

P.S. I’m still glad I cut those 2000 words. They were dead wood anyway.

  • Tammy Bronson
    August 26, 2011

    Thank you so much for posting this, Darcy. I’m revising my novel and restructuring many of the plot points and this really helps. I’m looking forward to reading your related posts.

  • Darcy Pattison
    August 29, 2011

    Good to see you here! Just hope this revision is the last!