How to write a novel in three acts

Shirley Holder Platt

You can’t go wrong, this award-winning author insists, when you use the three-act method to keep your readers turning pages.

by Shirley Holder Platt

If you’ve read my previous articles, you know that I consider myself a “pantser.” In other words, I write by the seat of my pants without an outline or a clear picture of the whole story when I begin. But being a pantser does not mean that I ignore story structure. As a matter of fact, I am constantly keeping my eye on the progression of the story as I write. That’s because I’ve internalized the idea of the three-act story. After you get story structure, you’ll see it in everything you read and watch. What follows is an overview of story structure.

Act One will take up the first twenty-five percent of your book. In it you’ll start with a hook—a question to which your readers will “need” to know the answer right off the bat. Here’s a great example from The Girl on The Train by Paula Hawkins:

She’s buried beneath a silver birch tree, down towards the old train tracks, her grave marked with a cairn.

This is the first line in the book, and it makes you want to know who is buried there, and more importantly, why.

After the hook, you should establish the world of your main character. As soon as that’s established, throw in a monkey wrench. In other words, set the ordinary world on its head. The monkey wrench, or what is more commonly called the “inciting incident,” needs to set your character on a new course. It doesn’t have to be the first sentence or paragraph, but it should happen early, and always in the first act.


The monkey wrench, or what is more commonly called the “inciting incident,” needs to set your character on a new course.


Act Two is the longest act, and will comprise fifty percent of your story. In the first half of this act, your main character will be in a reactive mode, buffeted about by what happened in the first act, always trying to keep up. Everything he or she does will fail until finally, at the midpoint of the book (which is halfway through Act Two), something will click, and your protagonist will stop reacting and decide to be proactive. This shift can be subtle or clear, with the character stating that he or she is not going to take it anymore. During the second half of Act Two, you’ll throw more and more obstacles in the path of your main character, who will never stop fighting. The more you throw, the stronger the main character will grow, the more determined he or she will become.


Like anything you build, give your story a solid structure and you can’t go wrong.


Act Three should be exciting. Throw in lots more obstacles for your main character to conquer. Never let the tension stop building until you get to the climax, the highest point of tension in your story. From this point, something has to give. It can be a crisis, or a breaking point, but it should cause your main character to make a decision that resolves the conflict. Everything after the climax is downhill. This usually happens around the ninety-five percent mark. The rest is tying up loose ends, resolving unanswered questions, and—if like me, you write romance novels—making sure your main character gets that craved-for “happily ever after” ending.

I chart out the number of words I want to include in a novel, do the math, and know where I am in the story at all times. As a pantser, I’m always keeping in mind where I am in the structure of the story. If you use Microsoft Word, you can watch the word count add up at the bottom left of your screen. Many other software programs offer the same information. Whichever way you chose to track your progress, whether it be in a solid outline format, or like me, by watching your word count, always keep story structure in mind. Like anything you build, give your story a solid structure and you can’t go wrong.

Shirley Holder Platt is the author of five romance novels and one chick lit novel. Her book-in-progress, Mama Needs New Shoes, won the October 2018 Most Buzz Award, and several of her now-published novels appeared first on ChapterBuzz.

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