Questionable: What’s the Rule on Acts?

Jeanine asked:
I’m assuming from what you’ve been doing that 1) you think your acts should all have about x number of words and/or 2) you think all acts in a book need to have about the same number of words to feel balanced. So, given that, could you, hypothetically, split act 2 into two acts and have five acts instead of four? . . . . Is there a rule of thumb about the number of acts one can have in a book like yours? I feel like I’ve seen different numbers of acts used in different literary works but perhaps I’m missing something obvious due to the fact that this is not the kind of writing I do.

There is no rule on acts.

They’re just a tool that I use to structure. So here’s my theory of acts–ust mine, nobody else’s, not a rule, merely a cheat sheet for me, the lousy plotter:

I start out with a discovery draft that’s the literary equivalent of a big lump of clay, formless but with huge potential. At that point I have to discover the central question of the book, which is generally “Will the protagonist defeat the antagonist and get the goal?” This is a good question because it requires that the writer know who the protagonist is, who the antagonist is, and what the hell they’re struggling over. Once that’s identified, that’s what my 100,000 words (or however many you want) is about.

But 100,000 words is a lot of words, so I need to look at two things: pacing and escalation. Pacing is how swiftly the story moves. It may start at a nice even pace but by the end it better be racing by. Escalation is how stakes rise, taking story tension up there with it. That basically means that

• the story starts in a stable situation that blows up into an unstable situation, and then
• it gets worse, and then
• it gets worse, and then
• it gets WORSE, and then

And the best way I know to pace and escalate is through turning points, big scenes that blow up the story and make new, turning it in a new and more fraught direction.

Every time I have a turning point event, that narrative section of the story ends. I call those narrative sections acts, but you can call them Fred if you want, they’re just chunks of story that end with a big event that changes everything and that throws the story into the next chunk of narrative which has much higher stakes. That’s escalation.

How do you use turning points for pacing? You make the big events happen closer together. The reader won’t be counting the words or pages, but she’ll know subconsciously as she reads that Big Stuff is happening faster, that the stakes are getting higher faster, that the protagonist is running out of time . . .

So to keep my story well-paced, my first acts are about a third of the book and my last acts are about ten percent of the book.

Some writers do pacing and escalation instinctively. I am not one of those writers. So I use narrative units (acts, scene sequences, scenes) for pacing, escalation, character develop, and any other arcs I need in the story. Working in acts also breaks a big piece of narrative down into chunks that I can wrap my head around. I think of each of the acts as stories in themselves, divided into smaller narrative units (scene sequences) because that’s the easiest way for me to see the structure. So for Nita, the first act is the story of how she found out that the supernatural was real and threatening the island she loved. That’s a complete story, and at the end of it she picks up herself up and says, “Okay, then, let’s go fix this,” and charges into the second story/act where she fights back to save her island and establishes a relationship with Nick. At the end of that act, she loses Nick; it’s a tragedy, but she picks herself up and charges into the next act, determined to save him and her island if she can. At the end of that act, she finds Nick’s been kidnapped to Hell which is where the Bad Guy is now, and she says, “I’m ending this crap right now” and charges into the next act that ends with a climax (obligatory scene between Nita and the antagonist) and resolution (happily ever after).

Short answer: Acts are the way I structure narrative because I have no instinctive story-telling skills and I need all the help I can get.

11 thoughts on “Questionable: What’s the Rule on Acts?

  1. It’s hard to argue with Shakespeare: 5-act structure

    John Rogers also talked about how Leverage was essentially written with the 5-act structure. Commercial breaks later forced them to six, but the writing was basically the same, with a slight shift in screen time distribution (the new Act 5 contains the climax, while the new Act 6 is the denouement).

  2. The first time I heard you walk through this type of analysis (I think an RWA seminar in Minnesota?), a huge light went on. And every time you talk about it, something new flares. Thanks for sharing this!

  3. Different genres use different pacing. In some ways, different genres are their different pacing. Writing something that’s multiple genres (which I have done a couple of times) means a difficult balancing act between the different pacing requirements.

  4. Thank you! I am riveted by anything on pacing, length, and especially word count as a measuring stick of pacing and structure because I write discovery drafts too. I didn’t know what they were until you described your process. It gives me hope I too can create order out of chaos. Actually, I’ve (finally!) gotten to the point where I’ve got some order, now I need some character arcs. I’m working on it. This is fun.

  5. This makes complete sense! Thanks so much for explaining your process in such detail. And thanks AG for the supplemental authority.

    Btw, hope you were (are) able to whittle Act 2 into the desired shape without too much more trouble….

  6. I just reread Maybe This Time for the umpteenth time and was surprised by how far into the book May the ghost appears. I hadn’t remembered all the necessary background and build up to the first Who do you love? sleep scene. It all worked just right.

    I love Alice. Andi was such a great mom for her. I would have been terrible.

  7. Lousy plotter, no story-telling skills? Huh. I wonder why I love your books.

    So you’ve built great techniques that underpin that can’t-put-it-down structure (even on multiple rereads I still get breathless for pete’s sake) but give the Girls their due? Where else do great characters and yes–story-telling and plot twists come from?

    1. The Girls and really permissive discovery drafts. When you tell yourself you can put anything you want in a discovery draft because nobody’s going to read it but you, some fairly wild stuff shows up. Then you have to organize it (g).

      It’s kind of like my house. My cottage is darling, and I put beautiful things in it, but there are too many things and some of them are in the wrong place, and some of the things I don’t need even though they’re beautiful and the fact that they’re sitting around makes it harder to see the things that really do belong here. So the difference between my natural style of writing (and my natural style of living) which is Too Much Stuff Not Organized and my revised style of writing (and a clean house) is chaos and calm, confusion and pleasure.

      And now I must go revise my kitchen . . .

  8. I love every single one of these craft posts. I write in a way that is nothing like this, but because I enjoy these posts so much I think more about how I write, and consequently how I write is getting better all the time. I try to apply the craft analysis to what I actually do in order to wring some improvement into (or out of) it.
    The biggest, most crucial thing I take away is ‘write however you write only WRITE.’

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