In general, there is what James Scott Bell calls a “disturbance,” and the character and world is introduced in the first act. The Point of View (POV) character(s) faces multiple challenges and problems that are a chain reaction triggered in the first act. Each of these difficulties faced come with ever increasing challenges. Logically, the third act sees the resolution of all those difficulties.
The Disturbance: Act I
This is anything that the opening of the book that is different from the normal events in the main character’s life. It could be as dramatic as a kidnapping, unnerving as a first time visit to a slave market, a heart pounding run for her life, or as simple as the character being waken at 3 am.
A disturbance engages the reader and hooks them from the first words and first page. It throws your reader into a new world with new people to meet and grips them so they continue to turn the page and discover more. The POV character may have been kidnapped on page one. That’s the hook. Who has her? Why did they take her? What’s going to happen? How is she going to get free?
The Inciting Incident: Act I
At the end of act one she has to decide if she is going to believe that her kidnapper is actually her hero trying to keep her safe, or the villain out to destroy her life. She has to face an irreversible decision. Either decision will dictate everything that follows and either way she can’t go back to peacefully living in her home. Does is stay with the kidnapper and race against the odds to survive the real enemy, or plot her escape and try to remain hidden and safely away from her kidnapper but totally on her own. There is no going back. This one moment will change everything.
The Problems: Act II
Once through the door, the real trouble begins. Donald Maass talks about this in his book the Break Out Novel. Think of the most terrible things that can happen to a character, put them through it, then make it worse. Once it’s worse, make it worse again.
If she is kidnapped in act one, she’s shot at in act two. After the narrow misses of bullets, she’s chased by beefy foreign thugs, trapped with the enemy at every turn, in a hand to hand fight, made to doubt her decision to stay with her kidnapper now that she has new information, knocked out, captured, hung from handcuffs, and touched with live jumper cables.
Act two is brutal on your characters even if it is only a perceived threat. There are three types of death a character can suffer. It can be physical death that there is no way to escape. Literally he will die when his enemy finds him wounded and cornered in a dark abandoned warehouse, and there is no escape.
It can be professional death of a career the character has worked in all his life. He has come to this world to escape the threat on his own. He as worked for ten years to fit in with the humans and build a company that is about to be on the Fortune 500 list. If he saves the girl he loves, he has to walk away from it all—the power, the money, the name he’s made for himself.
It can be psychological death of who they always thought they were or spiritual death of what they held as a firm belief. He is the good son, completed college, stayed out of the family business in major organized crime. But his family is betrayed and he will have to become one of them to save them. Or the woman who has lived her entire life as she pleased because she doesn’t believe God exists only to be confronted with the proof that God has orchestrated every moment of her life to bring her to this place where she will accept Him.
Whatever type of death the character faces—and not every character in the same story will be trying to survive the same type of death—in act two some kind of death is around every corner.
The Resolution: Act III
The final challenge is faced and the last battle fought. Win or lose it all comes to an end in act III. (Unless you are one of those authors who write series with cliffhangers at the end of each installment.) The character is changed. They are either stronger versions of what they were in the beginning, completely new in many of life’s respects, or they are defeated shells of themselves or maybe even dead.
Maybe her relationship died along the way. She now knows she can survive and even thrive on her own without the one person she thought she loved and couldn’t live without. His constant abuse will no longer weigh her down.
Maybe he isn’t the owner of a top company anymore—that professional self died, but he has the girl and saved the realms from a greater evil.
Death in a story isn’t always bad. At the beginning, the character has goals, dreams, and certain character assets and flaws. After trudging through all the obstacles and challenges faced in act two, he or she will be changed. For the better or the worse, none of us—not even, fictional ones—get out of this life without being changed.
How are your acts shaping up? Is your hook engaging? Is your inciting incident an irreversible one? Is there trouble, difficulty, and challenge a plenty in act two to bring your character to his or her knees? Have you finished the race with a satisfying end where the character’s change is obvious and even envied? Find your weakest act and spend some time reworking it today.