You can call yourself a pantser.
I’d like to suggest that using the basic form of Three Act Structure can actually free you to write a stronger, better, more interesting novel.
Three Act Structure is really just fancy talk for beginning, middle and end. But the difference in semantics means that each act has a specific purpose, specific points to make and specific necessities. Your reader is probably well versed in common storytelling of Western Civilization. For better or worse, they have it in their little brains that three act structure is the way to tell a story.
Now call them sheep. Call them pedestrian. Call them blind, ignorant, unwashed masses. But you would be foolish to disappoint readers who have Western Civilization storytelling tradition ingrained in their souls.
They have pockets, see. And those pockets hold money. And that money can be exchanged for a really good story. Make your story really good and they will pay for it. By following a three act structure, you can make your story good. Really good.
The First Act is where everyone gets introduced, the general idea of each main character’s objectives are understood, and then there is an inciting incident! Something propels the characters forward to seek a big, big goal. This is where we meet Westley and Buttercup and realize that they are falling for each other. Westley leaves to find his fortune and he swears his undying love for Buttercup. Their desire is to always be together, to always love each other no matter what. Yet, Buttercup gets word that Westley has been kidnapped by the Dread Pirate Roberts. This changes everything for our heroine. She makes a decision.
Questions to ask yourself about your first act:
1. Does my first paragraph have something extremely interesting that grabs the readers attention?
2. Have I established a visual, clear setting — which includes time, place and environment — so my readers can fully understand the context of the story?
3. Have I introduced my characters gently, with descriptions that are concise?
4. Have I alluded to their deepest desires and goals?
5. Have I put the characters in a situation where there is a critical point of action or an inciting incident that will propel them into the journey of the second act?
The Second Act takes up the meat of the story. When people ask, “what’s the story about?” The answer should come from the events of the second act. The second act is the journey, either literal or figurative of the protagonist accomplishing his or her goals. In The Princess Bride, Buttercup’s decision to marry Prince Humperdinck propels her into the action of the second act, even though it’s not what she wants. The rest of the story is the struggle of whether or not she will marry him. For all of her emotional shallowness and lack of smarts, she truly is devoted to Westley so she has an inner conflict. We also discover that Humperdinck is using her for his own political gain. There is a back and forth between Buttercup’s goals, Humperdinck’s goals and eventually Westley’s goals that increase the conflict. Characters come in and out helping or hindering our main three. All of this action makes up the second act.
The second act is where most writers have their trouble. Many times they get their characters in too deep and can’t figure a way out. Or the writer gets bored with the story and can’t figure out what to do. Or all of the objectives and goals from the first act are now a muddy mess. If you have trouble with the second act, you are not alone.
What to do if you’re stuck:
1. Get a trusted friend to read it for story (not punctuation and spelling) and give you suggestions.
2. Make a list of every conceivable action. Choose your tenth or eleventh thing to do on the list because the first nine were obvious.
3. Add something unexpected yet common, like a car accident, a severe storm or a random act of violence.
4. Rewrite in your notes your protagonists biggest goals, fears, regrets, secrets, super powers and weaknesses. Maybe this will prompt another scenario.
5. Think backwards. Draft the climactic scene, then draft the scene before, the scene before that, the scene before that. Once these drafts are written, use them an outline and rewrite them.
The biggest moment of the second act is the climax, when the main characters make a choice, or escape sure peril, or come up with an ingenious solution. The second act ends when a permanent line has been crossed. When Westley escapes the Count and finds Buttercup, convinces her she isn’t married (nobody said anything about signing a legal document, but you know, who cares?) and tying up the Prince in a humiliating way.
Questions to ask yourself about your second act:
1. Is the goal of your protagonist and the supporting characters very clear to the reader?
2. Have you made the first few obstacles easy to overcome?
3. Are your conflicts increasing in danger, tension, or misunderstanding?
4. Are you throwing unexpected, but yet feasible obstacles into your protagonist’s path?
5. Have you set up your protagonist to make a choice of two mutually exclusive desires?
Your third act includes the consequences of the final choice in the second act. This final choice should be permanent and fill up any holes left behind. Your third act will determine if your reader likes your story or not, so take care to make plausible, understandable choices for your characters. The third act is kind of like the “and we’d gotten away with it too if it weren’t for you crazy kids” moment.
Questions to ask yourself about your third act:
1. Are all of the loose ends tied up well? Are most of the mysteries solved?
2. Is the ending logical?
3. Are the themes and morals of your story obvious to the reader?
4.If you’re writing a sequel, have you included enough of a cliffhanger to intrigue your reader?
5.Is the tone consistent? You want a happy ending with a happy story, and you want sad endings to be believable. You don’t want your reader to throw the book across the room because of your artistic choices got in the way of good storytelling.
Three Act Structure is a skeleton and it’s your job to flesh out the story completely.
As my friend Aryeh Khan said, “I’m guessing the goal of this structure for pantsers is to learn about it, let sink in and stick what may, and then forget about it. Write the darn draft. And then once it’s written use the structure as a compass and map reference to see how your draft can be improved.”
That’s it, exactly!
Don’t be afraid to organize your whimsical ideas, arrange them in increasing tension or even use this post as a reference.