The Three Acts:
Major Turning Points
By Alicia Rasley
A disclaimer: I'm just providing a sample set of turning points here—not a formula. These aren't engraved in marble. In fact, plenty of books don't even use a three-act structure. (Some have four acts, or, as I think of them, two double-acts.) But this is just a way to explore one type of structure and give you some terms that might help you understand the concept of turning points within a plot.
A plot is a sequence of events selected to show the journey through the story. These events are causally related (that is, one causes the next) and reflect the motivations, choices, and actions of the protagonist primarily and other characters too. Events are showcased within scenes, which are more or less real-time narratives chronicling the experience of the characters. Each scene should have at least one event that irrevocably changes the course of the plot, through a revelation, choice, action, experience, disaster, damage.
And what's an event? An event is something that happens—not a dream, not a flashback, not a passage of introspection. A character is doing something, experiencing something, not just in her own mind, but in the external reality of the story. That can mean she's taking an action, discovering a secret, encountering another character, having a conversation, creating something new, surmounting a trauma, lying, committing a crime, telling the truth . . . something that has an effect.
Events are important because they are concrete and real and have consequences. Most important, they have consequences on the plot.
So what is a turning point? It's a major event that changes the course of the plot and usually requires some action or reaction from the protagonist.
Here are some structural opportunities for turning points. Jot down what you think could happen at each of these times. If you don't have an event, just jot down what you think could happen or ought to happen, without details, such as "she needs to find a clue that her father is dead."
1. Setup: The setup presents the situation, setting, and protagonist, and nowadays is usually not very long- modern fiction tends to plunge right into the initiating event.
2. The Initiating Event: This is usually the protagonist's first encounter with the external conflict/plot, and it should happen within the first couple chapters. It doesn't have to be a cataclysmic event, but see if you can make the protagonist to take a step into the plot at this point. (Remember to provide sufficient motivation.) It should present some kind of story question that the external plot will answer, such as "What's going on in that abandoned storefront?" It's also possible that the internal story question will be posed here, such as "Is she going to reconcile with her dad?"
1. External Conflict Emerges: You set up the situation with the initiating event, but soon you have to show some conflict event, present the conflict situation, so that the protagonist makes some kind of choice or decision to get involved. This is really the beginning of the second act of rising conflict. (but in modern fiction, Act 1, the setup,
is usually quite short, only a chapter or two if that).
The protagonist might just witness or hear about the conflict, and can even "refuse the call" to join in, but there should be some presentation of the major conflict here. If the protagonist is going to embark on some sort of quest, here might be where he/she gets the chance to join in, such as "we're getting together a posse to track down that lost kid; wanna come?"
Remember, the way to a unique plot is through the individual decisions and acts of an active protagonist- make the first real encounter with the conflict reflect this pro's needs, values, and fears.
2. Antagonist Shows Up: The antagonist doesn't have to be a person- it can be an outside impersonal disaster, as long as it's linked to that comprehensive booklength conflict, such as a tornado if the conflict is "saving the family farm". But there should be some embodiment of "the other side" which focuses the more amorphous conflict into a concrete adversary. The antagonist is not necessarily bad, by the way. A mom who wants to marry her son off might be his antagonist, but still on the side of angels.
How does this antagonist showing up increase the stakes, giving the pro more motivation to get involved?
3. Conflict Rises: Act Two is devoted to increasing the conflict so that the stakes get higher and higher and put the protagonist at ever greater risk of failing. At each step, the pro should be called upon to do more, give more, put him/herself at greater emotional risk.
This is where the individuation of the plot comes in . . . and it's based on this character's needs and values. Make a list of things this pro could do to deal with the conflict events . . . and a few that are going to be great emotional risks. Rank these in order of easiest to hardest. The hardest should have something to do with her internal conflict. (For example, she might not mind asking a bank for a loan, but asking her estranged mother is much harder.)
Now see if you can build a series of 3-4 events which call upon the pro to take actions that get progressively more difficult, so the investment in succeeding gets that much greater.
4. The Reversal: Often right about the middle of the book, there's some kind of reversal- the hunted becomes the hunter, or the protagonist discovers she can't trust someone she's trusted before, or she learns that she's adopted, or she wins something she'd been sure she'd lose, or an adversary turns out to be an ally . . . at any rate, the protagonist
is faced with drastically changed circumstances and must scramble to adapt. This isn't really necessary, but can really increase the drama of your book and does pick up that sagging middle!
It also forces your pro to find new resources and challenge old assumptions.
5. The Point of No Return: This is the point, usually after the middle of the book, where something happens to the protagonist, or the pro takes some action, that means there's no turning back.
He/she might be badly injured, or commit a crime, or reveal him/herself (wittingly or not) to the villain.
He/she might trust the wrong person with the truth, or tell a lie that can't be untold, or say the one thing that will alienate a loved one forever.
Once the pro gets to this point, there's nothing to do but head on full-steam ahead, attacking the conflict full-force . . . because there's no way to go back to the person he/she used to be. While not every book needs this point, it can be a moment of high drama, forcing the protagonist to become fully invested in the plot, and increasing the stakes because if he/she fails here, there's no pretending that it doesn't really matter.
Can you come up with an event that, like Tar Baby, entangles the protagonist in the plot? What are the consequences? The event should set in motion the forces that bring on the crisis and climax.
1. Crisis: When the worst that can happen . . . happens. The disaster. This is the emotional bottom of the story, when it seems that the protagonist has lost all chance of succeeding, or has given up too much for the sake of succeeding. If possible, this should come about in part because of the heroic flaw, or the internal conflict: For example, the heroine's independence means she's unable to ask for help, and this inability leads to the crisis event.
It could also happen because the pro's obsession with the initial goal is in conflict with what is best; in that case, the protagonist confronts the need to sacrifice the goal for which she has sacrificed so much.
2. The Dark Moment: Immediately following the crisis comes the dark moment, when the protagonist experiences despair. This is often when the pro comes face-to-face with the necessity of confronting and conquering the internal conflict that helped lead him/her to the crisis. When all is lost, when there is no hope, then choosing to do the right thing, or the difficult thing, is the last resort . . . if the pro can find the courage. The despair is necessary, however, to force the pro to determine what really matters, what he/she must do. It is this despair that forces the pro into analysis and action, and propels him into the climax and resolution of the conflict.
The decision made during the dark moment leads to the action that brings on the climax.
3. The Climax: This is, by definition, the resolution of the external conflict. It should be as dramatic and as confrontational as you can make it within the scope of your plot. Think "face to face", think "confrontation", that is, make it as immediate and dynamic as possible. But most of all, let the event be powered not by random chance or coincidence, but by the protagonist's decision in the dark moment to sacrifice (fill in the blank) and seize the last chance to make the world right again. Look back to your original external story question—this is when it's answered completely. The protagonist MUST be intensely involved in the climax . . . or he/he is not really the protagonist!
4. The Resolution: Never end a book on the climax. That will leave the reader disoriented and unsettled about the meaning of the story events. Just as the climax resolves the external plot, the resolution resolves the internal
plot. Use the resolution to:
1) restore the fictional world to order, and
2) show what has changed because of the story events.
Remember, however, that the resolution scene, like all scenes, must be centered around an event. What event can show, in an actual or symbolic way, what has changed because of the events of the story—specifically, how the protagonist has changed? What can show that he has regained his faith, or she has reconciled her alienation from her family, or the truth has set him free? In a romance, what can show how overcoming the external and internal conflicts has made this couple more able to love and accept love freely? The more focused this scene is on providing the answer to those question, the more closure the readers will experience.
©2002 Alicia Rasley
Alicia Rasley is a 16-year member of Romance Writers of America and Indiana RWA, a writing teacher, and a RITA-award winning Regency author. She teaches at Painted Rock Writers Colony. Her interactive writing booklets and plot guidebook are available at her website.
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