Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Using the Three-Act Structure for Scenes ... and a weekly writing update

Although I’ve always used the classic three-act structure in plotting my novels, I began using it recently for scene revision. I’d read (on occasion over the years) that scenes should have that structure, but I’d never paid much attention to it. After all, a scene is usually only 4-8 pages long, so why go to all the trouble?

I’ve discovered it’s not that much trouble. It's terribly interesting. And it often improves the scene dramatically. (If it doesn't improve it, it's only because the scene was sound to begin with.) Worth the time? Heck yes. It makes for excellent scene structure, which needs to be achieved in the revision stage. 

You’re probably all familiar with the classic, three-act structure, which applies to your overarching plot:

OH, so I said in the chart that I wasn't going to explain the pinch points, but I probably should. They are actually the 1/8 segments between quarter and half, and again between half and black. In book length, important things happen there, but in scene length, unless I'm writing a 2000 word scene, I ignore the pinch points.

I'm talking about scene revision, so that's all I'll say about the pinch points in this post. 


When I do a first draft of a scene, prior to writing it, I always sketch out the character’s goal and the antagonist’s goal, and the various moves the character will make to achieve it, and the moves the antagonist will make to block it. I generally know the “disaster” at the end, but who can ever say how a scene will actually play out, until the actors start playing it? My characters always surprise me, which is what keeps writing so engaging and fun. I use the three-act structure for my scene, but lightly at this point.

Once the book is written, and I am revising my first draft, I have discovered that if I drop each scene into the structure table (above, with the explanations stripped out ;) ), I can spot weaknesses immediately

For example, I tend to dump too much introspection into my scene beginnings, between the first word and the inciting incident (where the scene really gets rolling). If I’m writing a 1000 word scene, that means the beginning part should weigh in at around 125 words, or my scene will automatically be paced too slow.
There are two solutions:
  1. Break up the introspection and move it down in the scene as appropriate.
  2. Or if it’s a major scene (2000 words long, with higher stakes), it could mean that I should’ve written what’s known as a scene sequel between the last major scene and this one, to transition into this, so it can begin without lengthy explanations.
Another problem I have is that I tend to rush things in general. I tend not to flesh out my scenes enough. Scenes should rarely be less than 1000 words, or you run the risk of having the book feel choppy, and especially if you’re writing in dual or multiple viewpoints. In cases where I’ve written only 650-750 words, I put what I’ve written into appropriate slots in the table. Immediately, I see the areas that need to be fleshed out, to bring the total to 1000-1200 words.

Each 1/8 segment is important, with important functions that need to happen within it. It’s very important for the reader to feel the emotion building throughout the scene, but perhaps most important in the segment leading to the black moment. If I’ve found I’ve written only 50 words in that segment, that’s a huge red flag. In a 1000 word scene, I should devote around 125 words to it. If it’s a 2000 word scene, I need to devote a full page.

The segment after the black moment is also important, but for different reasons. It’s where the character decides what to do, finally, in this particular scene, to achieve her goal. Introspection fits nicely in this segment. If I’ve written 10 words, the reader won't fully understand why she made this particular decision. It's where the Stimulus-Response unit needs to be presented in full. Throughout the scene, we've had countless S-R units. Often, a response doesn't need a full package showing. (Response = feelings, thoughts, actions, speech--in that order.) Frequently, if the feeling or thought is well-understood by the reader without showing it, it can be skipped and only the action or speech response shown. But not in this segment. In a well-shaped, 1000 word scene, it should weigh in around 125 words. Or if it's a 2000 word scene, a full page. 

Anyway, since I’ve begun using the three-act structure to revise my scenes, they have greatly improved. They're both tighter and fuller, more understandable, and more complete.

Do you use the three-act structure to plot or revise your scenes? If not, what method works best for you?


OH, and I said I would have a weekly writing update. I am in the midst of the black moment, and will begin revision on the final quarter by tomorrow. 


  1. I found this fascinating, even though I write nonfiction and poetry. The inner world of fiction writers and how you create is of interest to me.

  2. Quite an in-depth analysis here, Cathy, well done! I had not thought the scene structure out to this degree before, and this is very helpful. I wish I had understood more of this when writing my first book, which was pretty much done by trial-and-error! Now on the second, I feel I've got a better grasp on the process--and posts like this certainly help. Thanks :-)

  3. Looks like you have everything very organized.

    Have fun.

    M : )

  4. Such a valuable writing lesson for me! In fact, I plan to use your spreadsheet summary as I begin the revision of my NaNoWriMo piece. GREAT post :)


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