The ending of a story — whatever its length — owes its success (or lack of success) to its structure, and the strength of its structure depends on the placement of three weight-bearing columns.
In story, the names of those columns are the climax of Act I, the midpoint of Act II, and the climax of Act II. They are what allow readers to cross the long span from the question raised by the beginning of the story to the answer provided by the ending, the climax of Act III.
Without the support of those columns, readers won’t reach the end of your story. Instead, the story will collapse under the weight of reader expectations.
Readers demand an emotional journey. They expect a hero who has a strong desire. They anticipate that the hero will strive to achieve that desire, be thwarted on multiple levels, and still persevere until eventually reaching the desired goal.
That’s the classic story we’ve been weaned on, the template for every fairytale that defines our culture. Master the three-act structure and you will tell stories that appeal to readers.
Why stop there? Why settle for a story that merely satisfies readers when you can produce a story with the power to change their lives?
The aforementioned columns can be used for more than support. They can –and should — be used to build the perfect ending.
THE THREE-ACT STRUCTURE
Simplifying for the sake of brevity, ACT I comprises the first twenty-five percent of the story, ACT II comprises the next fifty percent of the story, and ACT III comprises the last twenty-five percent.
ACT I includes the setup, call to action, and decision to act.
ACT II includes a cycle of strivings and setbacks, their intensity escalating as the story unfolds.
ACT III includes the final push — victory or failure — and the aftermath.
If this seems formulaic, remember that so too is a sentence that starts with a capital letter, contains a subject and a verb, and ends with a punctuation mark.
Structure doesn’t hamper creativity; it inspires us.
CLIMAX OF ACT I
The first act — the first twenty-five percent of your story — introduces of the main characters, the situation, the setting, the call to action, and the initial desires of your protagonist.
It’s a busy time.
The event that marks the end of the first act is first major setback, the appearance of which crystalizes the inner and outer desires of your protagonist.
The setup is over. The story is truly underway.
This column — this plot point — defines the final battle of the Act III climax. It raises the questions (will the protagonist succeed in achieving the inner and/or outer desires and how or why not?) that will be answered by the ending.
If, while you’re writing, your story starts to sag, go back and strengthen this column. Bolster the setback. Bolster the inner desire. Bolster the outer desire.
This column must be strong enough to support the story from the beginning of the long second act to the middle.
MIDPOINT OF ACT II
Half of your story falls within the second act, a logical section containing several cycles of rising conflict and complication.
That’s twenty-five hundred words of a 5,000-word short. Two hundred pages of a four-hundred-page novel. The long second act has mired many a writer, lost many a reader who sensed the writer lost control of the material.
The challenge raised by Act II being twice as long as the other two acts is further complicated by the fact that the second act has objectively fewer objectives than the act just completed.
You were very busy Act I. You introduced the main characters, the situation, the setting, the call to action, and the initial desires of your protagonist. You then crafted a twist that would send your protagonist off in a new direction. Phew.
Once you developed your checklist, brainstormed the possibilities, started working through the particulars, the pages unfolded — dare you say it — almost effortlessly.
Then you hit Act II. You add a conflict. Insert a complication. Throw in a setback. Now what? You add another, insert another, throw in another.
The story feels redundant, and you’re only a quarter way through Act II, with many more repetitions to come. You feel a creeping dread. Writing this story was a horrible mistake, a bad idea fueled by a false assumption: that you’re a writer.
There must be something decent to stream, some meaningless chore that even YOU can accomplish.
As you slink away from your story, the demons of Act II celebrate. They added a conflict, inserted a complication, and threw in a setback. They won!
Or, you could turn the tables on them. Give yourself another task, erecting a column right in the middle of the second act. Now you’re not aiming for 2,500 words or 200 pages. You only need half that.
And that column? A major reversal that upends your protagonist. You find yourself excited by how the event will blindside your character, and you now see how the first half of the act will illustrate half-hearted attempts to reach the goal, and the second half of the act will force your character to reach deeper.
But that’s not all. Not only does the midpoint of Act II save the second half (and your sense of self-respect), it provides you with the blueprint for a better ending.
The column midway through the second act represents death, loss, and failure. It’s the negative image of the ending: life, reward, and success. (Reverse the terms of last two sentences if you’re writing a tragedy.)
You want to write an ending that feels inevitable, and you create that affect by flipping the column you place at the midpoint of Act II.
CLIMAX of ACT II
That midpoint column allows you to reach the end of the second act, at which point a major setback convinces the protagonist that all is lost, that attaining the desired goal is now impossible.
The protagonist experiences a moment of despair that only makes the victory at the end that much more powerful. Victory? Is victory even possible?
The protagonist digs deep and decides to continue the fight, developing a new plan based on all that’s been learned.
You’ve gotten the protagonist this far by building a strong structure, allowing the protagonist to power on over the finish line, building you a perfect ending.
Stephen D. Rogers teaches Master the Three-Act Structure beginning on November 20th and through December 17th. I’ll show you how to get the most out of your writing time by reducing the number of hours lost to wandering around in search of story.
Derringer-winner Stephen D. Rogers is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Private Eye Writers of America, and the Short Mystery Fiction Society. He judged the Daphne du Maurier (published category) for the Romance Writers of America, Mystery/Suspense Chapter, for three years and has written columns and articles for Dabbling Mum, Writer’s Digest, and Writing World. He teaches or has taught for RWA-KOD, SavvyAuthors, and WritersUniv.
If you write fantasy, horror, or science fiction, The Dictionary of Made-Up Languages should be on your bookshelf. Otherwise, it should be on your nightstand.
Can you converse in Klingon? Ask an Elf the time of day? Greet a speaker of Esperanto? These are among the more than 100 constructed languages you’ll find in this book. For each one, author Stephen D. Rogers provides vocabulary, grammatical features, background information on the language and its inventor, and fascinating facts. What’s more, easy-to-follow guidelines show you how to construct your own made-up language–everything from building vocabulary to making up a grammar.
So pick up this dictionary! In no time, you’ll be telling your friends, “Tsun oe nga-hu ni-Na’vi pangkxo a fì-‘u oe-ru prrte’ lu.” (“It’s a pleasure to be able to chat with you in Navi.”)