The Three-Act Structure works well for single books. But how does it work in a series of novels that functions as a single story?
Amadeus posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
I’ve got a question about the Three Act Structure. I’m about 29-30,000 words into my first serious attempt at writing fiction (I write fantasy), but it will be the first book in a series. Of course, a whole series would be way too big for one Three Act Structure, but should every book in the series follow it? The Three Act Structure isn’t necessary, of course, but do writers of fantasy series usually use it? Is there a Three Act Structure in Inheritance, Lord of the Rings, or any series that must be taken as a whole?
Randy sez: I’m not a huge consumer of fantasy, so I don’t know exactly how it’s done in most series. However, we can look at a few series that I know well and see how the Three-Act Structure is handled.
If you’re not familiar with the Three-Act Structure, I’ll refer you to my book Writing Fiction For Dummies for the details. In a nutshell the first Act (the beginning) introduces the characters and the conflict and ends in a disaster that forces the leading character to commit to the story. The long second Act (the middle) takes the lead character through a long series of adventures, typically with a major disaster at about the midpoint that takes the story in a new direction. The second Act ends with a third disaster (the worst so far) which forces the lead character to commit to a final showdown. The third Act brings our lead character safely (or unsafely) through the final showdown to a climax, then winds down.
In THE LORD OF THE RINGS, a three book series which was intended by Tolkien to be a single large book, there is a single structure for the entire series, but it’s not a very typical Three-Act Structure. There is a clear first disaster, which comes at the Council of Elrond when Frodo realizes that he can’t give the ring to Gandalf or Elrond or anyone else to destroy in Mordor — he must go himself. This commits him to the rest of the story. There follows a long series of adventures. It’s a bit unclear what one would call the second disaster, because the middle of the book is uncommonly long. However, in my mind, the third disaster is clear — Frodo is poisoned by Shelob and then carried away by orcs, leaving Sam alone with the Ring. Sam commits to following his master to rescue him, if possible. Since Frodo is unconscious at this point, Sam’s commitment is Frodo’s commitment.
In the Harry Potter series, each book stands alone as a story with a well-defined Three-Act Structure. Yet the books all work together to form a larger story. I suspect that you could organize these into some sort of a larger Three-Act Structure if you tried. Let’s take a stab at it:
Act 1: This is all of Book 1 and Book 2, where we get to know Harry and his magical world. At the end of Book 2, Harry destroys the diary of Tom Riddle, which he later learns is one of Riddle’s horcruxes by which he clings to life. This qualifies as the “first disaster” of the series, since it really commits Harry and Riddle to an all-out war for the rest of the series.
Act 2a: During Books 3 and 4, Harry is becoming a powerful wizard and maturing rapidly. He makes a decision at the end of Book 3 to show mercy in a situation where most people would take vengeance. At the end of Book 4, Lord Voldemort returns to life by taking the blood of his enemy Harry in an epic scene in a cemetery. This is the second disaster for Harry, and now the story takes an entirely new turn because for the rest of the series, Voldemort is alive and is doing his best to kill Harry.
Act 2b: In Books 5 and 6, Harry continues to be drawn into more and more difficult confrontations with the minions of Voldemort. At the end of Book 6, Harry’s mentor Dumbledore is killed, leaving Harry with the unfinished task of finding and destroying Voldemort’s horcruxes — which keep him from being killed. I’d call Dumbledore’s death the third major disaster for Harry, and it’s the end of Act 2.
Act 3: In Book 7, Harry (with substantial help from his friends) is on his own to complete the job; he’s committed to the task in a way he never could be when he had Dumbledore to depend on. He no longer has any adults who can give effective help. Harry has grown up and is ready to do battle as an adult. The final book brings us to the final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort — which only one of them can survive.
So I’d say that the Harry Potter series not only has a clear Three-Act Structure in each book, but the series as a whole has a larger Three-Act Structure.
The Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer also has a clear Three-Act Structure for each book. It’s not clear to me that the series as a whole really functions as a Three-Act Structure.
What do my Loyal Blog Readers think? Does the Twilight series have a Three-Act Structure or are the books really just separate episodes? Leave a comment and tell us what you think.
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