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.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.
Christophe Desmecht says
I find myself fascinated by this: “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.”
I have not yet read any of the HP novels, but this alone is making it more appealing to pick one up.
I am, however, very familiar with the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett. There are certain novels there that continue where another left off, but it’s not one big continuous story.
I guess, the main question that you need to answer for yourself is: “Do I want every novel in my series to stand on its own?”
It looks like that’s what the HP books do, the Discworld novels certainly do, and where the Lord of the Rings novels fail. I think this makes more than clear what the authors of said novels intended for the series as a whole.
Since we are talking about fantasy, I guess that would touch on paranormal romance. I am very fond of JR Ward’s Brotherhood of the Black Dagger series.
Her model is closer to the one described re: Harry Potter. Yet each book is about a different member of the order with overlapping characters.
It is funny Randy that how you answered this questions today, because my second book series which was going to be 8 books I just shrunk down into six. The way I was looking at it was two ways, two trilogies with a beginning middle and end, or the way I like to look at it as a 3 act structure. Book 1 intros the main character Book 2&3 make the first half of the second act. Books 4&5 make up the second half with a cliffhanger ending. And book six is act 3.
I admit I don’t think of this structure in my writing, because when I try to I seem not to understand it. I think subconsciously I do, and it just falls together. I just started reading Stephen Kings book “ON Writing” where he does not plot his novels and looks at stories as fossils that need to be unearthed, and the story natural comes as he writes. I think in away, while I plot my novels it falls in there.
Also I would say Lord of the Rings while they were meant to be one big story, which explains why Tolkien just stopped writing in the first two books, could be stand alone, since they each have a goal in mind. The series I talked about above is one giant story, but each book is a stand a lone book, but with each book you need to know the events of the one before it because you will be lost. Same with Harry Potter, if you jump right into Harry Potter while it is a stand a lone book, you would be lost unless you know some basic info on the rest of the books.
Phillip Conrad says
A lot of this has to do with the reality of your personal limitations and the fickle nature of the publishing world. If you have no idea when, or if, you are going to be able to complete a series, it’s hard to have a meta-plot. I’m pretty sure that’s the correct term. I read in an interview that Michael Connelly heard it at a writers conference. Regardless, lots of series fiction is written only while it’s still selling well and can end quite abruptly. The obvious example is TV.
To actually plan, and execute, a successful three act structured series is a remarkable achievement. If instead, you pick one character to be THE protagonist in each book, you can focus on that character’s growth and change. That way you won’t ever find yourself in the regrettable situation where your main character is like the Incredible Hulk, always having to revert back to Bruce Banner so he can rage again later.
The other side of the coin is something you might also want to avoid. If you have moderate sales of the first two books in a planned trilogy, do you really want to vanquish evil once and for all with your third book? Wouldn’t a strategy that allowed you to continue to build the series and your readership be better for everybody?
As a reader, I really dislike it when a book ends without a satisfying ending but with the first chapter of the sequel as a “bonus.” No matter what your meta-plot strategy, give the reader a good ending for each book or you risk a negative word of mouth backlash. I could think of some recent examples in books, but would rather harp on some movies that were arbitrarily broken up: Back to the Future 2 & 3, The Matrix 2 & 3, Kill Bill 1 & 2. Can anybody honestly say they felt good walking out of the theater after those near-cliffhanger endings?
Don’t forget Pirates 2&3 though there was a better ending for Pirates 2, but still had that cliffhanger.
As for bad endings, you should know the ending of the story before you even begin. That’s just me, that way you have something to work towards.
I haven’t posted for a long while, but I have been following as time allows.
For me, one the of best examples of an epic 3-act trilogy are the original Star Wars trilogy. Each movie/book has it’s 3-act format and each is one part of the epic.
Episode 4: A New Hope
Galactic events force a young, naive farmer to take a key role in the battle of good v. evil. Luke is forced to take action when Owen/Beru are murdered (disaster 1); he escapes Tatooine (Disater 2), only to be trapped on the Death Star (Disater 3); in the end he destroys the Death Star. This is also Act 1 of the Epic: Luke begins his adventure.
Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back
Rebels hide on Hoth, Luke is attacked by Yeti-creature (Disaster 1); trains with Yoda but fails cave test (Disaster 2); tries to rescue friends on Bespin, but fails (Disaster 3); and they have to rescue him. This is Act 2 of the Epic: Luke is learning, growing, but seems to fail at every turn.
Episode 6: Return of the Jedi
Rescue of friends from Jabba (Disaster 1); battle on Endor (Disaster 2); battle with Vader (Disaster 3); Palpatine is killed. This is Act 3 of the Epic: Luke has a plan and everything comes together and in the end Good triumphs over Evil.
Val Clark says
I wrote the first book of my young adult fantasy trilogy in a seat of the pants way and am now tweaking the final (of about 20)draft. After reading Dummies I had another look at it and discovered that I had followed the 3 act form without even thinking about it. However I realised that the end of acts 2 and 3 needed boosting. I’m much happier with the result which both ties the loose ends together and propels the reader into the next book. So, I think you can do both. See the meta narrative as three acts and find the three acts in each book. Good luck Amadeus.
James Thayer says
I think it’s important for writers planning a series to focus on the first book, and have the first book contain all that a stand-alone book would have, including a complete ending. This means that the main story question (Does he get revenge? Will he escape? Will she find her fortune?) is fully answered at the end of the novel, and that loose ends are tied up. (If the character Xeno is coughing raggedly in chapter four, it needs to be explained by the end of the novel.) Leaving large and small questions unanswered at the end of a novel will anger readers, who might not go on to the second book to find them. There is usually a lot of room in a novel for development of a sequel (new characters, new enemies) but the main questions of the first novel should be completely answered in the first novel.
Yes, I believe the Twilight series has a clear 3 act structure. The first book introduces the characters and ends with Bella almost killed. The second and third books bring the characters through a series of near-death experiences. The second act ends 1/4 way through the final book when Bella almost dies again and the takes off in a whole new direction with Bella “growing up” and fighting for her family, instead of the other way around as it has been throughout the books. I never thought of that before but it’s very interesting and has cleared up how my books acts are structured as well. Thanks, Randy
Kassandra Morrison says
I would say that Twilight has a three act structure with the first disaster when Bella is in the wrong place at the wrong time in the Baseball Field and the trouble magnet attracts a vampire (James).
Two I guess would be the escalation of the Victoria Problem and ends with an attack by Victoria on the Cullen’s in Eclipse.
Third would be Bella’s pregnancy in Breaking Dawn and the impending visit of the Volturi.
Thats my ideas anyway.