The three acts of a novel are much like sex. Foreplay, building tension, and climax. In doing a radio interview yesterday for The House of Mystery (https://www.alanrwarren.com/house-of-mystery-radioshow), I realized that writers and readers might be interested in the particular model that I’ve adopted and tweaked for my own writing.
I further break up the three acts of a novel into eight parts. Much like if I were to try to run a mile (yes, just one), I wouldn’t be able to do it if I didn’t break it down into smaller parts, the same is true in writing a book. It’s a massive undertaking and can be daunting if you think of the blood, sweat, tears, failure, success, and ultimately, critique, that you will face on this journey. It’s enough to keep one scrolling through Facebook instead of writing.
Therefore, I break my books into eight equal parts. I’ve decided after much research that the length of a mystery novel would best be 88,000. Some would say shorter, some would say longer. This works for me.
I’m also a sprinter regarding writing. I like momentum. Because of this, I have to go back and flesh out characters and scenes when the first draft is complete. In my WIP, at the midpoint of the book Mainely Wicked, I just realized who the antagonist is. This means that I’ll have to go back and build their character with subtle references and tweak the plot line.
Thus, my model suggests that I’m going to write 80,000 words, and then add 8,000 words with the edits. I’m hoping this isn’t too much math for the readers and writers out there. Don’t worry, this actually simplifies things. This means that I have eight equal parts of 10,000 words each. Every eighth of the book, every 12.5%, every 10,000 words, something must happen.
This breaks my novel into eight short stories in effect. While I generally start with an idea, I usually have no idea where I’m going until I get there. Sometimes I have a general destination in mind, but no idea of how I’m going to get there. Occasionally, I just have no idea. So, I try to come up with the action that drives the book every eighth of the way through. Take the first checkpoint, the inciting event. What is it? I establish that, and then I work toward it.
Let’s look at those eight pieces of pizza equally cut and what each has on it for a topping.
Now, I don’t fish, but even I know that you if you don’t throw a hook in the water, you’re not going to catch anything. At the beginning of every book, I throw a hook in the water, just to get the attention of the reader (sorry for comparing you to a fish). I will then propel the story toward the first checkpoint, the one/eighth- or 10,000-word mark. This is the inciting event that really gets the novel rolling, the point where I hope to have hooked the reader into not being able to put my book down.
This is what the story is about, even if the main character has not yet grasped all of the intricacies of what is going on, the dye is now cast. At this point in the story, the life of the protagonist is completely changed. This is also the transfer point from the end of the first act and into the second act of the book, or the point of rising tension.
This is known as the first pinch point. It is here that the antagonist flexes their muscles and makes a statement. The protagonist begins to get an inkling of the truth of the nature of the conflict in which they have become embroiled. For the first time, the reader is aware of the stakes, and that this might not be all nice and pretty. The game is on.
The midpoint of the mystery is the moment when the protagonist stops taking punches and starts fighting back. Up until this point, they have been on the defensive, but here, something happens to put them on the offensive. They are no longer being reactive but become proactive.
Okay, the antagonist must flex their muscles again, and show that this is no gravy train. Just as the protagonist starts to get a handle of the nature of the conflict, they get a slap to the face, a punch to the gut—a rude awakening that this is going to be a dogfight.
It all falls apart. The antagonist gains the upper hand, and the protagonist is up a tree, with the bears circling below and no help in sight. Things are not looking good. The fish has slipped the hook. This propels us into the third act of the book and hurtling toward climax.
This is when the protagonist regroups and begins to make plans to turn the tables and reach a successful conclusion. The cards are now all on the table, the stakes are set, and the final confrontation looms.
Okay, I tweak things a bit here to leave a little room at the end for the summary. A little pillow time to recap the events and outcomes of the book. But at this mark, climax occurs, and the protagonist (or the antagonist) wins the day in a spectacular fireworks fashion that leaves the reader gasping at what just happened.
Do I follow this model to a T? Of course not. There are blemishes, hiccups, and detours along the way. But, as Robin William’s says in Good Will Hunting, those imperfections are the good things. I hope I’ve inspired some, given insight to others, and welcome any feedback, or pillow talk, on what I’ve set forth here today.
Matt Cost is the highly acclaimed, award-winning author of the Mainely Mystery series. The first book, Mainely Power, was selected as the Maine Humanities Council Read ME fiction book of 2020. This was followed by Mainely Fear, Mainely Money, and Mainely Angst.
I Am Cuba: Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution was his first traditionally published novel. He had another historical released in August of 2021, Love in a Time of Hate.
Wolfe Trap and Mind Trap were the first two in the Clay Wolfe Port Essex Trap series. Mouse Trap, coming out April 13th, is the third in this series.
Cost was a history major at Trinity College. He owned a mystery bookstore, a video store, and a gym, before serving a ten-year sentence as a junior high school teacher. In 2014 he was released and began writing. And that’s what he does. He writes histories and mysteries.
Cost now lives in Brunswick, Maine, with his wife, Harper. There are four grown children: Brittany, Pearson, Miranda, and Ryan. A chocolate Lab and a basset hound round out the mix. He now spends his days at the computer, writing.
Nice analysis and very easy to understand and save mentally for future reference.
Clever explanation of the three-act structure as a new approach. I love breaking it down even more. Especially as I start a new project.