Three-Act Structure: Unify with "Three Things"

Try this exercise if you're afraid your conflict is lagging!

This uses the 3-act Structure to organize your plot events into setup, rising conflict, resolution, and that structure provides propulsion and the progression of events within the story arc. Willy-nilly eventing won't build up the dramatic power that intensifies the emotion.  In fact, effective plotting is all about cause and effect. Events matter because they cause something else to happen and something to change and the characters to feel. The accumulation of events is what propels the reader to read on, and organizing this cause/effect sequence into acts will help you build tension and cause change.

Three Acts:

Act 1 -- Set up conflict.
Act 2 -- Make conflict rise.
Act 3 -- Make conflict explode, and then resolve it.

Try breaking these acts into 3 big events of ascending emotional risk: Examples-
3 times she needed help
3 times he got stuck
3 attempts to deal with the conflict
3 attempts to reach the goal
3 heartbreaks
3 secrets
3 lies
3 failures
3 betrayals
3 times she didn't ask for help

Just try it-- ascending risk, remember!
Then consider: What are the risks he/she is afraid of?
Why is this a risk?
What might this risk cause, and what might be caused by their trying to AVOID the risk?

For example, let's take one that is just full of emotion-- secrets. Three secrets.
Kept or revealed? Or both? Maybe the attempt to keep a secret leads to revelation.
Let's think of ascending risk --
Act 1: This sets up the first secret. She's an FBI agent, and she's sent undercover into a small town. So the first secret is that she's secretly an FBI agent.
There's not a lot of emotional risk in this secret because it's her job. But it sets in motion all the rest of the risks.
What does this cause? It causes her to be placed in this small town to investigate the local bank, and it causes her to have to take on a disguise—she's pretending to be a bank teller.

Act 2: The next secret comes when she meets and is drawn to the son of the bank president. This is just the sort of guy she despised when she was growing up, rich and polished and educated. But she's supposed to investigate his father, and she's supposed to be a bank teller who would be flattered by his intentions, so she has to keep the secret from him about who she is... and the secret from her boss that she's falling in love with one of the "targets".
What does this cause? She's getting deeper entrenched into deception. It's going to be far, far worse now when her secret is revealed. She's also becoming alienated from her job, from her old self, from the FBI, as she's not reporting her contact with Junior. Maybe she's even started lying to her boss, withholding information that could get Junior in trouble.

Act 3: What's the final secret? It's probably her real identity, not just FBI, but her former identity. Maybe she's never told anyone that she grew up as "trailer trash," the daughter of a small-town prostitute or drug dealer. Her final secret is her shame, which has caused her all along to hide her past and her true self, to cut herself off from her old friends and her family, maybe even to make up a more generic and acceptable past.
(The big task would be—and I'm too brain-dead now to come up with an idea!—make the revelation of that secret in the start of Act 3 happen and affect the plot.)

Let's try another "Three Acts, Three Somethings."
Remember the film Casablanca? Rick is a symbol of the United States before Pearl Harbor, isolated, uninvolved, as the world crashes around him.
This is a tightly plotted story, and there are several "3 things", but the one I like to focus on is "Three Times Rick Refuses To Help." (Tip: To determine “ascending risk,” you want to ask after each of the 3 things: What is the risk? What does this cause?)

Act 1: Ugarte asks Rick for 2 things—to hold the letters of transit for the evening (he agrees), and later to help him escape from the police (Rick refuses this time).

What is the risk? There's some emotional risk from refusing to help—a few hours later, he drunkenly refers to it—but he can shrug it off as kind of a cost of doing business—sometimes, to run a successful saloon, you have to sacrifice a friend.

What does this cause? It's very important externally because with Ugarte dead, Rick is now stuck with these letters of transit, and as he says drily, "As long as I have them, I'll never be lonely." (I tell you, this film is SO well-written, because in fact, he is alone, and his loneliness is ended only because he has those damned letters of transit!)

Act 2: The news of his having the letters spreads, and he's approached by Victor Laszlo, a Resistance leader who will be arrested by the Gestapo if he can't get out of Casablanca. When L offers to buy the letters (which will get him and his wife to safety—do NOT ask why! Because, that's why. These are magic letters :), Rick refuses, and when asked why, says bitterly, "Ask your wife."

Much more emotional risk here! In refusing to help, he is acknowledging that the wife (Ilsa) hurt him earlier, and he's using this as a means of revenge. His hard-won isolationist wall is beginning to crumble. Also, weirdly, he's sort of letting himself hope that Laszlo will find out about the earlier affair and cast Ilsa out so that she will come to Rick again.

What does this cause? Well, one effect is, paradoxically, to reconcile Laszlo and Ilsa. She's been keeping the secret of the former affair (she'd thought L was dead), and this actually lets Laszlo understand what happened and gently indicate that he doesn't blame her. (This becomes a huge part of her conflict, actually, as she realizes she still loves both of them.)
For Rick, this causes him to get more and more involved in Ilsa's dire situation and make it that much clearer that he's still in love with her.

Act 3: Ilsa herself comes to him and asks for—no, demands—the letters of transit to save Laszlo so he can continue to fight the Nazis. She is so determined that she pulls a gun on him, and he is so determined to refuse to help her, that he invites her to shoot him. Rather than help her, he will commit suicide! Talk about emotional risk. Helping her would be worse than dying?

(She as always ends up acting with love, putting the gun down and confessing that she still loves him, and he ends up embracing her—this is one of the greatest scenes in the history of film.)

What is the risk? That he will fall in love with her again (as he does), that he will lose all his defenses, that he will be hurt again, that he will lose her. This ALL happens. (That is, sometimes the greatest emotional risk should explode.)

What does this cause? Rick’s refusal causes her to confess her love, and that leads to their tacit decision to use the letters of transit. But here's the amazing thing. Ilsa says to him, "You'll decide what's right? For all of us?" That is, she is telling him that whatever he decides to do, he has to help Laszlo to safety. (She assumes that he will give Laszlo one letter of transit, and she and Rick will escape together some other way. And you know what happens, or if you don't, go watch the film!!!!!)

The real result is Rick's return to the family of man, actually. He accepts responsibility for other people, and joins the war effort. He gives up his isolation and accepts the power of love.

Notice that a powerful place to put 'the thing' is close to the end of the act, so that its repercussions propel into the next act.

So look at your own story, and see if you can identify "Three Things", or invent them, and center each act upon this thing.
1. What is the "thing" in "Three Things" in your story? If you'd like to speculate about what this means, how it relates to a deep internal issue or theme (like Rick's refusal to help is an aspect of his fear of getting too involved again and getting hurt), have at it.

2. Where can you put some manifestation of "this thing" in each act?

For each occurrence, ask:
    a. What is the emotional risk here (and remember to assemble these three in ascending risk)?
    b. What does this thing cause to happen?

3. How can this thing near the end of the story (maybe the dark moment?) cause a great emotional change?

Quick Journey to Plot Exercise: Your Turn!

Quick Journey to Plot Exercise: Your Turn!

My books are character-driven, so I might say, "Oh, I never plot." But in fact, I've learned to do basic plotting by using a character journey as the big structural apparatus really helps. That is, very basically, what is my character's journey through the story? Like:
Indendence to affiliation
Distrust to trust
Innocence to corruption
Shame to self-acceptance
or where the character starts emotionally/psychologically and where she/he ends up. Chart the main steps involved:
Beginning: She is devoted to her independence in the first act, and I show that (how will the reader know this). She should probably be given the choice to accept help but refuse it.
End of act 1 (maybe around ch. 2): Something (what) happens that makes her independence more of a problem than a solution. (What happens and how does she react)
Act 2: Things heat up on the external plane and make her independence or self-reliance a REAL problem, and she gradually has to change in response to 3-4 events in the external plot. Some group or person should probably be giving her help, or trying to, or trying to get her to affiliate.
End of Act 2: In the crisis/dark moment, her need to be independent really complicates the external conflict, and she's in huge trouble (or she's about to lose her goal or lose something essential). In the dark moment, she has to choose to change and ask for help or something that compromises her independence but allows her to receive help from being affiliated with someone or some group.
Act 3: In the climactic scene, where the external plot resolves, her newfound willingness to accept help allows her to conquer whatever the main conflict in the outer plot is.
End of Act 3: Because she has now chosen to affiliate, she is more happy and safe, but also might keep her independence a bit by becoming not just a follower but a leader.
That is, you're going to have certain things happen in the external plot.  If you have a sense of what the main character needs to learn and accomplish-- the journey's start and destination-- you can make each of those plot events push the character down that journey road.
I don't actually plot this out, even in as vestigial an outline as above, but I try to have a really good sense of where my character starts out, and how she'll react to each plot event given that starting point, and usually, of course, the basic endpoint is fairly obvious once I know how she's limited or damaged at the start.
I like to analyze other people's plots, but my own... I'll get bored if I outline too deeply. What I'd love to be wild and yet disciplined enough to do is to write wildly and freely in the first draft, and then use journey, outlining, and structure to revise it in a second draft.
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EXAMPLE: Journey from Fear to Forgiveness: August Wilson's Fences

I just saw the Indiana Repertory Theatre performance of Fences, one in the cycle of ten plays in August Wilson's magisterial retelling of the 20th Century through the lives of African-Americans in a Pittsburgh neighborhood.

Part of Wilson's greatness is that while there's always definitely a protagonist in his plays, every character has a journey, whether or not it is completed. So in Fences, the father Troy makes a journey from hyper-responsibility to alienation (that is, a negative journey), while his wife Rose moves from apology to self-assertion. Even the more minor characters, such as the sons, have journeys to make through the events of the plot.

Cory, the younger son, moves from fear of his father to forgiveness of his father. Here's how that works out in the three main parts of the play:
Act 1: Cory is a buoyant young athlete, who is being recruited by a college scout. He fears that his charismatic but tyrannical father Troy will refuse to let him take the scholarship. He is right to be afraid, as his father uses anger and authority to command his son's obedience.
Act 2: When Troy's need to be in control escalates into violence, Cory rejects and defies his father and escapes, but he has to leave his beloved mother behind.
Act 3: When Cory returns (now a US Marine corporal) years later, he starts once more to reject Troy by refusing to attend his father's funeral. But the love of his mother and little sister help him to find the strength to forgive the father who wanted to control him but couldn't love him.

So Cory moves from Fear to Forgiveness through the events of the drama.

(August Wilson's plays are characterized by a classically elegant structure and a depth of characterization. If you get a chance to see any of them in performance, go! Here's a video of a performance a couple years ago with Dale R Mcglonn as Troy. Denzel Washington, btw, is currently planning a film.)