Story Structure: The First of Three Acts

Six apostles, from the Jelling church, Denmark.
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I covered the basics in my last post; passion, theme, character flaw and premise.  In doing so, I found out where a lot of my story confusion stems from: too many character flaws and/or ill-defined character flaw(s).  I also need to ramp up Andreas character flaws.  Meaning, he needs to embody those character flaws fully, rather than having me drape them on him so that he fits in the story.

I had chosen some insipid character flaws for Andreas, like low self-esteem, lack of direction, a follower instead of a leader.  And I chose those in part because I have those very same character flaws, but I didn’t focus on just one for the first book.  That’s my goal for the second book and the re-write for the first: focus on one character flaw.

I think I made a whole host of other mistakes in Devil’s Blood that I don’t want to repeat.  So let’s review the principles behind story acts.

That’s really why I started these posts.  Over the past few days, I’ve re-written the outline for Guilt’s Heart, the second in my series, and I’ve written the beginning and last scenes.  But before I charged ahead with writing that story, I thought I should make sure I got this one right or else at the end of that effort I’ll be right back here wondering why nothing makes sense.

Hold on to your hat, here we go!

Three Acts

DISCLAIMER: Take this all with a grain of salt.  Not every story follows the three act story structure and not all stories should.  But for new or untalented writers (like me), it’s nice to have some structure to follow so that you don’t get lost (like I did).  Even though you may use this guide, you may still get lost (like I did), but hopefully by using the following guidelines, you’ll at least make it to the end of your story (which I did, yeah me!).

Act 1

The first part of your story has to do three things: start with a compelling hook that’s part of the plot, give a bit of backstory so the reader knows what’s going on, and introduce the goal of the story with something that triggers all the action.

In the case of Devil’s Blood, my hook is Lorena.  She’s a woman with wings!  Wouldn’t you want to know what happens to Lorena after she discovers that the twin on her back isn’t her sister, but wings?  I thought that was pretty compelling and so did many of my readers.  But, is it not a bit misleading to use her as a hook for Devil’s Blood when she’s really not the focus for this part of the story?

Yes and no.

Lorena is the most important character in the overall story arc, but not in Devil’s Blood.  And, really, if it wasn’t for her existence, Andreas wouldn’t go anywhere.  He’d still be following his father’s footsteps feeling sorry for himself because Pedro stole his betrothed.  But, I need to weave her story in with Andreas’ story and his should be the focus of the novels while hers is in the background (at least, that’s what I’m thinking now – I have homework to do, so my thinking on this may change).   So, how do I introduce her into the story as background and not as the main focus?

The key, I think, is to take Lorena out of my story and start with a different hook.  While preparing to write these posts, I went back to my original outline and, lo and behold, I DID have an entirely different hook.  The unwritten scene was La Marquesa and Tysimin (the serial killer) draining their first victim of her blood.

Why on earth did I drop that?  I don’t know.  Part of it had to do with how well folks responded to Lorena.  Everyone seemed to like her (though I don’t, she’s a religious nut!).  I kept going back to Lorena wondering where to fit her in and finally I put her in the story right up front and that was wrong.  This is Andreas’ story and it should start with the event(s) that relate to this particular story and the mystery he must solve: the death of those girls.

(Wow, not sure if you all are getting much out of this, but I am!)

Okay, so once you have the hook, you move to explaining the backstory.  Of course, you don’t do this by just blurting it out.  You weave it into the story as you move your characters from one plot point to another.  (Oh, did I explain the difference between plot and story?  There’s a difference.  For my benefit, I’ll go into it in another post.)  This part of the book can be very short or very long, depending on the plot of your story.  I have a lot of plot elements to introduce, the Jewish expulsion, the persecution of heretics (conversos) by the inquisitors, the murders of the girls, etc.  This part of my story seems to take up the bulk of the first half of my novel.

Once you get that all out-of-the-way, something big happens.  An event that triggers your protagonist into the main conflict.  In Devil’s Blood, that trigger is Donna’s horrific death.  The violence she suffers launches Andreas into purposeful action that leads us into the second act.

After reviewing my chapter notes, I still think this event is a great trigger for Devil’s Blood.  I may have to change the focus of the beginning and cut out Lorena’s POV scenes, but this event truly is the ultimate reason Andreas “grows” in this story, and I think it is rather powerful.  I may revisit it to emphasize that fact.

Next post: The Second of Three Acts.

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