Three Act Structure, and why my second act might be the problem…

So a few months back my alpha reader (hi mum!) had a look over the first sixteen chapters or so, and told me some things. The first 9 chapters or so were great, but then it started to… nothing. It went back and forth, doing all kinds of things but none of them leading in a discernable direction.

I’ve been working on it, hacking out all the little side-trips to find that direct route… I think it’s working nicely, and I’m itching to get out those chapters and wave them around again, see what people think of them. Great great, good good.

Now I think I’ve finally worked out exactly what the real crux of the matter is, the problem. That first bit that my reader liked? That was the First Act, the set up for the story, where the lead character gets dumped in the mess and promptly buried up to his neck in it. This bit worked because it served that purpose admirably.

The second part that didn’t fare so well? Well it perfectly coincides with the end of the First Act, and I think it had fallen victim to the dreaded Second Act syndrome  without me even knowing that was a thing (dun dun duhhhh). The Second Act was supposed to show:

  • the protagonist taking direct action to fix the problem they’d been dumped in
  • which should have made things worse
  • and then with a bit of a struggle seemed to work…
  • but NO! disaster! now things are twice as bad as they were before!
  • the protagonist tries more things, and comes under pressure to grow/change
  • etc blah blah…

So when my character should have been rapidly charging off down this very deliberate path, instead they were doing all these little side-quests, like finding a drink (important, but not exactly driving the plot).

I’ve since lost a lot of my enthusiasm for the three Act system (see why here), but the lesson is that each part of the story has to pull its weight, and serve its purpose.

SO! I’m continuing on my edit run, but now I’ve got a plan: take that T101-meatsack-of-a-second-act and hit it with small-arms fire / the delete key, until nothing but gleaming steel cybernetic organism remains.

Have you written your story with any specific act structure in mind? Beginning Middle and End at least? Is the middle sagging like mine is? (hey, the story I mean).

In other news, watching a tiny baby eat solid food can be pretty damn entertaining, even over facetime

 Best regards,


About D.R.Sylvester

A Clinical Research Associate by day (google it), writer by night, D.R.Sylvester lives in Sydney, Australia with his patissiere wife and Siberian Wolf. His interests include travel, music (predominantly Metal), reading, & archery.
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8 Responses to Three Act Structure, and why my second act might be the problem…

  1. Yes, I too tend to sag in the middle. 😳 Thank you for that link by the way, confirming some of my misgivings about structure. I do find it helpful in getting a story started, and perhaps plotting out some main events, but trying to get those events to happen where they’re “supposed” to was making me very unhappy. I figure, as long as the story is cracking along nicely, why get too hung up on technicalities?

    Watching babies eat is the best! Cute lil munchkin. 👶🏻

    • Hahah no worries! Glad it helped you as well. I was worried at first that I had ANOTHER thing to go and re-work my manuscript over. That article made me realise that “Act 2,” or acts in general, are best left as a kind of vague concept, and that the problem driven (rather than plot driven) character is the key.

      Thanks about the little one, she might possibly have dad slightly wrapped around her chubby little finger… a bit.

  2. MJ Belko says:

    Adorable! The baby, I mean. The middle of the story is usually the toughest for me. Beginning is easy. Ending is a toss-up. When writing for children, you’re expected to do things in sets of three, so I need three sets of circumstances to place my main character in. I suppose they compare to the three “acts” of a novel.

    • S’okay, I’m not sure I was ever adorable. Pretty sure I was born with a beard and my first word was bourbon. Isn’t she cute though!? *ahem*

      Yeah, I’m starting to see that difficult middles are a thing for most of us. Good luck, team!

      Sets of three huh? I didn’t know that one. I wrote a kids book once (about a mouse named Petri), but I don’t think there was a lot of writing craft in it. I’d need to do a lot of reading before making a more concerted effort.

  3. M.A. Crosbie says:

    I am using a three part structure because I think the story fits nicely into three parts, and because I like the number 3. I also like your break-down of what ‘should’ be in a Second Act, I think I will use that as I’m going through laser edits of mine. But I think some of those little side-trips/quests/booze cruises can be interesting if they tie in to the plot somehow, even in a subtle way. Or if they deepen the characterization of whoever is in the scene too. It’s tricky to do, but I try to see how my favorite authors do it and go from there. Best of luck to you!

    Also your daughter is adorable!!

  4. “I’m continuing on my edit run, but now I’ve got a plan: take that T101-meatsack-of-a-second-act and hit it with small-arms fire / the delete key, until nothing but gleaming steel cybernetic organism remains.”

    Excellent editing metaphor. :- ) I’m a bit envious — MY best editing metaphor is just something about ‘wrestling the manuscript to the ground.’ No explosions or anything.

    I don’t follow any specific structure, but I seem to have a fairly good instinct for pacing. At least no one seems to think that any story I’ve worked on (including ones I edited for other authors) suffered from a saggy middle. Spiky middle, perhaps — some readers prefer single-plot-thread novels, and I can’t do that, nor will I encourage others to do it.

    • Nothing wrong with a metaphor about wrestling the manuscript to the ground, just add Dwayne Johnson and a pretzel to the equation and you’re there.

      I like the idea of a spiky middle, that sounds like exactly what I’m aiming for with the re-write. 🙂 I agree with you about the multiple plotlines > single plotline

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