Tag Archives | three-act structure

Can a book have weak structure and still succeed?

Tricky question.

I say, yes. Remember I said, ‘weak structure’ not bad structure or no structure. Meaning the elements of the three acts are there, but they’re weak.

Examples of weak structure:

  • No distinct inciting incident.
  • The turning point/disaster before Act II and Act III aren’t obvious. I know I’m in Act II or III but I missed that life changing decision and huge disaster.
  • The first part of Act II covers the B story or subplot but the story isn’t moving forward much. (I fall asleep while reading.)
  • The big midpoint moment that I love is almost non-existent or it happens too late. (I think subconsciously, readers notice this kind of thing. They might think the middle is dragging.)
  • In the climax, the protagonist never really has that final fight with the villain.
  • The villain suffers from the Scooby-doo effect, meaning he/she isn’t really as bad as the reader was led to believe.

So why do some of these books end up on the bestseller list or receive 5 stars?

  • Incredible hook.
  • High stakes.
  • Snappy dialogue.
  • Terrific page-to-page tension and over-arching tension.
  • An extremely likeable main character that readers connect to.
  • Great sensory details that make the story come alive.
  • A well-developed voice that practically pulls us through the story.

The good thing is that structure is easier to learn and apply to your writing than some of the elements on the list above. In most cases, great structure can push your book from great to excellent and the reader won’t even know why.

Do you agree? Or disagree? Is structure worth studying? What might be the positive side effects of learning structure?

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Fifteen tips to strengthen your story structure.

I spent hours breaking down a movie (How To Train Your Dragon) into acts. Who cares? I already knew about the three acts. I’d read Save the Cat, Story; and Plot and Structure is my writing bible.

Fair questions and thoughts.

Most tidbits I knew but I gained a deeper understanding of them. As in exactly how I might use them in my own writing. Okay, here goes:

Premise or logline:

1. Importance of placing a personality the least fit for the job into the role of main character.  (Skinny, accident-prone Viking anyone?)

Act I

2. Opening with telling is not wrong. It just has to be excellent, excellent telling. (Hiccup’s narration at the start of the movie, or opening to HP)

3. Thematic statement should be made very clear as in the character or a secondary character actually asking the question. This is the heart of your story. It’s a must.

4. Outer goal, inner goal, stakes must all be related.

5. All the main character’s flaws/problems should be revealed. And there should more than one or two; according to Blake more like six!

6. After the inciting incident, the main character should be faced with a decision. And it shouldn’t be an easy choice. In fact, it should go against what the character believes to be true. (Hiccup deciding not to kill the dragon.)

7. The disaster or turning point before Act II should be pronounced. It should pop out to the reader.

Act II

8. The start of Act II and the B Story (subplot) is the love story that brings out the internal story. (Hiccup and Toothless) Does not have to be a romance.

9. Also at the start of Act II is the whole concept of the ‘promise of the premise’: the potential scenes that pop into your head when you read the title or logline should happen here. The fun stuff. No potential scenes? Uh-oh.

10. At the midpoint, I knew there should be a big twist, but I didn’t realize that there could also be a false win – where it appears the main character is succeeding but she/he and the reader knows better because secrets are still hidden.

11. The dark moment needs to be just as pronounced as the turning point at the end of Act I.


12. In Act III, the relationships developed, the skills learned, and the emotional truths realized should all play a role in the climax. (Just let that sink in. I mean really sink in.)

13. I need to make sure that relationships, skills, and emotional truths all happen in Act II. Yikes.

14. After the dark moment, often times, it’s a secondary character that leads the main character to seeing what he/she needs to do.

15. At the end of the story, the world must be changed for the biggest impact. If not, the impact is decreased.


Wow. So, just by breaking down a movie I saw elements to add to the structure of my current story.

The question that begs to be asked – can a story find success with weak structure? After reading a lot of books, the answer is obvious. Come back on Wednesday to see if you agree or disagree with me!

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Plot Busters-How To Train Your Dragon (3)

The beginning is the most important part of your book.

Wait. No. The middle is because no one will read the whole book if the middle isn’t great.

But wait. What about the ending? If readers don’t like the ending they might never read another book written by you and they’ll write up bad reviews.

Okay. They’re all important.


Early on, clues were planted. Relationships developed. Skills learned. Emotional truths realized. And they all come to a head in the final quarter of the book. Act III.

Break into III (External story and the internal story combine for the solution. Go Hiccup! Go Hiccup! Yay!)

While Hiccup experiences his dark moment, Astrid approaches Hiccup after he watches his dad sail off to kill all the dragons.

Hiccup has the answers. They are there. Deep inside. But it takes Astrid to lead Hiccup to the answer. Time to be the hero. See, there is a reason for that B Story or subplot.

Finale (Events leading up to and including the climax) (The final countdown)

According to Blake Snyder, here is what must happen:

  • Dispatching of the bad guys first and then the mastermind.
  • A new society is born. The world must be changed for the biggest impact.
  • And, of course, this all must happen with plenty of emotion.

Instead of running through these events, I’m going to list the parts from the movie’s ending that touched my heart. You’ll have to watch the movie for the details.

  • Hiccup banding together with his friends. (complete change)
  • Hiccup and his friends flying through the air around the monster dragon – and the look on Hiccup’s dad’s face! (complete awesomeness)
  • Hiccup tries, but it’s his dad that saves Toothless and apologizes! (okay, I cried.)
  • Astrid almost dying and Toothless picking her up just in time. (Mirrored action from the B Story.)
  • Hiccup and Toothless provoking the big dragon to fly and then leading him up into the sky away from the Vikings.
  • They take the big guy down, but Toothless’s tail is on fire and they fall into the flames bellowing beneath them.
  • When the Chief thinks Hiccup is dead. (So sad and moving. Boo hoo)
  • Toothless raises his wing to show that he protected Hiccup from the flames.
  • The Chief touches Toothless in a loving exchange. (complete change, very moving)

Seriously? The play by play of the climax was complete, satisfying and emotional. Everything came full circle, which leads us too…

The final Image (Opposite of the opening image. Full circle. World changes.)

Time has passed. Hiccup wakes up and puts one foot on the floor. Literally. He lost a foot in the fight and now has a peg leg. Kind of like Toothless. Then he goes outside.

Dragons are in the village, again! Oh no! But wait. They are not attacking. All the Viking men are now training and riding dragons. Hiccup changed a community. He changed the way the Chief thought. He changed a culture. All because he took risks and stood up for what he thought was right. Pretty cool.

Hiccup and the Chief are getting along. And…

Astrid gives him a kiss because she like who he is. Also pretty cool.

Any books you’ve read that you’ve loved the ending to – even if it’s not a happy ending?

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Plot Busters – How To Train Your Dragon (2)

Ever wonder about that sagging middle? Understanding structure helps to eliminate those worries. A little bit.

The set up is over. Now what? Well, if you’ve set up Act I the right way – plenty can happen.

Here’s how Blake Snyder in Save the Cat breaks it down.

Act II

B Story: (The A story or main thread has been established – we want something new! Often the love story and internal story.)

A Story – His dad is off trying to find the dragon’s nest, and Hiccup starts his dragon training with his peers. We get to know his friends and future allies.

B Story – Hiccup finds Night Fury and realizes the dragon is injured and can’t fly. The B Story is Hiccup’s developing relationship with Night Fury, but going deeper, it’s Hiccup’s story of figuring out who he is as a Viking.

Fun and Games: (According to Blake, this is the promise of the premise, the heart of the story, the stakes aren’t raised significantly. Fun.)

For me, this is Hiccup flirting with the dragon, gaining his trust, fixing his injury. His journey in “training a dragon”. Eventually, he flies Night Fury.

But I would also include his failed attempts at dragon training with his peers.  But as he trains Night Fury through communication instead of violence, he is able to relate to the dragons in his training. And he becomes a hero among his peers. Plus we see his relationship developing with Astrid, the cute girl, who wants to be the best dragon killer.

Midpoint: (Stakes are raised, big twist, new direction.)

  • Hiccup’s dad returns, learns that Hiccup is doing well but misunderstands and thinks Hiccup is actually killing the dragons. (A false win.)
  • Hiccup wins first place in dragon training. (A false win.)
  • And, Astrid discovers Night Fury, who Hiccup has named Toothless. Uh-oh!

Bad Guys Close in (Act II from the midpoint until Act III. The stakes are raised and the fun and games are over.)

When Hiccup’s dad returns, there’s no more pretending. He passes on to Hiccup a real Viking hat with horns. His dad is excited because now they can really talk – about killing dragons. And in the upcoming final exam, he can’t wait to see his son in action. (Great conflict!)

But before the final exam, Hiccup wins Astrid over to his side by giving her a ride on  Toothless. The dragon takes them to the famed nest that the village has been in search of for hundreds of years. And they discover the real reason for the dragon raids: there is a monstrous dragon living in a mountain and he needs to be fed. Talk about a bad guy. (I loved watching Hiccup and Toothless win over Astrid!)

Push comes to shove and the final exam arrives. Hiccup announces to his dad and the village that they are wrong about dragons. (Talk about bravery! Hiccup is changing, folks!) He throws down his shield and spear. His dad is furious and scares the dragon, who becomes enraged and goes after Hiccup. Toothless hears Hiccup’s cries and comes to the rescue. Except Hiccup’s dad captures Toothless, and feeling the ultimate betrayal, throws Hiccup in a cell. Hiccup slips about the nest and the dad, enraged, disowns Hiccup.

All is Lost:

Astrid says it best. “You’ve lost everything.” And he had. His dad, Toothless, the respect of the village, his friends – he couldn’t feel any worse.

Dark Night of the Soul:

He didn’t think he could feel any worse until his dad chains Toothless to the ship to guide him to the dragon’s nest and sets sail with a fleet of ships. Hiccup watches them sail away. Helpless. He’s lost everything. And now he might really lose his dad too. (I love these moments! Anyone else a little sadistic?)


As writers though, we know that the best part is yet to come. And this movie followed structure with great success. The beginning hooked me but the ending made me a fan. But you’ll have to wait until next time! We’ll wrap it up with the final act.

Have you ever studied books for structure? Just curious.

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Plot Busters – How To Train Your Dragon

I watched How To Train Your Dragon and the movie hit every aspect of a story I long for when I read a book. Everything. That’s what structure will do for a movie or a book. Maybe even for your story. Or for mine. (I hope.)  Scroll down for links to Act II and Act III.

High concept logline

A skinny Viking boy goes against the Viking way of killing dragons to befriend one in secret; and together, they must save the village.

  • Boom. Right away there is irony in the premise. A Viking boy who is skinny and snarky? And he chooses not to kill the dragon? And he’s the Chief’s son? Talk about immediate conflict. No explanations needed.
  • Boom. Right away I can see the potential scenes this movie holds.

I love screenwriting books. Save the Cat by Blake Snyder has been one of the best. I’ve never read a better explanation of high concept. Or a better description of the three-act structure and what each act contains. And the expectations that must be met.

Act I

Opening Image:  (Or for a book, the opening scene or scenes)

  • Dragons attack Hiccup’s village. We experience the setting, the people, and we see first hand the fact that Hiccup is a disappointment to his dad, the Chief.
  • We get a sense of the humor and tone as Hiccup narrates a bit about being a Viking. Excellent telling.
  • We see that all Hiccup wants is a chance: he just “knows” he’s a dragon killer.
  • We see a snapshot of Hiccup’s life before it changes.

Thematic Statement:

Can we be different and take a different road than others have planned for us? Does Hiccup need big muscles and a blood-thirsty spirit to be a real Viking? To earn his dad’s love? To have friends? To get a girl?

This was made very clear in the opening scene.

Set up

  • Hero – Hiccup
  • Outer goal – He wants to be a “real” Viking by killing a dragon.
  • Inner goal – Figure out what it means to be a Viking and maybe earn his dad’s approval and love.
  • Stakes – The safety of the village, Hiccups social life, and his relationship with his dad.

All the important characters were introduced.

Hiccup’s flaws were revealed:  not strong enough, accident-prone, impulsive, obsessed with killing a dragon, cares what others think.

Catalyst: (Inciting incident)

Impulsively and disobeying orders, Hiccup spots the never-seen dragon, Night Fury, and not only shoots a catapult at it, but he hits it.

Debate: (Honestly, I’d never heard of this before.)

After Hiccup takes the down the dragon, he has a choice. Does he kill the dragon? After all that is what he wants. Right? During the debate section, Hiccup finds Night Fury and he’s injured. Hiccup raises the knife… but can’t do it. He cuts the ropes and frees the dragon, who then turns on him and flies away. (The important part about this section is to show that, no, the main character is certainly not ready for the task before him. In a different book/movie it might show the character is ready.)

Break into Act II (The definitive disaster or turning point before the start of Act II)

Just when Hiccup finally decides that he does not want to kill dragons and be a “real” Viking, his dad sails off to find the dragon nest and grants Hiccup his greatest desire: Hiccup can start training to be a dragon killer.  Except Hiccup doesn’t want to. But he says yes.


“If you want to play with the big boys, these are the tasks you must accomplish.”  Save the Cat by Blake Snyder.

Inspiring? For me, yes. And this is just me, sharing one of my goals with you. To analyze structure in movies and books and learn!

What do you think? Does your Act I do all this?(I know, kind of a long post for me. Hey, a lot needs to happen in Act I! I’ll cover Act II and maybe Act III next time.)

Click on the breakdown of  Act II and Act III.

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