Monday, June 16, 2014

Wordcraft -- Finding the path through our stories, part I

At a critique group this past weekend, a member apologized for not submitting anything, because she’s just been so busy learning how to craft plots, and surely nobody would want to hear about that. Not! Developing a plot is right up there with character building in a writer’s box of essential tools, as Agatha winning mystery author Daniel J. Hale revealed at this month’s meeting of the Dallas Mystery Writers.

Hale is a past executive vice president of the Mystery Writers of America and an instructor at The Writer’s Path program in creative writing at Southern Methodist University. With his nephew, Matthew LeBrot, he co-writes the middle-grade Zeke Armstrong mystery series. Most recently, Hale’s short story “In the Air” appeared in the 2013 anthology Dallas Noir. He provided a synthesis of the traditional three-act structure and the 12-step method of screenwriter Christopher Vogler’s book, The Writer’s Journey.

This post will include Hale’s discussion of the three-act structure. Next Monday, I’ll let him show us how to map Vogler’s steps onto the act structure.

The three-act structure opens by introducing the main character and his initial problem. (Hale apologized for using the male pronoun “he” to describe the main character. Although this discussion applies to both male and female characters, for simplicity, I’ll follow his terminology.)

The first act covers approximately the first quarter of the story, and ends with a decision by the main character to take action--effectively, stepping over a threshold. Although the hero of the story may have tried to avoid taking decisive action early in the first act, for the story to continue into act two, the hero must “of his own volition, step over the line,” entering what Vogler terms “the special world,” that is, the world of the story. Hale emphasized that the need for the character to make a decision at this point. “If he’s pushed into the special world, he’s not in the special world because he hasn’t made the decision. The hero has to be heroic.”

The second act covers about three-quarters of the story’s length of running time, and deals with the heart of the conflict between characters’ wants and needs. The third act resolves the conflict in the last quarter of the story.

“It’s actually four acts,” Hale said. “What you don’t see in this three-act structure is the middle of Act 2, where something also changes.” That change, like the one leading from the first act to the opening of the second, is precipitated by the main character, becoming a second threshold for the hero to cross.

The third act also includes a threshold, the climax, a struggle which the hero must win (although not necessarily survive) to complete the story.

Despite the use of the term “conflict,” the tension driving the story is not necessarily violence, or even physical action. It’s the difference between what the character, often mistakenly, wants at the beginning of the story and the lesson he desperately needs to learn to complete his personal journey. (“If he wants revenge, he’s going to end up with forgiveness,” was one writer’s answer to Hale’s question about how the character’s story arc changes.)

And what about other characters in the story? “You can actually do an act structure for all your characters,” Hale said. “Just keep in mind that the overt structure will be the plot of your protagonist.”

(For more about the three (or four) act structure, editor Lou Anders’ discussion, “The bones of a novel,” parts I and II, at this site. For more about SMU’s writing program, see For more about Dallas Mystery Writers and their programs, see Next Monday, Hale follows the steps of the hero’s journey through the story.)


Upcoming events and opportunities for writers include Tours of Tyler’s writer’s conference and workshop June 28-29. Topics include freelance writing, children’s book, songwriting, humor, and more from speakers who include members of Dallas Mystery Writers. No agents or editors, but at $30 for both days, the price is hard to beat. For information see

Houston Writers Guild is accepting submissions for its “Tides of Possibility” fantasy anthology through August 1. Multiple submissions welcome. For details, see the June 10, 2014 post at

This one’s really specialized, but the Literature + Medicine Conference in Dallas is looking for poems, short stories and essays from medical professionals about their experiences. Deadline is October 1. See

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