The best way to understand plot and story structure, is to analyze it in action, so let’s walk through one of my favorite middle-grade reads of Summer 2013, Better Nate Than Ever and uncover the 3-act skeleton that makes this story dance and sing.
Twelve-year-old Nate is a funny, heartwarming character, and his adventures trying to land the lead role in a (fictional) Broadway musical adaptation of E.T. are packed with equal parts action, suspense, and laugh-out-loud moments. But what impressed me most of all was the strong structure of this book. Author Tim Federle is, no surprise, a professional actor, and I can’t help but think that drama’s 3-act structure has seeped into his storytelling bones.
Of course, novels don’t have to adhere to the 3-act structure of screenplays and plays; many don’t. But if you’re like Margaret Wise Brown, who initially quit writing because “she couldn’t think up any plots”—the 3-act structure can give you a playbook to get your plot rolling, or pull you out of a revision slump.
[Caveat: If you’re using it to plan or revise your novel and you feel it makes sense to improvise, give yourself permission to try it out!]
I hear the orchestra tuning up. Let’s go!
Act I: The Set-Up
The role of the first act is to introduce your characters, their world, and their goals.
The Inciting Incident
The first act begins with the inciting incident—otherwise known as the call to adventure—an exciting (and possibly dangerous) new opportunity for the main character. A good inciting incident is a moment that changes your character’s status quo and sets him in a new direction.
Nate’s call to adventure is literally a call, a casting call. We open the book to find Nate about to depart to New York City. I had thought the author laid out the specifics of the goal in the first chapter: the audition is for the new Broadway production of E.T.! The Musical. But when I reread the book for this article, I realized that the author doesn’t actually make that plain until page 48. Which actually brings up an interesting point, and another reason why I think the structure of this book works so well. The main character is very clear in his purpose—he is acting on his external goal and acting on the consequences of the inciting incident—but he does so without announcing it awkwardly to the world. This makes it feel more authentic, and it leaves a tiny bit of mystery to draw the reader deeper into the story.
Nate’s casting call is a textbook inciting incident. Everything changes for Nate because of the call—his location, his ambitions, his beliefs in what he thinks of himself and how he imagines people will think of him. We don’t actually see the moment when he learned about the audition and decided to pursue it—that’s backstory. The book begins with action and intrigue—he’s making his risky escape. This helps to make this book a page-turner! It’s not always possible to get into action right away. Sometimes it takes more set-up. But it’s a good revision tool to keep in mind—sometimes all that set-up isn’t strictly necessary—make sure you really need it and try jumping right in, with the character taking his first steps to achieve the goal, to see what a difference that can make to the pace of your book. The first chapters of Nate’s story are peppered with a lot of flashback/backstory to compensate for avoiding the set-up scenes. I’m not a big fan of the flashback, but in this case I think it works.
The External Goal
The first act must introduce the main character’s external goal. The external goal is a tangible achievement, something the character thinks he wants. I say, “thinks he wants” rather than just plain “wants” because more often than not the external goal is somewhat misguided. But it will take the whole story for the main character to find that out.
A good external goal is a stretch goal—it will take a lot of twists and turns to achieve it. And Nate—who loves musical theater but has never professionally acted, lives far away from Broadway in western Pennsylvania, has never been to NYC, and doesn’t know a soul there (or so he thinks)—has many obstacles facing him before he can achieve his dream of landing a role on Broadway.
The Internal Goal
The first act hints at the main character’s internal goal. The internal goal is an emotional goal. It’s something the character doesn’t know he needs. This one takes subtlety to lay out in the first act. It’s a matter of careful “show don’t tell.” And as with the external goal, it will take the whole story for the character to come to realize the internal goal. The best internal goal dovetails with the external goal so that in resolving the external goal, the character will reach some resolution with the internal goal as well.
In much of children’s literature, the internal goal revolves around a question of identity. Who am I and where do I belong? And Nate definitely falls into that camp. In his specific case, it relates to his sexual identity—but really more to Nate seeking a community where he belongs and proving to himself and his family that he’s just as worthy and talented as his sports-star brother. None of that is ever stated specifically. It comes through in the character’s attitude to adversity, reactions to other characters and events, and the backstory. But the conflict it presents is an undercurrent to the story, right from the opening scene.
What About the Parents?
The first act in a middle-grade or YA should get the parents off-stage. In real-life, a kid gets a call to adventure, and his loving parents are there to help shepherd him all the way, confronting the obstacles for him to help achieve the goal. But in fiction, it’s not about what’s real, it’s what makes a good story. I can’t emphasize enough: the kid characters must be the heroes of the story. And because of that, you gotta find a way to get the parents out of the way. In a contemporary novel, it’s tricky to get rid of parents—helicopter parenting is the new norm. A lot of authors resort to killing off the parents. But I like it when the author finds a more clever way to push the parents off-stage. In Nate’s case, the parents skedaddle off on an anniversary trip, leaving a questionably responsible older brother in charge. Nice one, Tim Federle!
All of that set up happens early in Act I, say the first few chapters of Act I. The rest of Act I revolves around the main character taking the logical steps to prepare for achieving the external goal. Since conflict is the lifeblood of fiction, these steps should be riddled with obstacles. Nate evades his older brother, hops a bus to NYC, gets a little lost, ruins his audition outfit in a downpour, ends up buying some new (ugly) clothes, and finally finds himself at the Ripley-Grier studios, barely in time.
Act I ends with a mini-climax. It’s the tipping point that pushes the hero into the action that will make up Act II. Many times this mini-climax takes place on the threshold of some kind of new world. It could literally be a new world as it might be in a fantasy like Harry Potter, or a new world in a metaphorical sense. Sometimes there’s a threshold guardian baring the way, yet another obstacle for the hero to confront. And sometimes, a mentor appears to help usher the hero into the new world.
In Nate’s case, the new world he stands in front of is the world of Broadway and the threshold guardian is the casting assistant. Nate arrives at the studio to discover that there’s more to auditioning than just showing up and singing his heart out. He needs to fill out an application, detailing his (non-existent) experience—yet another obstacle for him to overcome. Worse, he discovers he needs a signature from a parent if he is under 18. So he lies about his age. The casting assistant/threshold guardian is no dummy—she sees right through him and tosses his application in the trash. Access to the new world is denied. But at the last moment, a mentor—Nate’s long-lost Aunt Heidi—arrives, vouches for Nate, and the show can go on.
Curtain closes on Act I.
Take an intermission, and next week I’ll be back to analyze Act II. If you haven’t read the book yet, pick up a copy before then!
Act I: The Set Up
- Begin with the Inciting Incident
- Introduce the external goal
- Hint at the internal goal
- What about the parents?
- Preparations (with obstacles)
- The threshold (and sometimes the threshold guardian)
- End with a mini-climax