Hearts and Crafts

Hearts and Crafts: Acts and Plot Structure

Here we are, delving into the first real meaty Hearts and Crafts. I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO WRITE AND THIS WILL BE AWFUL! IT’S HAPPENING NOW AND IT IS AWFUL! Ah, I’ve written the first paragraph, and it’s better than I thought. I am filled with relief and satisfaction.

And there, my friends, are the three acts of a Romance novel–or really, the bones of the whole plot. Let’s investigate.

I think a lot of us imagine that writers create a book the same way we clean a bathroom–from the top down, with a little effort, and as quickly as possible. And I’m sure there are a lot of people who do write that way–but most of the writers I’ve known spend a LOT of time staring into space or daydreaming, and then even more time mapping out the plot. (And then sometimes there’s a little writing, but then it’s back to the plot map for a tweak…and then maybe they sit on things for a while and let it stew…and then they get out a few more chapters…you see my point.) You do not need to plan out or carefully time how and when you’re going to clean a bathroom. If you miss a spot, you won’t likely ruin anyone’s bathroom experience. Authors DO need to plan out their plots. Messing this up WILL sully a reader’s experience. And one of the easiest ways to make sure a plot progresses smoothly is by using acts.

Acts are essentially what they seem–just like in a play, they chunk the plot into sections that help manage the tension. And, as we know, tension is one of the most critical components of the plot–if the plot is the skeleton of the book, tension is the breath. (We’ll talk about tension soon!) Most novels tend to be in three acts, but I’m sure there are plenty of examples of authors who have successfully done this differently. For the sake of this blog post, I’m going to focus on three.

Essentially, mapping out a book into three acts splits the plot into three sections–the set up, the mess, and lastly the crisis and resolution. 

In the first Act, we should meet the characters, get settled into the setting and we should get some idea of what the issue is going to be. It doesn’t have to be spelled out in bold letters, but we should be able to begin to see some sort of a hazy question. In Romance, it’s almost always going to be “how will they get to their HEA”? If you’re lucky, it’ll be more juicy and complicated than that. As a reader, at the close of the first Act you should feel engaged, comfortable with your understanding of what’s going on, and curious.

In the second Act, we should see a build up to the Big Crisis. This section is where an author’s talent really shines through–in Romance, it helps to see both an inner unfolding of the issue and the outward. That means that regardless of POV, we should be seeing clear indicators of emotional tension and development while the plot develops outside of the characters. (Remember, Ingrid’s Theory of Romance means that the main players need to be experiencing a shift both internally and ultimately together.) In short, we get the mess. There can be multiple little bumps prior to the big crisis build up, but at the close of the second Act, we should be ramping up for that big issue, and it should be clear that this is happening. As a reader, at the close of the second Act you should feel the tension coming to a peak–depending on how intense the plot is (romantic suspense could be VERY intense) this is the part where you should feel like the couple is now unable to avoid answering that question posed in the first Act. How are they going to get there??

In the third Act, we should see at the opening that the crisis is looming. The characters are going to have to act, and this is the point in Romance where we’re going to see the internal and the external issues really collide. When the question has been answered and the internal and external tension is resolved, we (hopefully) get some time to process that sweet, sweet catharsis. Depending on how extreme the crisis tension was, the reader will need the author to walk them down from that emotional state, so this is where you might see acts of tenderness, a tension-releasing intimacy scene, sweet vindication, resolute retribution–anything that helps the reader feel steady again. As a reader, at the close of this third Act you should feel that the question has been answered and you should feel satisfied and happy. The characters have gotten the HEA they wanted or needed, and it was a wonderful ride.

Even if an author has fantastic characters, engaging crises, and fresh dialogue/content, the reader won’t engage with the book if the pacing is off. Pacing guides the tension, and tension is the breath. So–how does this look and feel to a reader when an author misses the mark?

Well, if the author misses the mark in the first Act, the reader may experience:

  • Confusion. What’s going on here? Who are these characters again? What’s the big deal? 
  • Inability to engage. The reader really needs to care about that unspoken question by the end of the first Act, or they won’t keep reading. Too early or too late, and the reader loses interest.
  • Discomfort. When the reader struggles to click with the components of the first Act, it can cause a lot of discomfort. If characters are introduced too early or too late, or we get to know them at a weird time, it gets awkward.

If the author misses the mark in the second Act, the reader may experience:

  • Frustration. At this point, the reader has gotten invested. So a pacing misstep can really throw the reader for a loop. What’s happening here? Why would the characters do this thing? 
  • Loss of interest. If the reader has stuck with it for this long, and there’s a failure to generate tension at the right time, they’re going to put the book down or rage read until the bitter end. 

If the author misses the mark in the third Act, the reader may experience:

  • Confusion. Again, if by this point the pacing is messed up, the most important part of the emotional experience is going to be ruined. 
  • Disappointment. If the question posed in the first Act isn’t satisfactorily answered, the reader will be disappointed. And if the question IS answered, but it happens in a way that is too rushed or sudden, or it’s sluggish…it’s a let down.

I bet if you take a second you can think of a book that didn’t work for you, but you couldn’t quite put your finger on why. The characters were fun, there was an interesting crisis, and they got their HEA–but it didn’t work for you. I’ll bet if you take a closer look, you’ll find an issue relating to pacing. When Acts aren’t structured right, the pacing is off. And when the pacing is off, the reader can feel it. 

If you want more information about Acts or if you want to try some smutty writing for yourself, check these resources out:

How to Outline a Romance Novel – Savannah Gilbo

Romance Novel Structure – Lyss Em Editing

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