General Writing Tips [1] - The Three Acts

14.4K 618 293

If you're writing mystery/thrillers, you're writing contemporary fiction where certain rules apply. In quite a few of the stories submitted for the contests  we see that those rules are not applied. Or not applied properly.

You can have great characters, great setting, a super story idea. If you don't stick to the rules, you're out. Nasty, cruel and horrible? Well, you might think so. But if you ever think of publishing outside Wattpad, you might find reality bites. We don't want you to be bitten, we want you to be successful in the contests.

So don't murder us just yet XD

The Mystery Profile General Writing Tips are meant to help you meet a few more of those industry standards. Like the one below.

The Three Act Structure

Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end.

Don't laugh, you have no idea how often this simple rule gets broken. Yes, all stories start somewhere, go on for a while--and then suddenly fall off the cliff. This is not what the three act structure is all about.

And no, this doesn't apply just for novels. It applies to every single story you write. Whether your wordcount is 500 or 1 K or 10 K or 100 K. You must have a proper beginning, a clear middle part and a proper ending - or you're in trouble.


Purpose of the first Act is to introduce your characters, your setting - and your story question (we'll cover that in one of the next features). Act 1 launches your plot and it also includes the Inciting incident (the reason for having a story at all) and the Key incident (which gets your character drawn into the action). Usually, Act 1 is over when your main protagonist has got involved and is well on the way to whatever conflict you have in mind (what makes good conflict is another point we shall cover in these  tips). And usually, that Key incident is where the opposition gets an oar in.

Act 1 is the hook. If you don't get your readers here, you'll never get them. If you make them interested in your protagonist, the troubles she/he is facing, in fact - the whole world you have created, then you are already ahead.


Talking of hooks, you are surely aware that a great first sentence, first paragraph, first chapter (all part of Act 1) play a key role in drawing your reader in. That is once you got them attracted to your story in the first place, by having a great cover and an even better blurb.

Sounds great? But how to get there?

Good hooks are snappy first sentences and paragraphs that contain your story question in a nutshell. Or they  set the mood. Or they introduce your protagonist in action. You want to come up with something original, something that makes your reader go "Wow, I need to know what's happening here."

Characters are key. Ideally, your protagonist would show up right at the front and engage those readers. "Wow, must know how she is going to get out of that."

Writers of mysteries and thrillers have to do two things. Give us that character we care about - and create suspense. Right at the front. The only possible exception to the suspense bit being cozies.  We'll feature those later. But they, more than any other novel, need a great character to draw us in.

SPECIAL TIP: Check out the feature list. Or the list of Watty winners. Find a story that is similar to your own. Check out how these authors start their novels. It might help you.


Okay, so you have introduced your main protagonist, possible sidekicks, we have a place, a time, we have a story question and your character is already wading knee deep in conflict. Now, what comes next? The middle is actually the trickiest part of the three. Here you need to develop your plot, show how the protagonist is struggling with what you throw at him. Show little wins  - and major losses. Especially in the first half of Act2 (often called the "headless chicken phase") your characters are groping in the dark, trying to feel their way. The character is basically reacting to what is happening.

Make sure to include what is called a "pinch point" during this phase i.e. your character not only is lost, there also is more fire from the antagonist(s). If you have more than one pinch point - no problem. Even better, in fact. Usually, around the middle of your novel. you need a turning point. Something happens that lights a lightbulb over your character (sorry for the cartoon reference) and changes the plot.

The protagonist goes from reactive to pro-active. Unfortunately, the opposition never sleeps and while your characters might be pretty pleased with themselves they suddenly find another ton of whatever thrown at them. Another pinch point is needed, usually at the 75% mark. This is also the place, or close to the place where your third Act begins.

Act 3

In this act, your plot pops all over the place. The race is on and you are getting close to the crowing point of your story, the climax scene where all is revealed and all strands of your story come together. And all questions are answered (you might want to ask some new ones but make sure to address the rest).

Often, there is what is called a black moment, where the protagonist thinks all is lost. Until it isn't. But in this act your character finally wrestles down the opposition, solves that murderer, locks up the mad person who wants to blow up the world.

Then your novel is over. And only then. Your plot arc is complete, the story question has been addressed and you might want to just make sure to land your reader safely. To show where the character is now - ideally a happier person, a grown person, a changed person. Where he/she might go from here. Or perhaps not. Perhaps your character just did his job and will continue to do so (think James Bond). But your novel needs to have closure.


What is that? Perhaps easier to show you what it is NOT

"I looked out of the window." To see WHAT? What happens next? This is not an end. This is not even a cliffhanger. This is a cliffcrasher at best. You have just shoved your story over the edge.

Or "Then I went to talk to the police." YEAH? And what happened?

If your reader still has questions not answered by your story, something is wrong. You might argue that the examples above could work in certain circumstances. As an open ending. They could. If everything else is addressed.

Unfortunately, to come full circle, all too often we get examples like the ones I just gave you which leave us sitting there, doing a facepalm over our laptops and smartphones. Because you just not only shoved your novel, but also your reader over the edge. That's not nice.

So, whatever questions you raised in your novel, they MUST be answered. Your story MUST land somewhere. Please DON'T end a story (novel, short story whatever) on a cliffhanger, no matter if with or without a comment à la "Next installment will follow soon."

Or worse "Can be bought from Amazon."

It's NOT NICE. Because it annoys your readers. And annoyed readers are not good. That includes your judges, by the way. XD

So, give us the full package, every time.

SPECIAL TIP 2: Write your ending first. Then you have something to write towards. It will stop you from coming up with a great idea that just fizzles out. If you can't think of the ending - don't write the story.

Was this useful? Would you like to see more of this? Let us know in the comments what you would like us to tell you. And here is the theme music of the Midsomer Murders for you, just to get you into the mood.

Your Guide to Writing a Killer ThrillerWhere stories live. Discover now