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A three act structure for short fiction

A break down of Mary Bernadette Kowal’s three act structure for short fiction.

This is part 3 of the lessons I've learned from Mary Bernadette Kowal’s discussion on writing short fiction (see lesson 1, lesson 2 here).

In this last lesson, we’ll break down her three acts of the short story:

ACT 1

INTRO:

  • Show the who, where, and genre.
  • The who shows the POV of your character. How do they interact with the world? What adjective defines their attitude?
  • The where reveals specific sensory details.
  • The genre is about mood and tone.

CONFLICT:

  • Show the struggle. Identify which MICE quotient it is.
  • What is the character doing, and how are they failing? This is the initial try/fail cycle.

Build Act 1 in 5 sentences. 2-3 for the intro, 2 for the conflict.

ACT 2

TRY/FAIL CYCLES:

  • This is the heart of your character’s story and struggle. Build it out.
  • Always think about the want of your character and how they move towards it. Regardless of their actions, they’ll continue to fail (yes/but or no/and).

Build this out in 5 sentences.

ACT 3

TRY/SUCCESS CYCLES:

  • Resolve the story with a try/success cycle (yes/and or no/but).
  • Revisit the MICE quotients you opened. Have you closed all of them, preferably in reverse order?

ENDING:

  • Mirror the intro of Act 1 and show how things have changed.
  • Show how the who, where, and genre been affected.

Mirror Act 3. Use 2 sentences to show the final try/success cycle, and in 2-3 for the ending.


Initially, this structure didn't work for me. I struggled with the first act and the storytelling felt rigid.

But for the past few weeks, I've been testing it again. The more I practice with it, the easier it gets. And the more comfortable I get with it, the more I can experiment at its edges.

Hopefully I'll be able to share what I've learned in the future.

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