If you've been doing National Novel Writing Month, and you're being diligent and sticking to your schedule, then chances are you're about a quarter of the way through your novel. And that means just one thing: It's time for Act One to end, and Act Two to begin. Cross the threshold to adventure! Commit your characters to their journey! And so on.
Is the Three-Act Structure even useful? Does it have any value, especially when you're pounding out a first draft that will probably be useful mostly as spare parts? Well... maybe. Like anything else, it's a tool, and it's only as useful as you find it. Here's how you can make sense of all that "Act One Break" stuff.
First of all, the Act One Break is not the same as a psychotic break — although after a week of NaNoWriMo, you may be ready for one of those, too.
Rather, this refers to the idea that most commercial fiction, like most movies, have a three-act structure, in which the first act is setup, the second act is deepening the conflict, and then the third act is resolution. If you pay attention to movies, you'll definitely see this structure being played out in some films — especially ones which are highly formulaic and obsessed with a pat, stripped down version of the Hero's Journey. Star Wars is the classic example of a three-act structure, with the Act One Break happening when Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru are killed and Luke realizes he can't ever go home.
There's a masterful rant about the stupidity of relying on the three-act structure over at Film Crit Hulk, which you should really just go read for yourself. In a nutshell: every story is different, imposing a rigid structure is silly, it's a substitute for constant character development and focus on motivations, and so on.
Years ago, I wrote an article about a piece of novel-writing software that was supposed to make it easy to write a novel from scratch, by giving you a series of forms to fill out, including the names of your main character, the antagonist, the mentor, the love interest and so on. Plus stuff about the world and the conflict. And once you had filled in enough stuff, it would spit out an outline of your novel — which was basically an outline of Star Wars, with your character names and other stuff filled in. It was kind of hilarious. And sad.
The thing that is appealing, to me personally, about the draconian, overused three-act structure is the symmetry. The first act and the third act are relatively short, and they introduce and resolve the major conflict of the story. Meanwhile, the second act is supposed to be this huge, sweeping middle in which complications are introduced and then dealt with. Even though this is a straitjacket that too many people try to cram their stories into, by virtue of its simplicity it has a certain elegance.
I'm a huge fan of structure, and symmetry in particular — I often really like stories where an event early on is echoed by something that happens towards the end, for example. It's neat when things feel as though they have a shape to them, and where it feels like the writer or creator has really thought about how to make something work. On the other hand, an idiosyncratic structure can be one of the things that makes a novel stand out, and a lot of the best novels have structures that are unique and built just for that one story.
And here's the thing — a big part of the pleasure of writing a novel is discovering the structure as you go. Stuff emerges as you write, and you start seeing the bones of your story appear as you put the pieces of flesh together. (Sorry for the gross metaphor.) Often, with a first draft, you are making connections between different events that you come up with, and this will eventually become a kind of organic structure. This structure may have three acts, or it may have ten. Whatever the story calls for.
Like a lot of stuff about writing a novel, this is actually amazingly fun, even as it's also hard work. That's the crux of it, really — writing a novel, especially a carefree first draft, ought to be fun. And there's more fun-sucking than having a bunch of arbitrary rules, or a fake structure that somebody decided that stories should be shoved into, regardless of whether they fit or not.
So is there anything useful you can take from the idea of an Act One Break?
Sure, if you think of it in terms of a guideline rather than a "rule." And as a ramping up of action, rather than a "break" between acts, which sounds like a curtain going down and then up again. Or a huge shift in circumstances, in which a big signpost comes up that says "NO GOING BACK DOOD." Really, the bottom line is that by about a quarter of the way into your novel — at least in the later drafts, if not the first draft — there should be a sense that stuff is starting to happen with more intensity.
Assuming this is a standalone novel, the first 100 pages are probably going to do a lot of work establishing the characters and the world. And then at some point, you have to assume your readers are up to speed with the worldbuildy stuff, and they're ready to see exactly what it is your characters are coping with.
In many — but not all — novels, there's an obstacle or some kind of straitened circumstances that the characters keep running up against or trying to cope with, that makes them uncomfortable and causes them to struggle. Or to do whatever the characters do, really. This really ought to be in evidence by about a quarter of the way in, in most cases. We should be seeing the shape of the conflict, and the complications that it's spawning, by this point.
Honestly, you can boil this advice down to: "If you're a quarter of the way in to your novel, and stuff still isn't really happening, you might be doing it wrong." But even that depends on the novel you're writing.
And a final rant: the "reluctant hero" who "resists the call to adventure" is one of the most annoying cliches in my book. I'm sure we can all come up with examples of this trope done well, or situations where it actually makes sense. And maybe the "perky, eager to leap into action" hero is also a bit of a problem. But really, a hero who spends a lot of time moping, or pouting, or being "rebellious" in the face of duty, is usually kind of annoying — although you can totally make it work, especially if it's sort of an anti-hero.
In any case, if you feel as though you absolutely need to include a lengthy section where your protagonist refuses to go confront his/her problems, just so that you can later have a "now we've crossed the threshold at last" moment later, consider just skipping it.