Recently there was a question floating around on twitter—what’s a subject you could talk about for 30 minutes straight with no prep? For me, story structure is at the top of that list. And while I might not have a full half-hour to ramble, let’s see what I can do with a 2,000 word blog post. Today I’m going to share a system I developed that’s based on three-act structure. I call it the 3 Act 9 Block 27 Chapter method. I use this guide primarily while outlining and figuring out my story, but it’s also a useful tool during revisions, especially when it comes to pacing.
Naturally, we start with three acts. Now, most three-act structures view the first 25% of the story as Act 1, the middle 50% as Act 2, and the final 25% as Act 3. I personally like to divide my acts equally, but that’s just an organizational preference. Regardless of how/where you divide your story, the basic plot points still hit in roughly the same spot.
So I start with three equal acts and then I divide each act into three, for a total of 9 blocks. In a standard novel (let’s say 60K-90K words) each block will end up being around 30-40 pages.
block 1 – introductions / inciting incident
block 2 – reaction / action / consequence
block 3 – plot twist / break into second act
block 4 – fun & games / old vs new
block 5 – midpoint / reversal
block 6 – trials / dedication
block 7 – plot twist / darkest moment
block 8 – power within / converge
block 9 – battle / climax / resolution
I like to further divide each of these blocks into three (I like my threes!) and I call these 27 points ‘chapters’. I think this is where the method starts to seem restrictive, but I promise it’s actually very flexible! The 27 chapters are meant to be a general pacing guide, not a formatting rule. I almost always start with a base of 27 chapters, but my final chapter count is very rarely 27. I have one story where each block is divided into six or seven shorter chapters for a faster pace, and another story where each block is one long chapter with scene breaks.
Because the 27 chapters are often merged or further divided depending on the format of the story, we’re going to focus primarily on the 9 blocks, as those have a little more structure and definition. Let’s get into it!
BLOCK 1 – This one is pretty straightforward. The general goal of block 1 is to introduce the character and establish the story’s starting point. The main action of this block is the inciting incident—the big event that happens in the novel’s first 40 pages that kicks off the whole story. When I divide this block into three chapters, it’s usually 1) introduction, 2) inciting incident, and 3) immediate fall out. But, as I mentioned earlier, these three points are often combined so they happen at the same time. Especially in books with faster pacing. Those might open on the inciting incident and have the necessary introduction info woven throughout the action sequence.
BLOCK 2 – This block falls between two major plot points—the inciting incident which occurs in the first 10% and the first major plot twist which falls at around the 25% mark. So what’s supposed to happen in the meantime? This block is all about reaction and action. This drastic life-changing event just happened to the protagonist. They didn’t have a choice in the matter. But they have a choice now in how they react and what they do next—even if the action they take is to run away! Rebellion is very common for the protagonist at this stage—in the Hero’s Journey this is Refusing The Call. I list the chapters for this section as 4) reaction, 5) action, and 6) consequence. This is where we really start to see what kind of person the protagonist is under pressure. How do they react? What kind of action do they take? And what kind of consequence does that action invite?
BLOCK 3 – This block is all about the first major plot twist and the break into Act 2. I think of the chapter beats here as 7) pressure, 8) plot twist, and 9) push. Pressure has been slowly building since the inciting incident. But if that was the spark, then the plot twist is the fire. Even if the protagonist has been rebelling against the change sparked by the inciting incident, they can’t keep it up. The change is already underway. There’s pressure and tension building as the protagonist resists the inevitable—and something’s gotta give. The first major plot twist occurs and pushes us fully into the story world. There’s no going back. We’re in Act 2 now.
BLOCK 4 – This block is the fun one. This is the part where the audience gets what they signed up for. In The Hunger Games, this is the part where Katniss finally enters the arena and the actual hunger games begin. In the first Harry Potter book, this is where Harry officially starts at Hogwarts and readers get to experience the wonder and hijinks they’d expect from the premise ‘school for wizards’. For Twilight, which has the basic premise of ‘vampire romance’, this is the point of the story where Bella has finally figured out that Edward is a vampire and they start their romantic relationship.
This is the section where you deliver what your premise has promised the reader. I list the chapter beats here as 10) new world, 11) fun & games, and 12) old world juxtaposition but this is one of the blocks where the beats blend together and the order doesn’t matter much. You just want to play with your premise and explore this new world while also highlighting the contrast of the protagonist’s old life to show how things have changed.
BLOCK 5 – Now this is a tricky block. I break down the chapter beats here as 13) build up, 14) midpoint, and 15) reversal. The general goal is easy enough to grasp—this block is all about the midpoint turn. But that midpoint turn looks so different for every story, it’s difficult to get specific with guidelines. What it really boils down to is: growing pains. The protagonist is changing, and this is supposed to be a pivotal moment in that transformation. The easiest way I’ve found to tackle the midpoint is to know my ending and work backwards. If the protagonist starts off a reluctant slacker and ends up a heroic savior, then what’s precisely in the middle of that journey? It’s the tipping point where they become more hero than not. They still have a long way to go, but we’re more than halfway there.
BLOCK 6 – Another block of Act 2 growing pains. I break down the chapter beats here as 16) reaction, 17) trials, and 18) dedication. In this section, the protagonist is reacting to the midpoint reversal. We can see the potential of who they might be at the end of this story, but they still have to struggle through it and go through some trials. Something will test their resolve—often the protagonist experiences a loss or has to deal with a setback or a distraction—but having made it through the midpoint reversal they are more determined and dedicated than ever before.
BLOCK 7 – Finally, we’re done with the foggy vagueness of Act 2 and its lack of concrete plot points! I break down the chapters of this block as 19) the calm before the storm, 20) plot twist, and 21) darkest moment. Our protagonist starts off Act 3 determined—and then their dedication is immediately tested to a breaking point. This is the part where absolutely everything goes wrong and all hope is lost. The lower you can knock your protagonist down, the more triumphant their comeback will feel.
BLOCK 8 – It’s time to rise up! The protagonist didn’t slog through all of Act 2 to be defeated so easily! This block is all about the protagonist mustering up the 22) power within and bouncing back from their lowest moment. They take 23) action and rally the troops to help them regain control of the story. And because of their actions, all of our various plot threads 24) converge and weave together as the protagonist drives this narrative into its final stretch.
BLOCK 9 – Ah, the last block. This is another one that sounds really straightforward. Of course, we have 25) the final battle, then 26) the climax, and finally 27) the resolution. Straightforward in theory, more difficult to execute! And it’s hard to dive into more specifics here because so much of what makes an ending satisfying and successful depends on what kind of story you’re trying to tell.
The main idea of this 3 Act 9 Block 27 Chapter method is to provide a general guide. And it’s meant to be adaptable for a variety of genres and stories, so don’t take the terms too literally! If you’re writing an epic fantasy, then the “final battle” might indeed be an epic sprawling battle scene. But if you’re writing a contemporary romance, the “final battle” might be more like an argument at a dinner party, or a karaoke competition. The “new world” doesn’t need to actually be a different world—it could be the “new world” of being in a new relationship, or starting a new job.
NOW YOU TRY IT!
Analyze your current project and see how closely it aligns with the 9 blocks presented here. As a bonus, I also strongly suggest analyzing some of your favorite books and movies. Movies tend to be a little easier to study (especially if you choose a 90 minute Disney film—those are great examples of tight structure!) but applying this exercise to novels can be incredibly illuminating! An average movie only has about 10 minutes to cover each block, but with novels you have more like 10,000 words per block, so there’s plenty of room to play and get creative!
Kat O’Keeffe is a California-based YouTuber and writer. Since 2011 she has been making videos about writing and books on her channel Katytastic for an audience of over 250,000 subscribers. She is also one of the three YouTubers behind BOOKSPLOSION, YouTube’s longest running monthly book club, established in 2013. When she’s not reading or writing, she can be found making messes in her kitchen and spending entirely too much time on Twitter.