The Magic of Three: 3-Act Structure in the Novel by Barbara Kyle

Friend, fellow author and writing coach Barbara Kyle has just released a book called Page Turner: Your Guide to Writing a Novel that Publishers Want and Readers Buy. I can attest from first-hand experience that Barbara is an excellent coach on the craft of writing and here’s a taste of what her book will offer.


page-turner_smallbanner-3The Magic of Three: 3-Act Structure in the Novel by Barbara Kyle

From the beginning of human society, stories have been told in three parts: an inciting incident, complications, and climax. In our time, thanks to centuries of theater and now of film, this has become known as three-act structure. I believe that three-act structure is how our brains understand story: beginning, middle, end. And I believe that story is how we understand life: we comprehend each event we experience as having a beginning, a middle, and an end.

This goes very deep. Many experiences we value most, or consider the most profound, occur in three acts. People meet, fall in love, get married. Enemies confront each other, fight, then win or lose. A journey is three acts: you set out, you travel, you arrive. A meal is three acts: appetizer, main course, dessert. Lovemaking? Foreplay, intercourse, climax. The scientific method has three acts: hypothesis, experiment, proof. So does an essay: thesis, development, conclusion. We measure time in three stages: past, present, future. And we measure our very time on earth in three acts: birth, life, death.

Three is a magical number that occurs over and over in myths and fairy tales, and it carries magic because sensing three parts to every experience is how we understand our lives: beginning, middle, end. So, in story, which is a metaphor for life, three-act structure is fundamental. Inciting incident. Complications. Climax.

Child’s Play

If you’ve ever told a joke you already know the bare bones of story structure. In fact, every child knows it.

“Knock, knock.”

“Who’s there?”


“Ach who?”

“Bless you!”

That little drama fulfills the basic requirements of a story: an inciting incident (“Knock, knock”), complications (“Who’s there?” “Ach” “Ach who?”) and a climax (“Bless you!”) that is a small revelation. From earliest childhood and on into adulthood, your brain will have absorbed this essence of story structure from reading stories, hearing stories, and watching stories on screen.

However, absorbing a story is very different from knowing how to create a story. Even among academics and literary critics and who can expertly parse story structure, few can translate that observational skill into an innovative skill: creating something from nothing. Since you’re reading this post, your desire to master the craft suggests you have the creative skill, so you’re likely already using some components of effective story structure in your writing, doing it by instinct. Some people’s instincts for this are finely tuned, and that’s what we call “talent.”

Your instincts and talent, however, will supply only about half of what’s needed in the writing process. Most people stop there. But for the many times when instinct falls short and talent gets stuck, structural analysis shows you how to get moving. If something you’ve written seems flat and lifeless, or poorly focused, and you wonder how to fix it, you go through your checklist of structural components. Is my inciting incident powerful enough to make my protagonist take action? Have I built this scene around a reversal? Does the climax bring my characters into direct confrontation? And so on. The parameters of story structure guide you. It’s a fascinating artistic paradox: total freedom inhibits creativity, whereas strategic limits generate creativity.

The Crucial Components

Sound story structure features these six essential components:

  1. The Hook
  2. The Inciting Incident
  3. The Overarching Story Question
  4. Reversals
  5. Turning Points
  6. The Climax

The Hook

As writers, our first goal is to create in the reader a desire to read on. We do that by crafting a hook. A hook is a novel’s first sentence or paragraph, and it functions as a promise, an unspoken assurance that excitement lies ahead.

The opening sentence of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is: “Call me Ishmael.” It’s famous, and for good reason. First, it’s an imperative sentence—a command—so it establishes an extraordinarily confident voice. Second, it gives a name, which conjures up a real, flesh-and-blood person. Third, that particular name, Ishmael, resonates with the Biblical character of the same name, establishing a portentous theme. Powerful stuff in just three words.

Jane Austen’s much-loved Pride and Prejudice begins with: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” No one reading that sentence can withhold a wry smile. Which was precisely Austen’s intent. She is telling you two things. First, this story is going to have a foundation of gentle humor. Second, it’s going to be about love and marriage: it’s a romance.

Hook Techniques

Here are some of the most effective ways to wield this essential tool of craft.

1. Name a character. As noted above with “Call me Ishmael,” names have power, because they conjure up a living, breathing person.

2. Raise a question in the reader’s mind. Toni Morrison starts her novel Paradise with these six, arresting words: “They shoot the white girl first.” Instantly, the reader’s mind lurches to ask: Who are “they”? Who’s the girl? Why have they shot her?

3. Plunge straight into the plot. Paul Auster’s City of Glass begins with: “It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.”

4. Foreshadow an intriguing element of plot. Here’s the opening sentence of Dick Francis’s mystery Straight: “I inherited my brother’s desk, his business, his gadgets, his enemies, his horses and his mistress. I inherited my brother’s life, and it nearly killed me.”

5. Show a character’s personality quirk. The opening of Vladimir Nabokov’s ground-breaking Lolita tosses a small bombshell of Humbert Humbert’s quirkiness: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

6. Show a character’s attitude. In J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, the cockiness of teenage narrator Holden Caulfield is on full-frontal display in the first sentence: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

7. Render a mysterious or suspenseful event. George Orwell’s novel Nineteen-Eighty-Four starts with: “It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

8. Start at the story’s climax. Donna Tartt uses this technique to open her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Goldfinch. Theo Decker is hiding out in an Amsterdam hotel room, where, he says: “I’d been shut up for more than a week, afraid to telephone anybody or go out…” With Theo’s crisis established, the author then loops back to the chronological start of his story years earlier.

Use any of these techniques and you’ll have your reader intrigued, maybe even slightly on edge. In other words, happily hooked.

page-turner_rgb-150dpiThe above article is an abridged excerpt from Barbara Kyle’s book Page-Turner: Your Path to Writing a Novel That Publishers Want and Readers Buy.

About Barbara Kyle

Barbara Kyle is the author of the acclaimed Thornleigh Saga series of historical novels, and of award-wining thrillers, with over half a million copies sold in seven countries. Barbara has taught writers at the University of Toronto, and is a popular presenter at international writers’ conferences. Her master classes and manuscript evaluations have helped launch many writers to published success. Barbara’s latest book is Page-Turner: Your Path to Writing a Novel That Publishers Want and Readers Buy.


Many thanks for your insightful article, Barbara. I’m sure all writers both new and experienced will find it helpful. All best wishes for your new book!

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

A Writers Workshop – led by Barbara Kyle

In mid-June I took a writers workshop, joining nine others in a two-day event led by well-known historical fiction author, Barbara Kyle. Two days of insights, lively discussion and laughter. I thought it would be interesting to illustrate some of the techniques we considered with examples from one of Barbara’s books, The Queen’s Lady.

Inciting Incident – Barbara gave us a quote from Bruce Springsteen: “You can’t start a fire without a spark.” Readers want to care about a character right away. The inciting incident shows the essence of the major character in action relating to something of vital importance to him or her. That situation throws the protagonist’s world out of balance and the story tells how that main character brings their life back into balance.

Story Hook – the hook has to reflect the major essence and central drama of the story. It sets forth a significant problem for the main character.

The Queen's Lady by Barbara KyleThe Queen’s Lady – “She would remember this forever as the night she watched two men die, one at peace and one in terror.” Bang! The book opens. Right away we’re concerned. In a night of chaos, rioting and bloodshed, seven-year-old Honor Larke tries to find her father’s servant Ralph. Along the way she is threatened by thieves, soothes a dying man and has her first encounter with Thomas More. Then, at the bedside of her dying father, she watches a priest curse her father with “the pain of hell”. A short while later that same priest arranges for Honor to become the ward of a man she had never met, a man who will also control her father’s estate. We’re hooked!

Creating an Empathetic Character – writers need to create an emotional response for their readers as quickly as possible. This involves showing the characters conscious desires, motivations, and close relationships, placing them in high stakes circumstances, having them deal with everyday issues and ensuring the right blend of consistency and contradiction in their behaviour. According to Kyle, the more problems a character has, the more readers identify with him/her.

The Queen’s Lady – Honor Larke is the main character. Even as a young girl, she is feisty and courageous. Kyle immediately puts her in a threatening situation and then piles on the undeserved misfortune of being taken away from her home into the wardship of a man who only wants to marry her as soon as possible to his son and take over Honor’s fortune. With luck, Honor escapes that situation to become the ward of Thomas More but not without making a dangerous enemy of the priest who damned her father. Honor blossoms under More’s tutelage and ultimately earns a place at court with Queen Catherine. Justice and loyalty are critical to Honor’s character; both traits lead her into circumstances that risk betrayal and death. She desires love but pushes it away. She struggles with essential matters of faith. She is compassionate and yet tough minded.

As readers we engage with other significant characters: Queen Catherine, Henry VIII, Thomas More, and Richard Thornleigh. Barbara exposes their strengths and weaknesses, longings, fears and desires.

Dialogue – dialogue reveals character and must not present any barriers between reader and characters. All dialogue has subtext. Writers can augment dialogue with thoughts and body language to enhance the meaning and perspective.

The Queen’s Lady – a scene with Queen Catherine and Honor Larke. The Queen has found some evidence to prove she was a virgin when she married Henry VIII.

“Wolsey means to strangle this evidence,” she whispered. “He means to strangle my last hope. And I must do as he says. If I do not, the Privy Council threatens the most extreme consequences for my disobedience.” She dropped her forehead onto Honor’s shoulder. “Blessed Mother of God, what am I to do!”

“Madam,” Honor said steadily. “let me go to the Emperor.”

Catherine looked up, astonishment on her face. “What are you saying?”

“Send me to Spain. In Valladolid I can pour out to your nephew your pleas to release this document from his treasury. I’ll have it back here, safe in your possession, before Ascension Day. And with it you can confound these Cardinals in their legatine court.”

Catherine stared at her. “Oh, but my dear!” she whispered. “Dare I hope …? There is so little time. And … no, no, it is too dangerous.”

“Not for a pilgrim,” Honor smiled. “Don’t you see? Easter is the perfect time for such a ruse. I’ll be a pilgrim traveling to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela — just one among hundreds of English pilgrims.”

What does this reveal about Honor? She’s brave, loyal, compassionate and intelligent. And Catherine? She’s weary, fearful and almost hopeless and yet she cares for Honor’s safety and not merely her own needs.

At the end of the course, I had thirty pages of my latest manuscript full of notes and suggestions from Barbara and the other participants. Definitely time well spent.