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Planning Using the Three-Act Structure: Mystery Novels

This is the second in a series of posts about the Three-Act structure, written by guest blogger Annabeth Lynch. You can read the first post, Romance Novels, here.

Writing can be a difficult undertaking. Like most anything that’s worth doing, it’ll test your skills and determination. Ernest Hemingway gave my favorite description of being an author:  “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” It’s beneficial to have a game plan to help you move along, even if you’re a pantser like me.

Are you ready to bleed? Good. Let’s start with the breakdown of the three-act structure. It basically separates the story into the beginning, the middle, and the end. They’re formally known as the Setup, the Confrontation, and the Resolution. The Setup takes the first quarter up to the first 25% of the full story length, the Confrontation is the middle half from 25% of the total word count to about 75%, and the Resolution makes up the last quarter, from about the 75% point to the end at 100%. This is a Western story composition, a typical structure across genres. I’ve already made a post about this structure in relation to the romance genre here, but though it follows the same rules, the plot points are different. What follows are the basic guidelines for a mystery novel, including the approximate word count at each milestone. Mystery novels are typically 80,000 to 90,000 and we’ll be working based on an expected word count of 90,000.

The Setup

This is where you lay the groundwork for your novel. As always, it should begin with your hook–the situation or goal that lures in your readers. After that, it’s time to begin your world and character building. Here you should establish the baseline for your world, anything that makes it different from the real world, and the reader should also get a feel for your character(s) and their routine. This part sets the tone for the rest of the book.

At the 12% mark (10,800 words in) is the inciting incident. In mystery novels, this will be the crime that will be investigated–the call to action that your amateur or professional sleuth will undoubtedly rise to. Whether they accept it right off the bat or after careful consideration, it shouldn’t take much longer than this point for them to decide to take action.

By 20% of the way in (18,000 words), all important characters should be introduced. As this is a mystery book, they don’t need to be introduced directly–the reader just needs to know they exist. For example, if you don’t want the antagonist to be someone that is actively on the page, that’s fine, but the reader must know that they exist, even if only as a mysterious “someone” committing the crime. Of course, it can also be someone that already has a name and has shown up in the protagonist’s life!

The first major plot point comes around 25% (22,500 words) into the book, at the end of the Setup. This is where the stakes are raised and the case starts to become personal to the protagonist. Whether it’s something small, like the antagonist goading them, or big, like a friend falling victim, it needs to be something that will cause the protagonist to feel closer to the investigation and throw more of themselves into it.

The Confrontation

This act is most of the book and includes almost all of the build-up and a fair amount of the action. This is the meat of the story. Tension and suspense are going to be thick here; now is not the time to skimp on detail. Senses are going to be your best friends during this section; your readers are going to want to feel like they are also solving this crime. Does the protagonist have goosebumps? Is the hair on the back of their neck standing up? The readers want to know it all!

At about 37% (33,300 words) is the first pinch point. This is usually when another person falls victim to the antagonist, but it can also be a good place for a look into the antagonist’s life. Perhaps we see a glimpse of them or get a piece of information about them as a person. Either way, one of the bigger clues should be dropped here, bringing the main character(s) one step closer to solving the mystery.

50% (45,000 words) is the midpoint. This is when your false high or false low comes in. A false high makes it look like the protagonist is going to be victorious and solve the case, but it turns out to have been misleading and they are back to square one. False lows are the opposite, making it seem like there’s no hope of ever catching the criminal just before they make a breakthrough in the case. In addition, this is typically when we discover the antagonist’s reason(s) for committing these heinous crimes and what motivates them.

Around 62% (55,800 words) comes the second pinch point. Here is another chance to get a look at the person committing the crime(s), whether through another victim or because the main character has gained more understanding or insight. This is also a good time for any development in an internal plot or goal for your protagonist, or for character growth that will ultimately help them solve the case.

The second plot point comes into play at 75% (67,500 words), or the end of act two. This raises the stakes of the plot to their peak. This is usually the part where we see the main character recommitting to solving the case (especially if they were discouraged by the false low or the high stakes). It should become clear at this point that the protagonist is going to have to confront (see what I did there?) the antagonist and possibly they should start plotting out how they will go about it. The plan usually doesn’t go as expected, but that’s a problem for the next part.

The Resolution

You’re getting close to the end now! This part is action-packed and, for the most part, fast-paced. Things are going to be falling into place, and setting up for a good ending. This section is comprised of the three C’s: Crisis, Climax, and Conclusion.

The Crisis kicks off at 87% (approximately 78,300 words). Now is when the big questions that have been posed throughout the story are answered. Will the antagonist win and get away with it all? Will the protagonist do what it takes to win? Are they strong enough to face what must be done? This is also when the main character figures out their overarching problems and learns the life lesson that the Setup posed.

The Climax comes quickly after the crisis, at 90% (81,000 words). All the clues should fall into place to reveal the culprit, and the showdown between the protagonist and antagonist finally occurs. Usually, there’s a moment where the main character looks to be beaten by the villain, with no hope to escape. There are many ways this can be solved–cleverness on the part of the protagonist, or rescue by close friends, or even teaming up with potential or past victims. However you go about it, it should be satisfying and connect to the core of the story lesson, goal, and the life issues previously introduced, such as the character embracing themselves or trusting others.

By the end, readers are looking for a view of how life is now that the criminal has been stopped. Conclusions often offer a glimpse of how the main character is doing and, most importantly, whether justice was served or if the antagonist weaseled out of it (which is often the case in multi-book series). This can also be an epilogue if you’re partial to them.

You did it! That’s the whole book!

I hope this is helpful for anyone struggling with the bones of a mystery story. Remember, this is just a general guide and you can modify/edit/reject any parts of this that you don’t like. You make your story interesting and unique! Don’t underestimate the power of your own input. Until next time, happy bleeding!

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