The OTHER Three Acts

Every writer knows about the Three Act Structure, right?

Act One – Exposition

Act Two – Rising Action

Act Three – Resolution

As a frequent pantser, I don’t think about this structure as early or often as I should. However, there is a different three act structure that is essential to my work. A structure that, while not plot-focused, still carries me through a story from beginning to end. The other three acts, based solely on the music I listen to while writing.

Act One – Design the Playlist

In my opinion, the best way to face the blank page of a new manuscript is to match it with a blank playlist in iTunes. As I add words to the page, I add songs to the playlist. I pick songs that match the mood of the story. Songs my characters would like. Songs with lyrics that fit my theme.

Not all of the songs I select make the final cut. As I learn more about my characters, some songs just don’t work. As I listen to the playlist as a whole, songs clash or remind me of others that would fit better.

But once the deletions and replacements have been made, the playlist becomes The Playlist. Listening to it puts me in tune with my characters and story. It serves as an auditory signal that it’s time to write. It carries me through the end of Act One.

Act Two – Mix it Up

But let’s face it. Books are long, and listening to the same playlist for months on end can get old. As soon as that starts to happen, I close out of iTunes and open Pandora.

There, I make stations based on songs or artists from The Playlist. With a little thumbs-upping and thumbs-downing, I’m able to create stations that still fit my characters and the story, but have enough variety to keep me going during the challenging middle section of the book.

Another benefit to Act Two and Pandora is discovering new artists and songs. A couple of manuscripts ago, my Glen Hansard station introduced me to A Fine Frenzy. In my most recent manuscript, the Imagine Dragons station played Ben Rector and launched “When a Heart Breaks” onto my list of favorite songs.

Act Three – Lather, Rinse, Repeat

Mixing it up is great, but as soon as the end of the manuscript is in sight, my need for variety transforms into a need for focus. By this point, I’ve usually identified the one song that most represents my story, either from The Playlist or Pandora stations. I head back into iTunes and listen to this song on repeat for hours. Days. Weeks.

The song becomes as familiar as my characters themselves. It becomes part of the book’s DNA during the important climactic moments. It becomes the book’s soul.

Recent repeat songs have included “Mad World” by Gary Jules, “Some Nights” by Fun, and “Painting Flowers” by All Time Low.

While you’ll never find these particular three acts on the syllabus of a writing class, they work for me.

The best part? Whenever it’s time to revise or edit, I return to the music from one of the manuscript’s three acts.

It always feels like coming home.

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