Aristotle, Cinderella, and the Three Act Structure


If you’re reading this blog, you’ve probably heard of the Three Act Structure. First described by Aristotle, it’s a fixture on every creative writing course – if only for the sake of argument. It’s the hallmark of every Hollywood film, the rhythm of every gripping novel. You don’t need to know the theory of the Three Act Structure to appreciate its effect; it’s embedded in our literary DNA. It’s the reason why fairy stories are innately satisfying. It’s what keeps us listening to The Archers.


If a television adaptation doesn’t “work” in spite of opulent settings, gorgeous costumes, and heaving bosoms it’s generally because the plot has strayed from the Three Act Structure in order to squeeze an epic into a corset – or it’s been mauled by a tiger in post-production. The final episode of the recent BBC adaptation of Little Women was a masterclass in the Three Act Structure whilst the Corporation’s other 2017 Christmas offering the The Miniaturist just didn’t work. (I can’t be bothered to watch The Miniaturist again to analyse why this was so but I feel it was something to do with a premature Midpoint – unless the reveal of Whatsit’s sexuality was not the “big twist” and his sister’s pregnancy was – which would skew the whole story. OTOH I’ve watched Little Women three times.)

The Three Act Structure is one of those writery rules we should try to understand – even if we’re going to be terrible brave and alternative and break it. I am not yet that writer and so this week I turned to the Three Act Structure for help. First I analysed my WIP and it fitted nicely – which I knew it would because it’s flowing like a dream. Then I slotted in the plot of my completed MS and found, yep, we have a problem. I can see where the problem is and I think I know what I need to do to sort it out – but I cannot bear the thought of doing it.

I’m sure if I just keep wriggling and squeezing and shaving bits off, like the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella (now, there’s an excellent Three Act story), the glass slipper will eventually fit. It has to – because the alternative feels like fratricide.



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Three books (soldiers’ diaries of the Great War)


To Fight Alongside Friends: the First World War Diaries of Charlie May edited by Gerry Harrison (2014)

One of the kindest, funniest, most thoroughly decent men I have ever met, on or off the page, Captain Charles May wrote his diaries primarily for his wife and baby daughter. Patient, good-humoured accounts of the frustrations of endless training, delayed actions and the confusion of war – but also vivid description of friendships, everyday courage, and evening horse rides along the Somme valley. The final entry is at 5.45am on July 1, 1916.

I listened to To Fight Alongside Friends on Audible back in the days when I communted to work. I missed two trains during the closing chapters when I had to retreat to the far end of platform 12 at Reading to weep.

The War Diary of the Master of Belhaven 1914-1918 by Hon Ralph GA Hamilton (1924)

I must admit I fell a bit in love with Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Hamilton when I read his diary on Kindle. He spends his time planning bombardments with maps and coloured pins, getting drunk with French artillery officers, and picking snowdrops for his wife back in London (to be delivered the next day by a subaltern going on leave). And then along come the first of the German offensives in late March 1918:

I cannot describe the whole day; it was too confused, but it was a wonderful experience I would not have missed for anything.

Two days later he’s dead. The book closes with the War Office telegram to his wife and a post-humously delivered letter asking her to send him more shirts.

Sapper Martin: The Secret Great War Diary of Jack Martin edited and introduced by Richard van Emden (2009)

Jack died in 1970 at the age of 85. I somehow knew when I was reading his diary that he would survive the war. He’s tough, intelligent, and totally irreverent. An engineer turned signaller, he and his section are usually off doing their own thing; setting up observation posts, laying telephone lines, dodging officers, brewing tea, finding a decent estaminet.

But Jack has a soft side as well. He plays the piano in the NCOs’ mess, leads the singing on marches, and admits to loving his mates. Here he is in August 1917:

When we were passing through the outskirts of St Omer, we saw some English girls (WAACs) – the first we have seen since we have been out here. It was something of a shock to us and we had a funny feeling inside which forced tears into our eyes so that we turned our heads away from each other.





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In praise of … Focus

Forget word counts; countdowns are my new motivator.

Word counts are good – especially when one is at the Draft 1 stage – but there are still times when one is gazing vacantly into space or looking for sartorial inspiration on Pinterest but still technically working and it’s profoundly irritating when this is not acknowledged as such by ones word count.

shutterstock_588214760 copyFocus Keeper Work & Study Timer is an iPhone app by Limepresso – but I daresay there is an excellent Android version if that’s your bag. The paid-for version costs less than the proverbial cup of coffee and does nothing much more than count down 25 minutes to a background of ticking clocks, café babble or soothing rainfall (or silence – which I fill with a carefully curated Spotify playlist). Focus then allows you 5 minutes ‘short break’ (amazing what you can do – and how much money you can spend – in 5 minutes) and then we’re back to the café babble. And so on for a couple of hours, when you are allowed a ‘long break’ of your chosen length.

It’s brilliant – once you have faffed around for a day or so optimising your work and break lengths, choosing your ticking clock (choice of five), and deciding on a colour scheme (the default is an angry red which does do at all).  It appeals to the nerd in me and the gives me enough of a dopamine hit to want to comply.

Right, time’s up. My phone has pinged (choice of bicycle bell, whistle, or chimes). Back to work.


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In praise of … iThoughts

ithoughts mind map

This is a mind map of the book I’m working on right now. I produced this map over the course of several months last year using toketaWare’s brilliant iThoughts programme. It served as a depositary for my flashes of inspiration and random thoughts and enabled me to map these against timelines and various story arc models. I referred to it when I started Draft Zero but didn’t look at it thereafter because my story and characters were already evolving. (I think even the names have changed now.)

I’ve used iThoughts for several years now to plan everything from new flower beds to resuscitation lectures. It’s intuitive, endlessly adaptable (the map above collapses down into six little thought bubbles), and the pleasing graphics and colours and the gentle sound effects give a nice little dopamine hit 😉

I’ll probably start a new iThoughts map soon to off-load the ideas I have simmering away for book 3.

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A garden by the sea

I visited Chygurno in May 2015. It’s a privately-owned garden – no tea shop, no toilets – just an honesty box in the porch and a homemade information board. I paid my money, read the history and wandered alone along the narrow paths, brushing past tree ferns and blood-red azaleas*, down into the damp, bluebelled shadows and up into the sunlight for tantalising views of the distant turquoise sea. I didn’t see anybody else until I was driving away down the narrow lane.


According to Katherine Lambert’s Gardens of Cornwall, Chygurno was built in 1908 by two women who offered it as a refuge to fellow suffragettes recently released from prison. Here I’ve taken some liberties since in my book I describe a house that was already old in 1913. I remain true to the suffragette connection (which was indeed the inspiration for my story) although I made one of my gardeners a retired matron to justify women travelling all the way from London to be nursed back to health following forcible feeding.

stone cross

Further along the coast, I followed another lane down a wooded valley to a small cove. I forget the name of the cove but there was a jetty and a row of white cottages (one a delightful café).  I parked the car and followed the narrow cliff path for a kilometre or so and there I came across this stone cross. If my book ever gets published – and you perchance read it – you will discover the significance of this cross.

I’ve not been back to Chygurno. I would like to go one day. I know it won’t be the garden of my imagination – the one to which Charlotte fled, where her wounds healed and where she fell in love – but I don’t think that will matter. It’s still a very special place.

[*This is a lie. I have photographic evidence that the azaleas were shocking pink – but in my memory they were red and when one evening a storm surged up the valley the wind splattered the petals over the lawn like blood. Please indulge me here!]

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Raising the stakes

I’ve become a teeny-weeny bit wary of writing tips and exercises. This is not because I know it all – goodness me, no! – it’s because seductive links that promise “Just Five Steps to Writing a Brilliant Novel” can so easily become yet another excuse not to actually write.

That said, I have just spent a couple of very productive hours working through guidance on well-storied on How to Raise the Stakes in Your Story. Apart from the usual questions about character motivation, this exercise required identification of their emotional fears, flaws, and sources of regret or remorse – not only for my female protagonist but for her two male antagonists. This threw up a couple of non-sequiturs which I had missed plus several fascinating plot twists and dramatic opportunities. Best of all, I stopped seeing my secondary male lead (the one to whom my heroine accidentally gets engaged) as a selfish and manipulative cad but a man with insecurities and hidden depths of kindliness and self-awareness.

The article finishes with “three easy ways to add additional unrest” – but I’ll leave you to discover these for yourself 😉

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No, it’s not easy!

Dirty drafting probably made it all sound easy. That is not my intention. Every time I sit down to write I am seized with the fear that I have “lost it”. I’m good at dialogue and that’s about it. I gaze into space, go for little walks, tidy kitchen drawers – anything some days rather than write! This said, I do have a few things that have helped in the last two years of serious writing. I’ve mentioned most of these in previous blogs; these are my current stand-bys.

Have a plan. Not Draft Zero – something much more prosaic for that particular chapter. In the notes panel on Ulysses I jot down answers to these questions:


  • What are my objectives for this chapter? For example: show time passing, move
    hero from A to B, introduce X.
  • What is the mood? Three words to describe how I want the reader to feel reading this chapter. Claustrophobic, dreary, trapped, maybe. (Sorry, but I’ve got to that stage in the story 😉
  • What’s happening? National events – because even though I may not actually mention them they will affect my characters, directly or indirectly. Local events like time of the year, day of the week, market days, church services, farming activities, sunrise and sunset – and weather. We’re so lucky to have weather! I use the London Weather Channel to check the weather on, say, November 11 1918.

Have a target. The old chestnut – but a good one. Ulysses (no, I’m not being paid; I’m just in love) has a word counter that says encouraging things (“already xx words!”) and turns green when you reach your target. I set it for 500. Five hundred is easy; I’ve already written 271 in this blog post. A bit more waffle and I’m there – and the jinx is broken (even if I subsequently delete 450).


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Question time

Writing your Bestseller by Bernard Cornwell, Historical Novel Society (1997!)

I seem to get something new out of this article every time I come across it on Twitter. Today, I focused in on Cornwall’s advice on story-telling:

Every good story begins with a question […] if your opening question is right, then the pursuit of the answer will propel the reader through the book.

My book is written in five parts, of which the first part feels the weakest. I’m not Surveillance image of the suffragette prisoner Grace Marcon, alias 'Frieda Graham: 1913-1914sure why this is so.

My hero, suffragette Charlotte, suffers an unspecified assault during a demonstration in Westminster. She is sent, unwillingly, to a remote house in Cornwall to recuperate. (This place really exists; I will post some pictures sometime soon 🙂

We therefore have two opening questions: What has happened to Charlotte – and will she recover?

Both questions are answered by the end of Part 1 and two new questions are then presented – What will Charlotte do now – and will she find happiness? These questions remain open until the penultimate chapter.

I can’t help thinking that this question/resolution thing makes Part 1 feel slightly disconnected from the rest of the book.

Does this matter? Maybe I am seeing a problem that doesn’t exist. If it does, I’m hoping my beta readers may shed some light. I certainly don’t feel inclined to make any radical changes just yet.

Note on photograph

The photo (© Museum of London) is a Home Office surveillance image of the suffragette prisoner Grace Marcon, alias ‘Frieda Graham’. I first came across this picture a couple of years ago in a book in Blackwell’s in Oxford and knew immediately that this was my Charlotte (see blog post Portrait of an unknown woman).

Grace’s story could be a novel in its own right. The daughter of Canon Marcon of Norwich, Grace was arrested twice in 1913 for obstruction and assault, and again in May 1914 for damaging paintings in the National Galley. She was released from prison in June and “delirious with hunger strike” cut off her long hair. Grace later went to Canada to marry Victor Scholey, a photographer who had taken pictures of suffragettes activities. I don’t know what happened in Canada but Grace returned to Norfolk in the 1930s as a single parent and remained single for the rest of her life. (See this article on suffragette surveillance photographs on the Museum Crush website.)

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In praise of … Ulysses


Shout out for Ulysses, the new techie love of my life and “the ultimate writing app for Mac”.

Ulysses is like a blank sheet of paper in a typewriter; no clutter, few options – but lots of behind-the-scenes functionality, a very robust back-up system and seamless conversion to Word, PDF or HTML.

Very cool.

You’re welcome.


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Five books (written during or soon after the Great War)

An irregular series of highlighting the resources which particular inspire or inform my writing.

I read a lot of books written around the time of the Great War. There is absolutely no better way to immerse oneself in the language and mindset of the time – and contemporary texts have an honesty and vivacity missing from stories written removed from the historical context and complicated by modern sensibilities.

In date order…

Fighting France by Edith Wharton (1915)fighting france cover

I include this short book with reluctance because I have shamelessly borrowed several of the author’s gorgeous descriptions. Wharton, a wealthy American, lived in Paris throughout thewar, busy with charity work and writing. Fighting France (originally published as a series of articles) is a rich account of a city and country at war. (Long afterwards, Wharton became close friends with Major Lawrence Johnson, creator of the superb gardens of Hidcote Manor in Gloucestershire – but therein lurks another story.)

Non-combatants and Others by Rose Macaulay (1916)

non combatants cover

A wonderful little book! Full of witty, devastating vignettes of everyday life in provincial, middle-class, wartime England disturbed by Belgium refugees, wounded soldiers, unrequited love and the nature of a God who allowed little brothers to be killed. Unexpectedly good source of contemporary slang. During the war Macaulay worked as a nurse, then a land girl and finally for Wellington House, HQ of British war propaganda – but you won’t guess it from the tone of Non-combatants.

The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West (1918)retun soldier cover

A very short story but one that haunted me for days after reading. More unrequited love, a heartbreaking final twist and wonderful descriptions dripping with the class distinctions and prejudices of the time: “She was furred with neglect and poverty, as even a good glove that has been dropped down behind a bed in a hotel and has lain undisturbed for a day or two is repulsive”.

Journey’s End by RC Sherriff (1928)

Sherriff was proud of his service in the Great War and intended his play to be a true reflection of his experiences rather than explicitly anti-war. Unfortunately, the first producer was a pacifisjourneys end covert and his production set the tone for the four subsequent films*. Read the original script for the full claustrophobic emotional impact and make your own mind up – and remember that if the characters feel to you like stereotypes of the First World War they were unique and rounded characters when Sherriff first told their story in 1928.

* Yet another film of Journey’s End will be released in February 2018. (Note added February 8: see Why Journey’s End didn’t make me cry.)

Bretherton: Khaki or Field Grey? by WF Morris (1929)

Morris served on the Western Front, rising to the rank of major and earning the Military Cross. He then settled down to write cracking adventure bretherton coverstories like this – thus putting paid to the popular thinking that the Great War left every participant irretrievably emotionally damaged. This book paints a gritty but often humourous picture of daily life on the front line in the way no textbook or film ever can, interspersed with well-written action scenes. There’s even a sweet little romance. If only all research was this fun!

All of these books are still around, in one form or another. Some titles may only be available used; otherwise check your lending library or local bookshop.

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