Kris Neri is an award-winning author of eight novels, owner of the Well Red Coyote bookstore in Sedona, Ariz., and instructor for the Writers’ Program of the UCLA Extension School and the Guppy Chapter of Sisters in Crime.
While teaching me how to structure a mystery novel, Kris suggested aiming for a manuscript of 80,000 words with three intriguing acts.
“An old cliché is that every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end,” Kris said. “I like the three-act structure because it dovetails so beautifully with the essential nature of story.”
Act 1 in a crime novel—the beginning—sets up a problem (the crime). The middle, Act 2, develops and worsens the problem. In Act 3, the end, the characters figure out how to resolve the problem.
Act 1: Beginning—The Setup
Your beginning chapters should introduce not only the mystery (typically a crime), but also the main characters, tone and setting. You must capture the readers’ attention from the first line, making it the most important sentence in your novel.
At the end of the first quarter of the manuscript, insert a plot point that takes the plot in an unexpected direction. This should force the main character (whether amateur sleuth or professional) to decide to solve the crime. The protagonist’s commitment to solving the problem is what wraps up the first act and propels the story onto Act 2.
Descriptions are critical in this portion of the manuscript. Use words that help the reader experience what you’re introducing through all five of their senses (sight, smell, feel, taste, hearing), and in a way that creates an emotional bond with the main character. You’ll want to describe characters, setting and props as you introduce them, but you can expand the descriptions with added information throughout the manuscript to avoid an undesirable information dump. Never use a prop that you haven’t first introduced and adequately described (the fewer words, the better).
As you develop your characters within this act, begin to foreshadow their strengths and weaknesses as well as their relationships to the other characters. Remember to keep the action moving along, so don’t overdo the descriptions.
Act 2: Middle—Developing the Problem and Stakes
Kris likes to think of Act 2 as semi-divided. As a whole, this is the portion of the novel in which you develop the problem (crime solving) and worsen it by raising the stakes. Allow the protagonist to make some progress toward the goal (typically solving the crime), while also placing setbacks in the way.
“Act 2 is semi-divided in that most writers call for a midpoint scene, around the middle of the book, which allows for another puzzling twist,” Kris said. “We also like to see a low point at the end of Act 2, where it seems that all hope seemed lost.”
She says that how low, serious or life-threatening the low point goes depends on the individual novel and the desire of the individual writer. “Some call out for discouragement, while others seem to demand real jeopardy for the characters,” Kris said.
But something at that point begins to show the protagonist the way, and that propels the storyline into Act 3, which will provide the resolution.
By the end of this section, the pace speeds up as things begin to get explained. Just as the sleuth believes the situation is hopeless, an unexpected twist or revelation begins to show the way. Reveal hidden motives of the characters, perhaps showing nuances about relationships that weren’t clear before. Shed new light on previous clues introduced in Acts 1 and 2. End the act with the sleuth feeling more hopeful.
Act 3: End—The Resolution
During Act 3, the protagonist makes more progress toward his goal of solving the crime, and suffers fewer setbacks. “Act 3 comes to a head in the climax, which is the ultimate pitting of the protagonist and the villain in a crime novel,” Kris said.
The pace of the story quickens dramatically in the final act—don’t let anything slow the action. Pieces come together, and the sleuth’s strengths now overshadow the villan’s. Toward the end of this act is the climax, a final confrontation between good and evil. All the red herrings get explained, all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place, all the loose threads are tied.
Your final chapter is the cool down. It is also a good place to foreshadow the next book in the series, if this is a series.