September 17 – 23: “Is the theater standard of a three-act play valid for thriller novels?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week we’re joined by ITW Members Jessica Bayliss, J. T. Ellison, Cheryl Hollon, Paul D. Marks, David McCaleb, Arthur Kerns and Maria Alexander as they discuss the question: “Is the theater standard of a three-act play valid for thriller novels?” Click on the names and bookcovers below to learn more about this week’s authors, and scroll down to the “comments” section below to follow along. You won’t want to miss it!


David McCaleb was raised on a rural farm on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. He attended Valley Forge Military College, graduated from the United States Air Force Academy, and served his country as a finance officer. He also founded a bullet manufacturing operation, patented his own invention, and established several businesses. He returned to the Eastern Shore where he works and currently resides with his wife and two children. Though he enjoys drawing, painting, and any project involving the work of hands, his chosen tool is the pen.


Cheryl Hollon writes full-time after an engineering career designing and installing military flight simulators in England, Wales, Australia, Singapore, Taiwan, and India. Living the dream, she combines a love of writing with a passion for creating glass art in the small studio behind her house in St. Petersburg, Florida. Cheryl is President of the Florida Gulf Coast Sisters in Crime, a member of Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, and Novelists, Inc.


Jessica Bayliss is a clinical psychologist by day and a writer all the time. Author of YA thrillers TEN AFTER CLOSING and BROKEN CHORDS. Her short fiction appears in several anthologies, and she is a Senior Editor for Allegory Magazine. She puts her psychology training to good use in PsychWRITE, a series of workshops for writers. Jessica is a firm believer that coffee makes the world a better place.


New York Times and USA Today bestselling author J. T. Ellison writes standalone domestic noir and psychological thriller series, the latter starring Nashville Homicide Lt. Taylor Jackson and medical examiner Dr. Samantha Owens, and pens the international thriller series “A Brit in the FBI” with #1 New York Times bestselling author Catherine Coulter. Cohost of the EMMY Award-winning literary television show A Word on Words, Ellison lives in Nashville with her husband and twin kittens.


Paul D. Marks has written three novels, co-edited two anthologies and written countless short stories. He’s won a Shamus Award, was voted #1 in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine’s 2016 Reader’s Choice Award and been nominated for Anthony, Macavity and Derringer Awards. His story “Windward” was chosen for The Best American Mysteries of 2018. His short fiction has been published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Akashic’s Noir series (St. Louis), Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Crimestalker Casebook, Hardluck Stories, Hardboiled, and many others. Paul has served on the boards of the Los Angeles chapters of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America.


In March 2013 Diversion Books Inc. released the acclaimed espionage thriller The Riviera Contract, followed by the sequel, The African Contract. The Yemen Contract was released in June 2016. Arthur Kerns joined the FBI with a career in counterintelligence and counterterrorism. On retirement, he became a consultant with a number of US agencies, including the Department of State. His lengthy assignments took him to over 65 countries.


Maria Alexander is a produced screenwriter, games writer, virtual world designer, award-winning copywriter, interactive theatre designer, prolific fiction writer and poet. Since 1999, her stories have appeared in acclaimed publications and anthologies. Her debut novel, Mr. Wicker, won the 2014 Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a First Novel. Publisher’s Weekly called it, “(a) splendid, bittersweet ode to the ghosts of childhood,” while Library Journal hailed it in a Starred Review as “a horror novel to anticipate.” Her breakout YA novel, Snowed, was unleashed on November 2, 2016, by Raw Dog Screaming Press. It won the 2016 Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a Young Adult Novel and was nominated for the 2017 Anthony Award for Best Children’s/YA Novel. She’s represented by Alex Slater at Trident Media Group.


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  1. Is the theater standard of a three-act play valid for thriller novels?
    You bet, at least for me. I’ve worked from the cliché: Beginning, middle, and end. That is somewhat in line with three-acts in a normal play, though certainly not the somewhat rigid format of a play, the tradition coming down from Aristotle.
    When I look at my storyboard for the novel I’m writing now, I see the row of ten chapter headings and synopsis on post-its which somewhat constitutes the beginning. The characters, setting, and what’s at stake are introduced. In the second row, we’re into the middle, where is found the arcs of tension, etc. and pace and conflict are in full force. I haven’t gotten to the third row, where the climax or climaxes will be. Where the pace has increased, the stakes high, and the action fast-paced. This would be Act three, but shorter, more condensed, I think than the third-act of usual plays.
    Mind you, with me, none of the above is planned before I sit down and write. It happens.

  2. Valid? Absolutely. Necessary? No.

    FYI, for those of you who aren’t familiar with this idea, here’s a great article on it from Writer’s Edit:

    “The three-act structure is a popular screenwriting technique that revolves around constantly creating set-ups, conflicts and resolutions. With this structure, a novel is divided into three acts: a beginning, a middle and an end. … The nine chapters in each act are also split into three blocks of three chapters each.”

    You can see from the structure above how easy this makes writing and plotting a story.

    Now, this might not be a popular answer, considering how many people base their structure on Vogler and Campbell, who both fall into a three-act structure naturally as we follow the Hero’s Journey. But I think the best thrillers deviate from this.

    Personally, while I love and venerate the Hero’s Journey, playing with time and structure is what makes writing fun for me. If I’m doing a procedural, yes, I’m going to follow the thriller formula more closely. But in a standalone, all bets are off. I bring in characters, take them off-stage, move through time and space, and base things on multiple beats instead of acts. So my outlines look at turns in the stories, reversals, changes. Three acts, or stages, is a great jumping off point, but to make a thriller truly come alive, you need to look deeper at the formula so you can break it to your own will. Following a formula too closely drives you into tropes, which is what we’re trying to avoid, for the most part.

  3. I use the three-act structure as a plotting guide while writing the first draft of a mystery. But for me, I find it helpful to split the second act into two parts with a catastrophic event in the middle of the book. My first drafts are lean and this helps me deal with the dreaded middle muddle by having a focus for the second act.

  4. Is the theater standard of a three-act play valid for thriller novels?

    For me the answer to this question is an unqualified Yes! I come from a screenwriting background as a script doctor – no credit, no glory 😉 – so I’m very used to the three act structure. It plays as well for novels or short stories as it does for screenplays or plays. In fact, I often write my first drafts in a script writing program as screenplays and try to have act breaks, though sometimes they might change from draft to draft.

    I do, however, admit, that I’m a little less tied to the structure in a novel or story than I was in working on screenplays. I can work with it/structure a little more loosely. But I still start off trying to follow the basic format. It helps keep you on track and keep things tight. It’s good to have a plot point at the end of Act I to zing the plot in another direction.

    Like a house needs a foundation so it will stand up, a story needs structure so it won’t sag. The three act structure also works as a “beginning,” “middle” and “end” – as should each scene or sequence. The thing is, though, that it should work seamlessly so that the reader isn’t really aware of the structure but just goes along with the flow.

    If one is writing an avant garde novel, well, maybe you can toss the three act structure out the window. But particularly for genre stories, I think it’s helpful in a lot of ways.

  5. As I think about this question, I can’t help but go through my books to see if I have (without realizing it) followed the three act structure. Interestingly, the answer to that is: sometimes.

    What I’m realizing is that a few of my novels do follow this format, but as time has gone on, I’ve deviated more and more. Some books include the 3 act structure, but they also have urgent and intertwined subplots that start off in high tension nly to build and build toward the main climax of the book. Others, I’ve started right off the bat with inciting incident/story-worthy problems and immediate high tension.

    My most recent manuscript, which is nearly fully-revised, is the latter. From the end of the first chapter, the main character is thrust into a life-or-death situation–and my chapters tend toward short, so we’re talking less than two thousand words. The set-up is told through flashbacks following a different timeline, but even that one has very little true set-up, and in itself is another primary plot line starting from the inciting incident.This book has two POVs and deals with current action and past-tense action. Very different from the simple and elegant 3-act structure. Yet, this book is very interesting because what I’m realizing is that the interpersonal story between the two main characters DOES follow a bit of a three act play. That story also comes to its own climax as the action reaches its height.

    My next book is an adult thriller, and it too will start off the same. By the end of chapter one, the tension is going to be on and tight and won’t relent until the end. There is minimal set-up for this one, and what set-up I need will be given via intervening chapters told from the POVs of the villains of the book.

    I’ve also played around with timeline a lot. For example, TEN AFTER CLOSING, my latest release, starts with a hostage taking, and from that point, it moves forward and backward (showing the set-up) in alternating chapters. I’ve encountered a lot of YA, recently, that does this. SEE ALL THE STARS by author Kit Frick does this. She tells the tale of THIS year and LAST year in alternating chapters, and LAST year is the set-up for THIS year, but it has its own major plot arc too, and it could technically stand alone as it’s own book (if it were fleshed out and lengthened). Unlike TEN AFTER CLOSING, my book, her chapters are all in forward chronological order, whereas my own starts in the middle and alternates backward chronological order with forward.

    I’ve enjoyed thinking about this! Thank you, ITW, for posing such a fun question. I’m sure I’ll keep mulling it over as I think about how each of my own manuscripts fit the three-act model as well as the books I’ve read from other writers. And it’s been fun reading the other Thriller Writers’ responses.

  6. Is the theater standard of a three-act play valid for thriller novels?

    Short answer: Yes

    Long answer: Yes

    Though tempted to add a few caveats, authors know rules for writing are flexible. The story comes first. So, I keep the three acts in mind as I’m plotting, but my primary focus is always story and characters, story and characters. Application of the acts vary.

    For example, just today I am putting the final gloss on my fourth novel. Depending on the reader, they may divide the novel differently between the three acts, the most extreme being Act 1 taking only the single first chapter.

    Have you ever read a book with great action, but characters you don’t care about? Or characters that don’t develop? One could argue that, as a standard, characters, their development, and their tie to the story is a vital. But we all create different characters, develop them in various manners, and tie them to the story with assorted bonds. The same applies to the three-act play. As a standard, most great stories have three acts. It is useful as a guide to see where our stories might be improved.

  7. Hi everyone!

    While I think the three-act structure works for most stories, it works particularly well for thrillers because the screenplay itself is, as one of my screenwriting mentors taught me, “a forced march through time.” Thrillers also need that compression.

    However, I love how other kinds of story structures have emerged that work just as well. Blake Edward’s SAVE THE CAT beat sheet provides an alternative to the three-act structure. Although some might say that it still echoes that structure, it provides a better way of looking at stories, even thrillers. It might even classify thrillers in a different way through its numerous story tropes. I love how it deals with subplots and how they tie into the main plot towards the end.

    That all said, I think any good story will naturally fall into a sort of rhythm that we will respond to. Any good story can be mapped to the three-act structure, Blake’s beat sheet, or any other format because the stakes continue to rise, and our heroes are forced to endure crazier obstacles, and we keep the reader guessing as to what’s really going on until that last chapter.

    1. Maria, I love the quote, “a forced march through time.” So true. And why haven’t I heard of Blake Edward’s SAVE THE CAT before? I just checked out his website and will have to read SAVE THE CAT. Is it truly an alternative story structure, or is it necessary methods and elements?

      1. Good questions! I’d be curious to hear about your experimentation with it, if you decide to check it out further. For me, it’s an entirely different way of looking at a story. I still feel like a “good” story (at least, in Western storytelling) always has the same basic beats. I don’t know if all thrillers have that “B” story that Blake talks about. Do you?

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