Dark Night of the Soul – Your Career in Three Acts

First, let me apologize for being grossly late with my new post. I know you’re not hanging on my every word, but I also know that  a successful blog changes more frequently than once every full moon. Gulp.

As writers, we’re all familiar with the three-act structure. If you’re not, go here immediately: three act structure or here, three act structure comparisons – time’s ticking! (yes, yes, it says it’s for screenplays, but you can use it for novels, I promise) Is everyone back? Good. Anyway, I was weaving my own novel into the three acts when it hit me: my career follows this path-worn structure to a T (or, is it “R” for rejection?). Then I panicked. Why? Because I realized that I’m in the midst of a”dark night of the soul” moment – which is the crisis point at the end of Act II. To figure out where you might be, read on. (The application of the pronoun “she” is strictly coincidental. Yeah, right.)

Act One: We meet our mild-mannered protagonist, a humble creature with a gift for story-telling. During this time, there is a call to adventure, that is, a call to write and a desire to share innermost thoughts with others. Our protagonist refuses the call to adventure, thinking that she’ll never make any money writing. In alternate story lines, her spouse or parents or friends have convinced her of this idea. An inciting event occurs (insert epiphany/personal crisis here), and our hero decides that she MUST go down this path or wither from the side effects of an Unfulfilled Dream. Allies and mentors are met in this act as well: cue the critique group. To progress to Act II, our hero slays the Guardians at the Gate (i.e., talks her spouse into letting her stay home for an undetermined amount of time and give up her cushy corporate salary).

Act Two: (part one) Now the adventure begins. This part of the story is positive and upbeat. It’s where our hero collects necessary battle skills and learns how to write along with the help of her jolly comrades, i.e., critique group partners. Of course, it’s not without pitfalls (grumpy editors, crushing critiques, machiavellian instructors), but it’s generally light in tone and full of wonder or at least gives the hero the feeling of progress, even if none is made. Backstory is worked out in the form of a first novel, which almost always includes too much of the author’s own life. Sound familiar?

Act Two Mid-Point (“sex at sixty”): For those of you who’ve never heard the term “sex at sixty,” it’s not a senior citizen parody of Fifty Shades of Gray. It refers to a sizzling mid-point in your average 120 page screen play. Now that we’ve lifted ourselves from the gutter… Our hero, after much trial and tribulation, finally scores a fairy tale book deal with one of the Big 6 after her manuscript languishes FOR A YEAR in their slush pile. The call she gets from that editor makes every hardship in Act II (part one) worthwhile. She is ecstatic and a renewed sense of dedication ensues. Alternate story lines may include self-publishing that dream novel to an audience of millions after much rejection (or, quite possibly, no rejection if you went the direct route).

Act Two: (part two) Unfortunately, adversaries are in motion in the back half of Act II, and they close down the subsidiary set to publish our hero’s book. Yeah, yeah, it’s just business. But it still hurts like hell. The main character launches an obsessive campaign to succeed and scores an agent. Loses that agent (allies lost). Then scores an even better agent. However, the adversaries are clearly winning here. This drives the hero to act “out of character” and do whatever it takes to win. Ultimately, the nasty half of Act II leads to a crisis in confidence. By some quirk of fate (deus ex machina?), the humble writer sells the SAME manuscript as before, only to have the deal fall through AGAIN, destroying the hero’s plan. The question of the story, “Will our writer get a book deal?”, is answered, and the answer is NO. Alternate story lines include the failure of either a traditionally published or indie published book in the market place (or a lackluster reception, which frankly, errs on the side of failure). They may also include mid-list paths that end in non-renewal of contracts. No matter the story line, all roads lead to a Dark Night of the Soul that drops on said hero with the weight of a two-ton truck. This, undoubtedly, is the lowest point in the story. Hey, this post ain’t pretty, but it’s honest.

Act Three: Ah, ha! This is the act of Change. This is the act where the hero uncovers an internal desire that helps push them through to the end of the story. All the things that the hero set out to do in Act One come to play here, and there is a deep re-examination of goals. Once the “soul searching” is complete, the hero either decides to stay the course or change course. Either way, she charges into battle ONE LAST TIME, giving it her absolute all in order to succeed at something. However–and this is the part that worries me most–the hero may not be triumphant. But in all good three-act stories, the hero must satisfy SOME desire, whether internal or external, in order for the ending to be emotionally resonant.

I’m scared to death to enter Act III, the final battle is always bloody, but I think I’m ready. I only hope I’m the hero of a comedy and not a tragedy.


Where are you in the three act structure? Does any of this sound familiar to you? How many battle scars have you endured? Have you experienced the ending to your own story?


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