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Three-Act Structure in Fantastic Fiction

Instructor:  Jeanne Cavelos
Level:  Advanced
Class Times:  There will be three live class meetings.
Monday, January 4, 2016,
Monday, January 18, 2016, and
Monday, February 1, 2016,
7:00 pm-9:00 pm U.S. Eastern Time Zone
Application Deadline:  December 7, 2015
Tuition:  $249.00

To apply, click here. Note: If you wish to apply for more than one class, you must apply for each class with a separate application.

For more information on Odyssey's Online Classes, click here.

Three-Act Structure in Fantastic Fiction


NOTE: Class meetings for this course are 2 hours long, rather than our usual 90 minutes.

Course Description:

Does your story or novel lack momentum, suspense, and escalation? Do you feel you're making plot decisions randomly? Are you missing crisis points of impact and emotion? Do readers say "ho hum" or "hunh?" to your climax? One of the greatest weaknesses of developing writers is plot. One of the best tools for strengthening plot is the act. Plotting in acts creates a more suspenseful, unpredictable, and emotionally satisfying experience for the reader. This course will start by defining key units of structure--the scene, chapter, and act--and explore why we need acts. We'll discuss the effect of acts, the importance of acts, how acts work in short fiction and novels, and how acts are used in science fiction, fantasy, and horror. How does one identify an act? When are three acts appropriate? Why are three acts so popular and powerful? We'll learn how to plot in three acts. What makes a strong three-act plot and what makes a weak three-act plot? We'll look at powerful methods and weak methods of ending an act. We'll explore how to create a causal chain that generates escalations and leads to a strong climax, the qualities of a strong climax, how subplots work within three-act structure, the unifying role of theme, and the critical connection between structure and character transformation. With a strong act structure, the protagonist will face challenges that will put him, and the reader, through an experience they will never forget.

Students will study examples, dissect plots, perform exercises to practice techniques, write new material, revise the plot of a story they have written, and outline a new plot that incorporates all the concepts discussed.

Students will also provide critiques of their classmates' work.

You must be ready to hear about the weaknesses in your writing and to work to strengthen them. You must also be ready to give feedback to your classmates that is both truthful and helpful.

Our goal as a class is to provide a supportive yet challenging, energizing environment that will help students improve their writing.

Each student will have a private meeting with Jeanne.

The course is intended for writers of fantastic fiction, an umbrella term encompassing fantasy, science fiction, horror, magical realism, and anything in between. Yet the concept of three-act structure is important in all fiction writing, so fiction writers who focus on other genres could profit from this class and would be welcome.

The course will be most valuable for advanced students, since it will assume students already understand plot at an intermediate level, including concepts like exposition, conflict, crises, climax, resolution; how character and setting interact to create plot; the difference between idea and plot; and the relationships between internal and external conflict and internal and external stakes.

Students will be required to read several short stories. Readings will be made available before the course begins.

In addition, students will be required to read one novel and watch one movie, which they are responsible for obtaining. I've listed sample editions below; students can use any edition.

Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. NY: Simon & Schuster, 2013.
Buy Fahrenheit 451: A Novel at Amazon.com

The Road Warrior. Dir. George Miller. Warner, 1982. DVD.
Buy Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior at Amazon.com

Students will be required to do a pre-class assignment before our first class meeting, which will include reading and viewing all the material above, reading a lesson on critiquing, and answering some questions.

Homework will be assigned on January 4 and January 18, with due dates, respectively, of January 10 and January 24. You will also be required to provide critiques of some of your classmates' work, which will be due on January 17 and 31. Any student who misses a deadline may be expelled from the class and will receive no refund

All assignments should be in standard manuscript format and should be submitted as MS Word files or rich text files.

You should reserve a minimum of 7 hours each week to complete homework. Some students, on some weeks, have spent over 14 hours on homework.

Assignments will include reading, studying movies, critiquing, outlining and analyzing stories written by others, outlining and analyzing a story you have written, revising that outline, and writing new fiction. I will return your homework with my feedback by the next class session.

Students are expected to follow the policies about assignments and class materials established in the Odyssey Online Student Handbook.

Since we will have only 3 class meetings, attendance at every class is necessary for you to get the most out of this course.

You are expected to attend all classes, except in cases of emergency. In such cases, you should notify the instructor.

Classes will be recorded and made available to students for a limited time. On rare occasions, students' computers do not allow them to access the recordings, so we cannot promise that this will work for you.

Any student who misses more than one class may be expelled from the course and will receive no refund.

It is your responsibility to find out what happened in any classes you missed and to complete homework by the deadlines.

Students are expected to follow the policies set out in the Odyssey Online Student Handbook.

Technical Requirements:
Technical requirements for all Odyssey Online Classes are covered on the Online Classes page.

Tentative Schedule:

January 4: 
First class meeting. Introduction and orientation. Why three-act structure is important. Definitions of terms. The purpose of acts, the power of acts. How to recognize an act. How to plot in acts. The importance of character to plot and structure. The relation of conflict to plot and structure. How many acts does your story need? What happens in each act. Discussion of some of the stories read in advance. Assignment of homework.
January 10: 
Homework is due.
January 17: 
Critiques are due. Homework is returned with my feedback.
January 18: 

Second class meeting. Discussion of homework. Introduction of more advanced concepts. Suspense, escalation, and the causal chain. Methods of escalation. The character arc and the causal chain. Creating a powerful climax and a powerful end to the character arc. The critical connection between structure and character change. Study and discussion of other stories and sample outlines. Strong three-act structure and weak three-act structure. Strong endings to acts. Class brainstorming of a three-act plot. Assignment of homework.
January 22: 
Some students will have private meetings with Jeanne between 7:00-8:30 PM EST.
January 24: 
Homework is due.
January 25: 
Some students will have private meetings with Jeanne between 7:00-8:30 PM EST.
January 29: 
Some students will have private meetings with Jeanne between 7:00-8:30 PM EST.
January 31: 
Critiques are due. Homework is returned with my feedback.
February 1: 
Third class meeting. Discussion of homework. Challenges of three-act structure in fantastic fiction. Common weaknesses in three-act structure. Fine-tuning your three-act structure. Tying structure and plot to theme. The incorporation of subplots in three-act structure. Discussion of additional examples.

Jeanne Cavelos Jeanne Cavelos is the founder and director of the Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust. She has taught the Odyssey Writing Workshop since 1996 and has taught Odyssey Online Classes since 2010. You can find more information about Jeanne here.

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