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  • Writer's pictureKevin Rothert

How The Villains Series by V. E. Schwab Breaks the Three-Act Structure


The Villains series by V. E. Schwab is a thrilling superhero sci/fi fantasy with a unique twist. While the majority of novels follow the traditional three-act structure, The Villains series breaks the norm delivering a uniquely brilliant story. And here is how she did it.




In a nutshell, the traditional three-act structure consists of a beginning, middle, and end with building suspense and tension toward a climax and a resolution in the third act.


Similar to Oppenheimer, The Villans duology takes a sledgehammer to that structure.


Instead of following a logical beginning, middle, and end story order, each novel begins at the end and bounces around randomly until the end. Or rather, that's how it appears. I was so enamored by how well jumping around the timeline worked that I hypothesized that the structure of the timeline simply couldn't be as random as it appeared. Intrigued, I decided to map out the first novel Vicious.



THE RESEARCH

Although Schwab darts around the timeline there are some patterns to emulate.


Instead of starting with the first act and inciting incident like most stories, she begins at the beginning of the third act but quickly grounds us by jumping back to the inciting incident. Essentially promissing she will tell us how the characters got from point A to point B and it will all make sense eventually.


From there, Schwab jumps back and forth between all three acts, but focusing on act one until act one comes to a climax.


Once act one is (mostly) complete, the focus turns to act two, however, around the midpoint of the novel, Schwab gives us the act two climax even though we haven't seen all the details of act two yet.


Are you following?


It's a lot. But you're in luck I posted a link to my research at the top of this article under the video! Check it out for a deeper dive into the structure of the novel.


After the act two climax, Vicious shifts its focus to the villain's side of the story. Not every story will have a point of view change, but if your story is going to have a tonal shift or some other kind of major change, I think the end of a traditional act is a good place to make that shift. It worked really well in Vicious.


Despite having already "finished" act two, Vicious spends a lot of time in act two still, but mostly from the villain's point of view with some occasional jumps back to act one, and lots of jump forwards to act three.


Around the 70% mark, Schwab goes full throttle and stays mostly in the third act and at this point, any flashbacks to previous acts serve to amp up the tension between the two sides.


The way this story is structured, the reader doesn't really experience the story with the characters, but instead becomes something of a detective discovering what events led to the intriguing third act.



CONCEPT VIZUALIZATION WITH HARRY POTTER

This research is all well and good, but without the story, it's hard to really see it, so I wanted to show what Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone might look like under this structure.


Chapter 1 - The Forbidden Forest

To begin we are going to start The Sorcerer's Stone close to the third act, but not in the third act. I chose to start with the Forbidden Forest chapter instead of a third act chapter because it's the climax of act two and because if I used one of the two act three chapters, I'd have nothing left for the rest of the story!


Chapter 2 - Diagon Alley

Next, we need to jump back to an inciting incident. I think the Diagon Alley chapter is a good option because it introduced the sorcerer's stone, and Hagrid's appearance in both of these chapters would help fluidity. Plus Hagrid gives a really good explanation of Voldemort in this chapter setting up the conflict of the book and series.


Chapter 3 - The Boy Who Lived

Next, We'll jump back all the way to the Boy Who Lived. Based on the narritive I've set up so far, I think it's time to introduce the Dursleys. Plus this is the real inciting incident and I don't want to postpone it much longer. I'm not sure how well this chapter will work since it is not in Harry's point of view, but I never said this would be perfect.


Chapter 4 - The Vanishing Glass

Because the fact that Harry is a wizard is already pretty spoiled at this point, I decided to just go ahead and put The Vanishing Glass next. Any later, and it looses some of it's narrative significance.


Chapter 5 - The Journey from Platform Nine and Three-Quarters

We need to skip forward again, so we are going to jump to the chapter right after Harry's visit to Diagon Alley.


Chapter 6 - The Sorting Hat

This is the natural follow up to the previous chapter.


Chapter 7 - The Letters from No One

I'm not sure how this chapter will land, but I think reader's will be wondering how Harry got from muggle land to Hogwarts.


If you remember Letters from No One ends with a countdown. I'm hoping that countdown suspense will hold through a timeline jump to our next two chapters in the second act:


Chapter 8 - The Potions Mater


Chapter 9 - The Midnight Duel


Chapter 10 - The Keeper of the Keys

Time to finish off act one and follow up on that count down.


With act one complete it's time to start building toward a mid-point climax. I won't be using act two's climax becasue I already used it, but I'm very excited for what I chose instead.


Chapter 11 - Halloween

First we'll jump back to act two for Halloween. A very exciting chapter fighting a troll and discovering "Snape" trying to get past Fluffy!


Chapter 12 - Through the Trapdoor

This is my favorite part of the reordered novel because we are going to follow up "Snape" trying to get past fluffy with.... the trio getting past fluffy!


Chapter 13 - Quidditch

From here we are going to finish off act two.


Chapter 14 - Nicholas Flamel


Chapter 15 - Norwegian Ridgeback


Chapter 16 - The Mirror of Erised

You may have noticed I moved the order of these chapters around. I think moving The Mirror of Erised is a good set up for the reveals in the final chapter. We see more interaction between Snape and Quirrell, and are introduced to how the mirror of Erised works.


Chapter 17 - The Man with Two Faces

We have completed act one and act two and it's now time to jump into the climax of the entire book.



APPLY TO YOUR WRITING

Seeing this structure is one thing, but applying it to your own novel is a completely different story.


The problem I saw while restructuring Harry Potter is that the first act is about discovering magic. Starting anywhere besides the beginning ruins that discovery.


I learned that changing the structure of the novel changes the reader's experience with it as well. So if you are wanting to apply this structure to a novel, I think you would use this structure deliberately. Starting the story in the third act and using this structure to show how the hero arrived at the third act. I personally would not take a novel I'd written linearly and then restructure it unless I had to.


Potentially I would write an outline or a zero draft in the regular three-act structure to get the pieces together, but I would write the majority of the novel in the structure it's meant to be in so that I could properly introduce elements and reveals. And I'd probably end up moving things around A LOT because I've never used the structure before and it would need SOOO MUCH revision.


Now that I've seen this alternate style of the thee-act structure I can't stop thinking about it and now I'm wondering...can this be done with a series?


Stay tuned!


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