As Simple as One, Two, Three

Written by Charli Mills

Charli Mills, a born buckaroo, makes literary art accessible at She writes about the veteran spouse experience and women forgotten to history.

July 8, 2014

Tips for WritersWith both front paws, Bobo hits the metal door of room 206 at the Howard Johnson Motel; 60 pounds of snarling female dog. It’s been left cracked open for the barking canines inside, and for a moment, dog silence follows.

The door swings shut behind her.

Cars on the distant Idaho freeway drone; a truck door slams behind the neighboring warehouse; the room’s air conditioner mounted below the drape-drawn window hums and throws heat at my knees.

Looking down at the empty leash and collar in my hand, I think the lack of dog smack-talk means that the ones inside room 206 must be as surprised as me. I look at the other leash and collar still attached to Grendel, my second dog, who stands in a perfect heal. Bobo’s heal resulted in the perfect angle from which to withdraw her head.

Silence shatters.

No low growls; no positioning; no warning. It’s an all out dog fight and my dog is in a room with two strangers. And evidently no humans. Waiting mere seconds to hear shouts from inside, I start yelling from the outside. Speaking in tongues of fear, “Knock it off! Back off! Bobo, come here!” I push open the door, greeted by a dog not my own.

A white snout, perked ears and bared teeth stare back at me. “Bobo!” My shout pushes the other dog back, but inside my dog is at the foot of the bed, snarling at the bigger dog gnashing teeth at her from the wrinkles of a bronze coverlet. “Bobo!” The other two dogs stop barking. I yell “Come here!” over and over.

She does, slinking past the white dog still standing in the open doorway which I slam shut. My legs wobble, Bobo barks at the door again, triggering response from inside. We retreat to room 210 where I key the lock and shove  her 60 pounds of tough-dog inside.

Grendel is still in a perfect heel as I collapse to my knees, safe behind a closed door at the Boise HoJo.


While the dog incident put me on edge, it gave me a ready example to use for the purpose of this post: constructing a Three Act Arc. Each act forms the legs of the W in a storyboard. It’s the foundation of a story, as simple as one, two, three. It’s the most basic story arc that exists, and arguably, the oldest. Before you finesse your details, make sure your scenes are built on a solid foundation.

Act I: The Beginning

The beginning isn’t always the beginning. There are many launching points I can use to make a story about the dogs. I can give you back story–why I’m in Boise, how another guest let his dogs roam for three days, what my dog did to get her head free. I can start at the end. I can use a different perspective–the motel maid hearing the ruckus, or a different point of view–maybe Bobo as a “stolen head” (because a dog can’t really be the narrator).

In the Three Act Arc, the beginning does indeed start the story. But when building that beginning scene by scene you want conflict. In fact, according to Mary Carroll Moore’s workshop on developing a book, the first two legs of the the W storyboard are scenes that show conflict.

Act II: The Middle

Conflict leads to crisis. It’s easy to get lost in the second act, so keep it simple–the middle connects the beginning to the end. What happens in this short leg is the result of the earlier conflict. If you are writing a hero’s journey, this is what occurs between a character entering the cave and transforming.

The motel room I had to enter in order to retrieve my escaped, intruding dog was my cave. Finding enough voice to retrieve my dog was transformative. The crisis ended with the retrieval although it wasn’t necessarily the end.

Act III: The End

The end is the last act and the final leg of the W. It’s the resolution. My ending to the dog story is simple–safe back in my own room. A longer story might show at greater length the change in your character. If the second act is a transformation, then what is the result of that transformation. Conflict can still occur, but it becomes a device to show how the character changed.

In the hero’s journey, the ending shows the character returning to his or her ordinary world with the gift of that transformation.


Keep it as simple as one, two, three. Think of the Three Acts as the bare bones of the storyboard. Place the details of your scenes to flesh out the storyboard, following conflict, building to crisis and leading to resolution.

The storyboard and the Three Act Arc also gives you an opportunity to go deeper, beyond scenes. Not only can you map the action–the outer story, but you can also map the character development–the inner story. How detailed you want to get with the inner story is up to you.

As you can see in the board below, an early draft of my novel listed the outer story/inner story to help me map the direction of my project. In my revision this key anchor scene is more developed. But that’s the beauty of the storyboard–shaping possibility with existing material and then revising in a way that follows an established arc. I don’t have to guess. I have a clear picture.

12-First Leg of the W Copy

Next week we return to the writing process and how to use NaNoWriMo as a tool, just as the storyboard is a tool.


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  1. Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

    I’m going to try this but I don’t think I will do it with memoir but rather try some fiction. I probably do it subconciously in my head when I write memoir but I know the order of events and it just flows. I need to try it with something I would normally struggle with.

    • Charli Mills

      That’s an interesting observation, Irene. When I write, I do best to just write. But when I revise I start to doubt what I wrote, so having a structure gives me some purpose. I can see using the storyboard for when the story itself is not forthcoming. But that’s what I love about discussing process–we adapt in different ways and share what works.

      • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

        And different things will work for different people but it is great to try different processes because you just never know……

      • Charli Mills

        …I know! 🙂

  2. Lisa Reiter

    Great illustration Charli. I’m guessing with my memoir I need to think in terms of stories within stories as I’m struggling to simplify it to this structure. There were so many different conflicts and crisis points through several years, it’s more of a roller coaster but overall I resolved most of them as I went along. There are still some outstanding so the ending is about uncertainty which isn’t how you would choose to ‘finish’ if you could dictate real life!

    However, I am so busy this summer that I haven’t managed to read much more of Mary Carroll’s book. I am sure there are more answers to discover and I need to kick myself up the butt before I get despondent !

    • Charli Mills

      It’s legitimate to end with uncertainty if you show how the hero changed from the beginning. And you are the hero! 🙂

  3. Annecdotist

    Beautifully described and illustrated writing lesson, Charli. Hope you and your dogs have recovered from the ordeal.

    • Charli Mills

      Fully recovered as we are now home! Bobo promptly rolled in horse manure, her way of decompressing I suppose. 🙂 I refrained and merely rubbed my horses’ velvety noses and patted their necks.

  4. Diane

    Great example, explanation and illustrations, Charli. It takes some of the “overwhelm” out of writing when one knows how the pieces fit (or should fit – smile) together.

    • Charli Mills

      It frees me to just write, too, knowing that I can play with revision later!

  5. Norah

    That’s a scary story Charli, and a lucky escape (an unlucky initial escape?) for Bobo and for yourself. I’m glad I wasn’t in the thick of the growling dogs. The story illustrates very well the explanation you are giving on structuring a story. Thanks for sharing.


  1. NaNoWriMo is Your Ax « Carrot Ranch Communications - […] use the storyboard to construct and revise your book: map your hero’s journey or arrange your three act story;…

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