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Ghostwriting Notebook: Using the 3-Act Structure for Nonfiction

When working on a new ghostwriting chapter, for both fiction and nonfiction projects, it is common to be provided with a large amount of information but very little structure. Working style varies from client to client but there usually comes a time during the writing process when a bout of serious planning is needed, often when it comes to more technical chapters.


The challenge comes in part from the way in which information is shared between the client and the ghostwriter. Frequently, the content for a project is not given in the beginning as one big lump of information but instead relayed gradually over time. Often, the writing process begins early on and so the ghostwriter must adapt as new information comes to light. Sometimes chapters can come as a surprise and it helps to have a robust planning style to respond to these changes.


In my experience, Rachel Hanel’s 3-Act structure for nonfiction is a useful tool for structuring nonfiction chapters. She applies the basic 3-Act principle used most commonly in Hollywood films and theatre, modifying it slightly to make it applicable to nonfiction topics. She also includes a worksheet which I tend to use as a checklist for making sure that I have included all of the essential elements and can answer the questions she provides. It helps to have this clear framework to refer to in order to mould a chapter into a more comprehensible and engaging read that fits both to the client’s requirements and the reader’s needs.


I have found this structure to be particularly useful for writing autobiographical or biographical chapters, as well as incidents in which there are no clear central characters. It can be useful to work off of a ‘primary question’ that can then evolve through the chapter, taking the reader “toward a deeper mystery, a darker cave, a bigger question”. This structure can also be used to organise the plan for the storyline across the whole book, depending on the subject.


Hanel acknowledges the limitations of the method as real life rarely sticks to a movie-ready script. Instead, her method is intended for use as a rough structure to inform the way in which the central topic or ‘story’ is constructed for the benefit of the reader. She uses italics to highlight areas that would be ideal to include but which may not be applicable depending on the subject.


Following her simple points for each act helps to to create chapters that are informative, entertaining and convincing. Find Rachel Hanel’s posts on the 3-Act structure for nonfiction here and here.



If you find this method useful, please let me know on facebook or tag me on instagram @elizabethharriswriting.

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