What is three-act structure?
Simply put, it's the beginning, middle and end of your story. (BTW, don't get too complicated with how you think about things and they'll be a lot easier to understand!)
But the three acts aren't even. The first act is like a setup that ends with a decision or an action that turns the story on its ear and usually gets it going in another direction. It's usually one-tenth of the story. In a category romance, about thirty pages. In a bigger book, about forty. (YIKES) But it can be longer or shorter. There are no structure police. :) You will not go to jail if your setup takes longer or doesn't take as long.
i.e. In THE BABY PROJECT, the hero and heroine are made co-guardians of his half-brother in act one, which ends with them deciding to live together for the baby's sake. We also find out in act one that the heroine had a baby who died and she worries about her ability to care for another baby. Not because she's not competent, but because holding a baby brings back memories that devastate her. The hero doesn't know how to care for a baby either...but they don't yet have a nanny and two people really would be better than one.
So we end chapter one on a turning point...They decide to live together.
Act two is all about the results of the decision/turning point at the end of act one.
In THE BABY PROJECT it's what happens when the hero and heroine live together.
But in act two we also have the story's mid point...That's another turning point. In a lot of romances, the hero and heroine sleep together at the mid point and that changes how they feel about each other and also changes their circumstance.
From there it's a sort of tumble to the black moment which is usually the end of act two.
Which means that act three, like act one, is short. Misery without each other. Decisions. (Should I go back to my old job, my old life, my mom's basement? Or maybe should I leave this two-bit town and find my real destiny?) Followed by a point where the hero or heroine realizes (because of something that happens) that they made the wrong decision in dumping the hero/heroine...and then a happy ending.
Some people dress up act 3 with a Hollywood ending. A great/grand gesture made by the party in the wrong to win back the party in the right.
Other publishers like a more emotional ending. I done you wrong, but I am back, please don't shoot me...Love me.
Suspense authors have a whole different thing going on in act three. They have to solve the suspense problem (sometimes by killing the villain or rescuing somebody the villain took hostage); they have to fix the romance; and they have to debrief.
But essentially that's structure.
Why was/is that so hard? It isn't. Not if you use it. LOL But if you don't know about it, or if you let your characters runaway with your story...Yikes. You can have a mess on your hands.
Does structure ruin the free flow of your story? Read what I wrote above. I didn't give you the iron hand of the law that would make your characters puppets. Structure is just like a spine or a framework. Or maybe a tour guide. It doesn't boss you around. It just shows you the way to keep your story tight and on track.
Some people, Michael Hague, for instance, will give you a little bit more of a guide or a fence. I love his stuff! He's at storymastery.com. Get his plot template. You will love it.
The trick to this is realizing that you don't have to hit exact pages with things like turning points or act endings. You just have to be in the ballpark. :)
But trust me...in the end...you will be glad because you will have a clear, readable story.