Mastering the three act structure is one of the most important writing skills for any author. If you want to know how to structure a book, whether that’s a novel or memoir, or you want to learn how short fiction works, absorbing and using the three act story structure is one of the best ways to make your piece shine.
Used widely by screenplay writers, the three act story structure outline is deceptively simple.
A Story in Three Acts
Act One is where we see exposition which establishes the world or everyday life of the character, before a dramatic inciting incident occurs which sets the normal life of the lead on its head, causing them to go on a journey to attain a particular narrative goal.
Act One is often called the Set Up, or the Inspiration part of a plot.
Act Two is the real ‘meat’ of the piece, where we see the lead go after the narrative aim they set in Act One, facing multiple obstacles and their deepest fears. Hence this part is often referred to as the Confrontation, or Craft, as it contains rising action, with the lead fighting against ever higher stakes and building their skills.
This also includes the plot’s midpoint which seems to really set back the protagonist in terms of their journey to attain their narrative goal.
Act Three is often called the Resolution, for obvious reasons, as this final part is where your lead reaches the end of their journey, achieving or failing to achieve their plot aims. This section includes the pre-climax and climax events which keep the reader on the edge of their seats as we think we’ve seen it all in the pre-climax and, then, boom, there’s more!
This section is also sometimes referred to as Philosophy as it brings to fruition the themes and concepts which have been developed in the course of the narrative.
The History of the Three Act Structure
Like so many writing craft concepts, the three act story structure has ancient roots, coming from Aristotle’s Poetics. However, modern screenwriters have honed this particular story structure to a high level, creating story outlines which are also very useful for novelists and memoirists.
How the Three Act Structure Works
If you want to learn how the three act structure works, have a close look at books and films you enjoy, as you’ll likely find it there, propping up the story.
You’ll likely see exposition as the lead’s everyday life and, perhaps, in the case of fantasy or sci-fi, the uniqueness of the world the protagonist inhabits is brought to life. Perhaps, in a crime novel, we’ll see the detective’s family and work life to familiarise with the protagonist.
Then the lead’s world will be thrown on its head by the inciting incident – say, the detective’s spouse is murdered. They’re in turmoil, but, ultimately, of course, they want to track down who killed their spouse – and this is the narrative goal they will fight their way towards throughout the book or screenplay.
The second act shows them fighting through rising action, which is comprised of various obstacles and facing their deepest fears on the way to getting their narrative aim – say, of bringing their spouse’s killer to justice.
But they reach a new low at the midpoint of the book when something happens that makes the reader doubt they will ever get their goal. Perhaps they realise a close colleague may be involved in their spouse’s murder or important evidence is lost and we have to wonder whether they’ll ever solve this crime.
However, somehow they drag themselves back onto their feet and go into Act Three where they face a pre-climax which looks like the resolution, but it isn’t – such as the detective thinking they’ve found the killer, but they haven’t.
Then there’s the real climax which brings resolution in terms of the narrative goal which was set at the start, after the inciting incident – often the lead achieves their plot aim, but sometimes they don’t (although negative endings can be hard to pull off!).
How to Use the Three Act Structure
If you’re wondering how to plan your novel using the three act structure, it’s easy to do if you learn the basic craft and are prepared to plan your plot.
Start by mapping out your story and then break it down into three acts, as follows.
Act One – Set Up
Exposition is so important, as I mentioned above, both in terms of establishing the setting, but by also familiarising us with the lead and making us care for them.
As a writing teacher once told me, we need to make the reader sympathise with the characters before we show their car hitting a wall!
If we know the protagonist a bit, the inciting incident which sets their life on its head will hit home even more powerfully.
Also known as a trigger event, this is a key plot point which forces the lead to pursue a particular narrative aim throughout, such as finding a killer, pursuing a quest, winning the guy’s heart and so on. In a memoir, the writer may face a tragic or traumatic life event which sent their life into turmoil, with the rest of the autobiography being the journey of how they recovered.
This plot point and its aftermath is so crucial to the narrative arc that I often ask my author clients to consider what their lead wants and why as a result of the inciting incident, as it is this which will fuel their journey throughout the rest of the story.
Act Two – Confrontation
If Act One sets up the story and shows the plot point which rocks the lead’s world and sets them off on a particular journey, Act Two is where the rubber hits the road.
Comprising the majority of a novel, at around fifty percent of the manuscript, this is where we see the lead doggedly pursue their narrative goal, facing obstacles and their deepest fears.
It’s often linked to rising action as the drama gets more intense when the lead keeps trying and failing in each scene as they try different ways to reach their aim or they finally progress … only to face an even worse problem.
This is where the story’s most important characters will be introduced and the midpoint of the book arrives – the next key plot point to consider. This will be linked to the lead revisiting their central goal, often wondering if they’ll ever get resolution as the challenges of this second Confrontation act have really taken it out of them!
Act Three – Resolution
If Act Two is where you’ve put your lead up a tree and then cut it down, Act Three is the home stretch where they are heading towards the resolution of their story.
However, it’s still not plain sailing as we want to keep readers turning pages right to the end – hence this part might see the lead really face off with the villain or opposition character as the baddie strives to stop your lead from getting their goal.
This means the final third act can often dominate the story in terms of intensity, although it often simply makes up the final quarter of your manuscript.
You also want to make sure you include a pre-climax, where we think the protagonist’s goal is in sight … and then it eludes them. This makes the story compelling for the reader, right ‘til the end, as they’ve still got to keep going to see what the real climax entails.
Often, the climax takes the form of a single, stand out scene as it’s so important in terms of bringing resolution to the plot and any themes which have been present in the book.
Making the Three Act Structure Work for You
In this guide, we’ve seen how to create a three act structure and just how powerful a tool this can be for novelists, memoirists or screenwriters. In fact, it can also be effective in helping us learn how to structure a short story by following the same outline, but with more brevity. See if you can spot the three acts next time you are watching a movie or reading a book, and see how you can apply it to your own story.
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