Three Act Structure
The three-act structure fulfills our instinct to organize stories around a clear beginning, middle, and end.
We’re born, we live, and we die.
We leave, we experience, and we return.
There’s a problem, we respond, and there’s a result.
We live by the rhythm of three. Odds are, your writing is already a little three-acty, even if you haven’t intended to make it that way. So then what’s the point of learning three-act story structure if it’s so instinctive?
Well, this is where you combine instinct and craft, creating something that is both artfully designed and uniquely your own.
You’re about to learn how to build a three-act story where each act shift is as convincing as it is compelling. We’ll cover:
- Where the three-act structure originates
- How the beats of this story structure work together
- An example of the three-act story structure in action
- How to decide whether this is the best storytelling method for your novel
Let’s get started.
Where Did the Three-Act Structure Originate?
The three-act structure doesn't exactly come from any one specific source. For one thing, human beings have never really needed a great literary mind to explain that a story needs a beginning, middle, and end.
For another, the three-act story shape shows up in structures that go by other names. The Hero’s Journey and Save the Cat! are both broken into three acts.
That said, it was Aristotle who first broke down the whole three-act concept. In Poetics, he explains that a strong story is composed of several cause-and-effect beats. Each beat is a direct result of the beat that came before. Nothing happens just to happen.
Each act is connected to the next by a story beat that shifts the direction of the narrative.
If you don’t quite know what that means, hang in there. You will soon.
What is the Three-Act Story Structure?
As I am sure you have worked out, the three-act structure is organized into three separate acts. Each act contains three story beats. A story beat is a notable event that moves the story forward.
So why is it a three-act story structure instead of a nine-beat story structure? Because each act represents a new direction for the protagonist. In other words, the final beat of each act is an event that motivates your character to pivot dramatically. Bonus tip: it’s fun to teach yourself to identify act changes by yelling “PIVOT!” Ross-Geller-style every time you see it happen in books and movies.
Act One: The Setup
Act one typically accounts for about twenty-five percent of your story. It looks like this:
This is where you introduce your protagonist within their normal, everyday world. The reader learns who your character is, what they believe and value, what challenges they face in their current reality, and what they want.
The inciting incident is the event that sets the whole story in motion. If you’re familiar with the Hero’s Journey, you know this moment as the Call to Adventure.
This is Harry’s letter to Hogwarts. It’s Bilbo’s visit from Gandalf. It’s Nick inviting Rachel to the wedding in Singapore.
The inciting incident presents your protagonist with the chance to chase down their goal or change their life. This is the catalyst that propels your character into action … though they might not act right away.
Plot Point One
Plot point one occurs when your protagonist makes the choice to embrace the opportunity presented by the inciting incident.
These two events—the inciting incident and plot point one—might happen one right after the other. Sometimes the protagonist goes through a period of avoidance or deliberation before deciding to go all-in.
Either way, this story beat sends the protagonist and the story in an entirely new direction.
Act Two: Confrontation
Act two is the longest act, typically accounting for about fifty percent of the story.
This is where it gets good.
Your protagonist has now entered the world of the adventure, and they’ve got a lot of work to do to get to the midpoint.
They have to become familiar with the world, make new friends, encounter new enemies, and face unfamiliar obstacles. This is also where you as the author expand on the central conflict and reveal new information about the primary antagonist.
During this story beat, your protagonist is mostly reactive. This doesn’t mean they’re passive—they still need to be making decisions and taking action. But for their most part, their choices are in response to new challenges and new information.
As you may have guessed, this story beat lands at the halfway point of your novel. Something huge happens here, and it’s not good. This beat points your character in the direction of greater danger. It probably also puts your protagonist’s dilemma in a new light, like when Dorothy finds out the Wizard won’t help her unless she kills the Wicked Witch.
Plot Point Two
Now that your midpoint has changed everything, your protagonist prepares to face a new and unexpected adventure. Preparation could involve personal reflection, a period of denial, training, or pep talks from the mentor or friend they found along the way. Ultimately, your character establishes a new mission and—now that they know this world well—they shift from reactive to proactive.
Act Three: Resolution
If you’ve been tracking the math, you already know act three takes up about twenty-five percent of your story.
Also known as the “Dark Night of the Soul,” the pre-climax is the beat where all seems to be lost. The protagonist has marched boldly towards their new challenge, and they appear to be losing.
We now see the full power of the antagonist, and the protagonist faces their deepest fears and most profound weaknesses. Your reader might still assume the hero will prevail, but right now, it’s really hard to imagine how they’ll get out of this.
While many of these story beats happen over the course of a few scenes, the climax is typically a single scene. Ideally, a thrilling one.
In this beat, your hero rises from the ashes and prevails. They achieve victory by combining their natural strengths with the lessons they’ve learned over the course of their adventure.
Time to release the tension and tie up all those ends! This means:
- Wrapping up the character arc by showing what the character has won, what they do with it, and how they’ve changed.
- Resolving subplots.
- Establishing how the protagonist has transformed.
- Clarifying or restating the theme.
Example of the Three-Act Structure Method
Ready to see three-act story structure in action?
Let’s take a look at The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. As we go, I’ll also show how you can use Dabble’s Plot Grid to design a three-act structure for your story.
Act One: The Setup
We learn that Katniss Everdeen is loyal to her family, close to her best friend Gale, and lives in a dystopian nightmare. She is exceptionally skilled with a bow-and-arrow and her sole focus is on survival for herself and for those she loves.
Katniss’s little sister Prim is chosen for the Hunger Games, which means she’ll have to literally fight for her life in a booby-trapped arena while the nation watches for entertainment.
Plot Point One
Katniss volunteers as tribute. Now she’ll be fighting for her life.
Act Two: Confrontation
Katniss trains for and begins the Hunger Games. She meets her mentor, begins to identify her foes in the arena, and wrestles with the question of whether Peeta is an enemy. This is also when we get to know the rules of the game, the obstacles of the arena, and the cruel power of the Capitol.
Our heroine navigates all of this alone, until…
Katniss finds an ally in Rue and begins to wonder if Peeta has been on her side all along. But just as these relationships give her strength, Rue is killed.
Plot Point Two
Her hatred toward the Capitol stronger than ever, Katniss is determined to keep her promise to Rue that she’ll win for them both. When it’s announced that two tributes from the same district may win, Katniss sets out to find Peeta, united in a shared mission to not be the Capitol’s pawns.
Act Three: Resolution
Peeta is badly injured, forcing Katniss to be caretaker, protector, and fighter on her own.
The final showdown against their final opponent, Cato, also becomes a battle against vicious mutations released by the Capitol. So … that’s a lot. Then, when Katniss and Peeta have defeated all their foes, the Capitol announces that now only one tribute can win. The heroes claim the upper hand by threatening to poison themselves, leaving the Capitol with no victors.
Katniss and Peeta win as a team, and Katniss unwittingly becomes the leader of a rebellion.
Pros and Cons of Using Three-Act Story Structure
Let’s get to the real question at the heart of all of this:
Is three-act story structure a good structure?
It really depends on what you need a structure to do for you.
This particular plotting method is simple, flexible, and fairly intuitive, making it a strong option for pantsers. If you prefer to discover your story as you go, the three-act approach helps you establish a few loose guidelines while leaving a ton of space for playing around and changing your mind.
However, it may not be enough for more serious planners or for anyone who’s looking for help with that haunting question:
What do I do with the middle?
If you tend to get lost in the second act, it can help to consult a more specific story structure. You might try Save the Cat or the Hero’s Journey.
Just Use What Works
In all honesty, what all story structures do best is help you better understand what readers need from a story.
A protagonist who stirs empathy. Active choices. Rising tension. Huge stakes. A transformation.
Any story structure has the ability to keep you on track or inspire the next step when you’re stuck. But you don’t have to think of these plotting devices as strict instructions. Story structure is more like a tool. You pick it up when you need it and use it however you want for each specific project. It depends on you, your story, and your unique process.
Learn story structure. Understand story structure. Then……you do you.
Pro tip: Dabble’s Plot Grid is a huge help when it comes to structuring your story, no matter which method you use. If you’re interested in trying it for yourself, you can start your free 14-day trial right here.
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