Monday, September 9, 2013

Three Act Structure

Oh the three act structure. Boy did I resist learning this in the beginning. I thought the three act structure was some sort of cheat to writing a novel. It's not a cheat people, it's the map! And now that I know it I can't live without it!
Knowing the elements of the three act structure (and using them) can really help you build a better plot. What is the three act structure? It's simply a way to divide a novel into sections. Act one is the set up, act two the confrontation, and act three is the resolution.
You don't need to follow the structure exactly, but just knowing what goes into each section is an easy way to help build a better plot.

Act One
Act one makes up the first quarter of your book and is usually the easiest to write.
It should include:

1. An introduction to the character and her world BEFORE the real story begins. How will the reader know how shocked, excited, confused, be if she doesn't see the protagonist's normal first?

2. Show the characters "knot". This is essentially the pain that your protagonist is feeling that forces her to live apart from her true destiny. It can be a secret she's keeping, pain from the past, or even just a personality trait. Maybe by the end of your book the main character will be a super star and her "knot" at the beginning of the story is simply that she's shy.

3. Establish the tone of the book. Let the reader know what kind of story they're about to read.
For example: For a love story the writing would be flowery and romantic. For a thriller the mood would be darker, the sentences might be shorter. Make sure you get the reader "in the mood" for the story they're about to read. In other words-set the tone!

4. Let the reader know why they should care. Otherwise known as the "save the cat" scene. What redeeming or heroic quality does your main character have that you can show your readers right up front. Even if your main character is deeply flawed, show her redeeming qualities or make the reader feel empathy for her.

5. The inciting incident.This is the change that occurs in the main character's life that starts the story in motion. For example: A mysterious new girl moves into town. Your main character grows a tail. Whatever it is, it should get your reader's attention.

6. The call to action (or plot point one). This is often confused with the inciting incident, but the difference is that the call to action is where your character makes a choice and cannot go back.
For example: In The Hunger Games it is where Katniss volunteers for the games in place of her sister. Not to be confused with the inciting incident which is the drawing of Primrose Everdeen's name.

Act Two
Act two makes up the second and third quarter of the book. In the midsection of your novel you must:

1. Have a series of battles or confrontations. There are usually three and even if the protagonist wins a few of these battles, things should be getting steadily worse for your main character.

2. Deepen characters and their relationships with one another. The middle of your book is where subplots can really get going.

3. Midpoint. Some big news or a major reversal. This is where the protagonist truly takes control and begins to actively attack the antagonist. Before this point she is simply reacting to the situation or learning about her new world, but after the midpoint she's really ready for a fight.

4. Moment of despair. This is the low point for our protagonist. Even though we all thought she was going to win, it now looks like she's going to lose. Not only that, but we have really dragged her through the mud at this point. She is almost broken.

5. Moment of truth (or plot point two). This is the last piece of new information that the reader is going to get. With this new information the reader can now see what the ending is going to look like and the protagonist is about to take some big action steps towards the final battle. This is usually the thing that the protagonist wanted to do the least and after making this choice there is no going back.

Act Three
This is the last quarter of the book and will include:

1. The climactic battle.Your protagonist must take an active role in this battle. Don't let the antagonist be a weakling. You're main character really has to kick ass in the climax of the book.

2. Unravel your protagonists "knot" or tie three more. This means that you should have resolved the character's knot, or inner turmoil. For example: If she was painfully shy in the beginning, you should have helped your protagonist work through her issues throughout act two. In the end she is who she was always meant to be. OR if she decides to live apart from her destiny, (In other words stays painfully shy and can't take that starring role) you need to show the reader how truly horrible her life is going to be now. One would be a happy ending, the other a tragedy.

3. Denouement. This is where you tie up all the loose ends. Every character and subplot needs to be put to bed so the reader feels satisfied that you've answered all the questions you posed in your book.
This is also where you show the protagonist's new normal. How is it different than it was at the beginning of the story?

4. Resonance. Try to make sure your readers are thinking about your book long after they have read the words "the end".

There you have it, a quick description of the three act structure. If it's not making sense to you here, there are a ton of great books out there to help you.  "Plot & Structure" by James Scot Bell is a great one, but I hope this is at least a little helpful with your writing.
Good luck and happy writing.


  1. Hi E.L. This looks like a compressed version of the outline I use when plot pointing my mysteries. I'm sure other writers out there will find this helpful. It is the map! Every story needs a beginning, middle and end. ;)

  2. Thanks! I wish I had known more about the structure of a story from the start!! Better late than never, right:)

  3. Hi E.L.! Thanks for the interesting blog post :)