The three-act structure is typical of most forms of modern storytelling.
Three-act structure divides a story into three distinct sections, each anchored around one or more plot points that drive the overall action. Over the course of the three acts,(parts), a complete story structure unfolds. The main character is taken through three distinct phases, (character arc – the character has a need, the character strikes out to fill that need, the character either resolves the need or doesn’t). The main plot builds toward the realization of the protagonist’s goal, and by the end, the action is resolved and key loose ends are tied up… the mystery is solved, romance is found, the monster is killed, or in a drama, the character dies doing something heroic.
The Notebook – A couple meets, they are separated by social issues and sickness, they finally reunite & marry, and the book ends with a satisfying but dramatic closure.
What Are the Elements of Three Act Structure?
At their most basic, the three acts of a book or script represent a beginning, a middle, and an end. In most three-act stories, about 50 percent of the actual storytelling occurs in the second act, with 25 percent of the story falling in the first act and 25 percent falling in the final act.
Act one: The first act typically starts with exposition, (information about events that happened before the story began). This includes — one or more scenes that establish the world order of the story.
If the story contains supernatural elements, the rules of the supernatural world would be established here. This act should also establish the ordinary world of the story’s main character. Take Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone or Hunger Games for instance. We begin in their normal mundane world.
Before the act is over, however, an inciting incident should occur—one that pulls the protagonist out of their normal world and into the main action of the story. The act concludes with some sort of turning point that launches the action into act two. Harry Potter is visited by owls and thrust into a world of magic. He learns that he’s very different from the rest of his family.
Act two: A story’s middle act consists of a rising action that leads to a midpoint, then devolves into a crisis.
Spoiler Alert!!! In Huger Games, Catness is no longer trying to survive. When her friend is killed, she wants revenge. She wants to win for everyone that’s suffering.
Let’s say a story is about a crime. Someone is murdered. Act one’s inciting incident would be the murder, and the turning point would be a decision to track the killer. The rising action of act two would involve tracking down the murderer, and following the clues. Act two will raise the stakes of the protagonist’s journey, dangerous situations with things constantly getting worse for the hero add to the tension. The idea is to throw one terrible obstacle after another in front of your protagonist.
By the story’s midpoint, the protagonist would be too deep to turn back – by this point, there’s no going back to what was once their normal life but they don’t know how to move forward. The second act typically ends with a cliffhanger of sorts. It will seem as if the protagonist will fail, that they are lost and without help. This is sometimes called the “dark night of the soul.”
Act three: The third act begins with what’s known as a pre-climax. This consists of events leading up to a climactic confrontation in which the hero faces a point of no return: they must either prevail or perish. Finally, the story de-escalates in a denouement, where the events of the climax wind back down into normal life. Of course, the hero detective’s life will never be the same again.
Note that almost all novels, movies, and TV episodes have subplots that occur concurrently with the main plot. These subplots are often crucial to character development, and may also follow a standard three-act structure, but the way they play out varies greatly from story to story.
Take The Notebook for example – SPOILER ALERT!!!
The story moves from present to past, and the couple’s relationship is on the brink of loss only this time from sickness. WE see how their love endures and in the end, they are together, somewhat… forever.
An Example of Three Act Structure
Let’s look at one of the most well-known examples of the three-act structure, the original Star Wars film, released in 1977. It’s a classic narrative arc known as “the hero’s journey.”
Act one: An opening text establishes the world of the story, explains some backstory, and launches you into the first plot point. Darth Vader kidnaps Princess Leia. We are then introduced to Luke Skywalker who buys a runaway droid that leads him to Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi. Obi-Wan tries to recruit Luke to embrace the life of the Jedi, but Luke ultimately rejects this call to action—which is a key plot point in the hero’s journey.
Act two: Tragedy strikes when Luke discovers his aunt and uncle murdered by Darth Vader’s stormtroopers – the inciting incident. This marks a turning point for Luke; he realizes the stakes are too high for him to deny his duty. He embraces his destiny as a Jedi knight and leaves his comfort zone. The second half of the middle of the story culminates in a tragedy, as Darth Vader kills Obi-Wan, Luke’s mentor. Act two ends with Luke’s “dark night of the soul.”
Act three: Luke and the rebels take on Darth Vader in an action that’s sometimes called “storming the castle.” In the film’s climax, Luke and company engage in a final battle with Vader. They destroy Vader’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star, resulting in a triumphant victory. A very brief denouement follows, featuring a celebration, and the film reaches its end.
The suggestions here are only tools to help you begin the process of writing. Once you discover which type of preplanning works for you, the rest will be enjoyable!
If you enjoy your story – someone else will too!
Share your method of pre-planning in the comments below. I’m interested to see what works best and what type of writer you are.
Till next time – Keep Writing : )