Three Act Structure: Classic Storytelling Unlocked

Posted on Aug 7, 2021

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Written by Gloria Russell

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When it comes to storytelling, there’s no truly right or wrong way to do it. Stories are as infinitely varied as the people who tell them, and over the course of written storytelling, there have been countless new attempts at telling stories in a different, interesting way. 

That being said, there are definitely ways to tell stories that have proven more effective than others. Some storytelling templates have just been proven to work time and time again, and perhaps none is more reliable than the classic three act structure. 

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What is the Three Act Structure? 

The three act structure is just what it sounds like: it’s a story beat template that breaks a story down into three major components. You’ve got your setup, your conflict (or confrontation), and your resolution. In other words, there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. Ta-da! 

Three-act structures are pretty common in screenwriting. In the first act, the story will be set up–we’re introduced to the characters, the setting, and we get to know a little about our characters’ wants and needs. Then, we have an inciting incident that sends us into the second act, where we deal with our conflict. Finally, we get the climax, which takes us into the resolution, where we see how our characters end up. 

That’s the most basic breakdown of a three-act structure, but there are plenty of more detailed breakdowns dealing with more genre-specific story beats. For the purposes of this article, we’re just going to talk about the setup, conflict, and resolution, as well as the inciting incident and climax. 

Why Use a Three Act Structure? 

You might think that this structure is exclusive to filmmaking, but it doesn’t have to be! The three-act structure is used so often in film because it’s effective. Audiences are accustomed to it, it’s extremely satisfying, and it allows writers space to explore their characters and ideas in a purposeful, intentional way. 

A solid three act structure’s greatest strength is its simplicity. When you follow it to a T, you’ll have a clean setup, a satisfying payoff, and little excess to confuse or obfuscate your story. It’s streamlined, effective, and efficient–what more could you ask for? 

How to Use the Three Act Structure to Plan Your Novel 

Now that we know what a three act structure is, let’s talk about how you can use it to plan out your novel

1. Find your starting point 

A three act structure, and really any story, requires a beginning. This structure revolves around a payoff, so you want to pay extra attention to what you’re setting up. The beginning of your story is where you’re laying the groundwork for all the adventures to come, so it’s important to give it some focus! 

This is where we’ll meet your characters. What do your characters want? What do they need? What sorts of conflict lies waiting in the rafters? We should get a solid sense of setting, character, and what tensions exist here. We should also get a sense for the tone of your story–is this going to be a serious, reflective piece, or a lighthearted romance? 

2. Locate your inciting incident 

Something has to take us from the beginning to the middle. In a three act structure, that’s the inciting incident. This is the thing that launches your plot–what happens in your book that sets the rest of it in motion? 

The easiest example of this is the meet-cute. In a romance, you’ll have a snippet of our main character or characters alone. You’ll get a sense of what kind of person they are and what they’re missing in their life–maybe they’re a CEO who never knows when to slow down and have a good time. They’re going about their lives, and BAM!, they meet the plucky love interest who’s going to spend the rest of the novel teaching them how to live a little. 

Find the thing in your book that kicks off all the action. If there’s a few different things that collide, find the one that constitutes the point of no return–this should be the moment that the hero is officially in it for the long haul. 

3. Map out the second act 

Maybe the best part of the three-act structure is the way it shapes the second act. It’s no secret that authors struggle with writing the middle of their books–it’s often where new writers get stranded in drafting, and it can be difficult to transition in and out of. But with this three-act structure, you’ll find it easier to avoid getting tangled in subplot hell. Why? 

Remember, everything in a three act structure is geared for setup and payoff. We’ve just set up our characters and their motivations. Now, in the second act, they have to work through those issues. 

So, what goes in the second act? Most of your story, turns out! 

In a romance, this is where they fall in love. The CEO has to grapple with their need for control, and their love interest has to learn that they can’t just be an agent of chaos all the time. Characters are bonding, love subplots are happening, and it’s all pointed towards the next step.

If you’re not sure what needs to go here, ask yourself these questions: 

  • How will my characters get what they want? 
  • How will my characters get what they need? 
  • What’s preventing my characters from achieving their goals, and how will they overcome that? 

4. Nail your climax 

This is everything we’ve been building toward. This is the culmination of all that hard work–we’ve watched the characters grow and struggle, and it’s time for that sweet, sweet payoff. 

No pressure. 

A good climax in a story will solve the main tension in the story, and often wrap up a romantic subplot, too. It’s the big showdown, the last hurrah, so you’ll want to throw everything you’ve got at it. Characters should be using the skills they’ve built during their journey for this final face-off. 

This is where the CEO finally learns to prioritize their personal life over their job, to go back to our romance example. In an adventure movie, this is where our lone hero learns he doesn’t have to work alone, and he and his buddies go kick enemy butt. 

A few questions to ask yourself while writing the climax:

  • How can my characters use the skills they’ve learned to defeat this final obstacle? 
  • Do my characters defeat the final obstacle? If not, what thematic purpose does this serve? 
  • How will my characters triumph/fail? 

5. Resolve your setup 

Now you’re on to the resolution. Your characters have taken their journey and defeated their obstacle–now, your reader will want to see the aftermath. 

This is where the themes of your book will really shine. In your standard episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, we see our characters wrestle with a conflict which threatens their friendship. After they’ve handled the conflict, we get our resolution, which comes with a message about being a good friend. One episode might teach you that good friends should be patient, and another might teach you to help your friends in times of need. 

All of this is to say that your resolution gives you the chance to demonstrate why your story was significant. Not sure what I mean? Here’s a few things to consider when you’re resolving your story. 

How have things changed for my characters, and why does that matter? 

Where did my characters end up? 

Have I resolved all my subplots? If not, have I at least addressed why they’re unresolved? 

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Examples of the Three Act Structure 

Sometimes, it’s best to learn through example. If you’re an avid reader, as most writers are, here are some examples of a three act structure you can learn form in order to get this method down.

The Half of It dir. Alice Wu 

Beginning: The viewer meets Ellie Chu. We learn that she writes other students’ essays for free, deals with racist bullying from fellow students, and has a little bit of a crush on Aster Flores. 

Inciting Incident: Paul Munksy asks Ellie to write a love letter to Aster Flores for him. 

Middle: Ellie writes letters to Aster under Paul’s name, and she and Paul both fall in love with her. At the same time, Ellie and Paul become close friends. Paul learns how to communicate more effectively, and Ellie learns to open up and make a friend. Meanwhile, Ellie grapples with whether to go to college or stay in her small town. At the end of the act, Paul shuns Ellie for being gay, and Aster believes Paul’s been dishonest with her. 

Climax: Ellie confesses she’s written the letters, and Paul comes out in support of Ellie. 

Resolution: Ellie kisses Aster, which shows she’s come out of her shell (and out of the closet). She chooses to go to college, and her friendship with Paul is restored. 

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein 

Beginning: We meet Frodo in the Shire and learn about Hobbits. 

Inciting Incident: Frodo acquires the one true ring and decides to take it to Mordor. 

Middle: Frodo and crew work together to get the ring to Mordor. 

Climax: This is different for each character, but basically, it’s Frodo struggling to get the ring into the fire while everyone else battles Sauron’s army. The one ring is thrown into the fire, and Sauron’s army falls. 

Resolution: Frodo, changed by his journey, can’t return to the Shire, and travels west. 

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan 

Beginning: We meet Lei and learn about Moon, Steel, and Paper Castes. We also learn that Lei has a pendant which will tell her her destiny on her eighteenth birthday. 

Inciting Incident: The village is raided, and Lei is taken to be the king’s paper girl, or mistress. 

Middle: Lei adjusts to life in the palace as a paper girl. She also grapples with her sexuality when she realizes she’s formed feelings for Wren, another paper girl. We learn about the tensions building within the kingdom. At the end of this act, she has a falling out with Wren, and her plans to kill the king are foiled. 

Climax: Lei succeeds in killing the king and reunites with Wren. 

Resolution: Lei escapes the palace and opens her pendant to reveal her destiny. 

Tangled dir. Bryan Howard and Nathan Greno

Beginning: We meet Rapunzel, and she sings to us about her lonely life up in her tower. Mother Gothel is introduced, and the viewer learns about her emotional abuse. 

Inciting Incident: Rapunzel leaves the tower, accompanied by Flynn Rider. (It could be argued that Flynn Rider breaking in is the inciting incident, but Rapunzel’s choice to leave is the event that really kicks the plot into high gear, since it’s when she starts taking her life into her own hands.) 

Middle: Rapunzel explores the city and learns to be confident in herself. She also falls in love with Flynn Rider, whose real name is Eugene Fitzherbert. 

Climax: Rapunzel, having realized that she is the lost princess, sacrifices herself to save Eugene. He, in turn, sacrifices himself to save her, killing Mother Gothel in the process. 

Resolution: Eugene is healed, and the two live happily ever after. 

A three act structure is definitely one of those writing techniques where once you know the rules, you can certainly break them, so long as you know why. That being said, this structure has worked for many, many years and for good reason!

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