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What is Three Act Structure?

You’ve probably heard of three act structure before. But what does it mean? And is it a useful concept for helping you build a stronger plot for your novel?

Don’t get too hung up on the word “act”. Three act structure originally referred to stage plays (which are divided into acts). But it applies to the divisions in any kind of story, including novels.

At the simplest level, the three “acts” look like this…

  1. The beginning. The story’s main character decides to act on a goal.
  2. The middle. The action itself.
  3. The ending. The consequences of the action.

So in a classic “boy meets girl” plot, for example, three act structure works something like this…

  1. The beginning. The boy meets the girl and falls hopelessly in love with her. He decides that he must either win her heart or die trying.
  2. The middle. So he sets out on his quest. This being a novel, though, nothing comes easy. He takes several steps forward but even more steps back, and he eventually loses her. (In an opera, this would be the point where the curtain comes crashing down at the tragic end to Act II.)
  3. The ending. Actions have consequences in fiction, and in a novel this usually takes the form of the central character changing. In other words, the boy recognizes his flaws, changes his ways and wins the girl. Big sloppy kiss, stirring music, the end!

A plot is obviously a lot more involved than that simple summary. But it should at least give you the broad idea of three act structure. And it should hopefully start you thinking about how it applies to your own novel.

In short, three act structure allows you to take your initial idea for a plot and ensure that it has all the fundamentals in place.

What About Other Types of Plot Structure?

Now let’s complicate things (but only very briefly). If you’ve ever searched online for how to write a plot, you may have come across four act, five act, seven act… even nine act structure.

(There may be more variations than that, but I stopped searching after I ran out of fingers to count them on.)

Here’s why we’ll ignore all those variations and keep things simple…

First, the structures I mentioned (four act, five act, etc.) are all three act structure in disguise. In four act structure, for example, you take the middle act and chop it in two.

Second, the more acts you have, the more of a straightjacket the structure becomes. A really complex structure tells you to add a plot twist at this point, a disaster at that point, and so on. And that leaves you, the writer, with far less flexibility to use your all-important human judgment.

Bottom line? Classic three act structure is…

  1. Rigid enough to make sure you follow the rules of compelling drama. But…
  2. Flexible enough to allow you to follow your instincts and the demands of your unique story.

So we’ll stick with three acts! The only reason I mentioned the alternatives is to point out that they’re not different ways of structuring a plot. They’re the same as three act structure only more detailed, more inflexible and more like writing-by-numbers.

A Deeper Look at Three Act Structure

If you’ve been following this definitive guide to plot from the beginning, you’ll know that the first few articles cover the big picture of plotting.

In the next article, we begin our deep-dive into the three acts of your plot: the beginning, the middle and the ending. Before that, I want to give you the broad overview of where we’re heading.

I said above that three act structure boiled down to this…

  1. The beginning. The hero decides to act on a goal.
  2. The middle. The action itself.
  3. The ending. The consequences of the action.

It’s now time to reveal how that simplest of structures translates into the 10-step plotting process we’ll be looking at in the articles ahead. Here we go…

Act I: The Beginning

  • Step 1: Start with the Status Quo. We first meet the protagonist carrying on with their ordinary life in their ordinary world. The story itself hasn’t started yet. But because this is fiction, readers will know that something dramatic is about to take place.
  • Step 2: And Then Something Happens. The action kicks in when the status quo is disrupted. The child is kidnapped, the boy meets the girl, the airplane develops engine trouble. The protagonist now has a goal (to find the kidnapped child, to win the girl, to land the plane safely).
  • Step 3: The Hero Makes a Decision to Act. In some novels, acting on the goal is a no-brainer for the hero. In others, he or she may hesitate (the boy doesn’t want to try to win the girl because he’s too shy). But after persuasion from another character, or after a second disruptive event that raises the stakes, the hero finally commits to the goal.

Act II: The Middle

  • Step 4: The First Mini Plot. In novels, leading characters don’t try to accomplish their overall goal in one giant step. Instead, they break it down into a series of small goals, each of which will (hopefully) move them closer to success. Needless to say, the first mini plot doesn’t work out as planned and usually leaves the hero in a worse position.
  • Step 5: More Mini Plots. The bulk of the middle of the story proceeds in the same fashion. The hero keeps pushing forward, despite getting constantly pushed back. For every small victory they experience, they experience small or large setbacks. Overall, the danger and tension rises as they move closer to achieving their overall, novel-length goal.
  • Step 6: Rock Bottom. And then, just when you feel that the hero might be about to succeed, they’re struck by a disaster and all is seemingly hopeless. This is the darkest point of the novel. The final part of the three act structure is where you make everything right.

Act III: The Ending

  • Step 7: Reaction. The hero reacts emotionally to the devastating setback they’ve just suffered. Typically, this involves them laying low and licking their wounds, so to speak, while they think about the death of their dream.
  • Step 8: Rebirth. But then they experience a sort of epiphany – an understanding of where they’ve been going wrong and what they must do to put things right. This is where the protagonist changes in a small or large way. It’s also where you, the writer, need to be careful. If the hero’s “rebirth” is unbelievable and happens seemingly out of the blue, it will kill the credibility of the entire story.
  • Step 9: Seizing the Prize (or Not). Strengthened by their rebirth, the hero is now in a position to fight the final battle and achieve their overall goal. Alternatively, they may decide that they no longer want what they thought they wanted. But this realization will be a kind of victory in itself.
  • Step 10: The New Status Quo. The conflict is over and life returns to normal again, albeit a different version of normality than the one that existed at the beginning.

And that’s it, how to plot a novel in simple steps using classic three act structure! If it helps, I’ve also tried to illustrate three act structure (and the ten steps) in a diagram…

plot diagram representing three act structure

Don’t worry if everything doesn’t make perfect sense just yet. It will after we’ve covered each step in detail in the chapters ahead.

For now, you should at least have a much stronger sense of how you’ll take your protagonist’s goal and turn it into a full-length novel, laid out in three acts.

One more thing before we dive into those details…

Don’t Be Afraid to Break the Rules

Plotting a novel is like many things in life: first you understand the rules, then you adapt them in a way that works for you. Don’t get me wrong…

Three act structure is a rock-solid way to build a novel. And my detailed version of that structure (the 10-step plotting guide) works. It’s based on storytelling techniques that have stood the test of time. But here’s the thing…

It can only tell you how to write a “typical” novel. And such a thing doesn’t exist, of course. Think of it this way…

If you take every work of fiction ever written and distil their plots into a single blueprint, you’ll come up with something like the blueprint you’ll find in the chapters ahead. But what this blueprint takes no account of are the quirks and idiosyncrasies and broken rules found in almost every work of fiction ever written.

So you must use the material above (and ahead) as a guide to constructing your plot, not a set of unbreakable commandments…

  • If one of the 10 steps of the plotting process doesn’t make sense for your particular novel, twist it into a shape that fits. Or even omit it altogether.
  • Similarly, feel free to add steps of your own. For example, if it feels right that the central character should experience not one but two moments of “rebirth”, do it. If it works, it works!

So long as you understand the plotting rules in the first place, and aren’t skipping steps because you don’t quite “get” them, you’ll have the confidence to adapt the rules to your unique requirements. The late novelist Oakley Hall put it well…

A novel may possess more verisimilitude if it contains some disorder, and it may be better to sacrifice formal niceties of structure in order to gain the quality of lifelikeness we look for in serious fiction. The makers-of-rules for fiction must fall back on the global disclaimer, that what works, works.

Wrapping Up

As you know, novels – and plots in particular – are incredibly complex things. The best way to build them, therefore, is to begin with the “big picture” of what your story is about, then add layer after layer of detail to it once you’ve got the fundamentals right.

Three act structure is about as “fundamental” as it gets. So don’t move on to the detailed plotting steps until you can mentally divide your novel into three distinct phases: the beginning, the middle and the ending.

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