The three-act structure is the way that most fictional writing is set up. A three-act story structure is a narrative model that builds a story from the ground up and often goes in chronological order.
There is a definitive order of events that must be written in the process that starts at the very beginning of the book and keeps going right to the conclusion. While there is plenty of room to be creative when writing fiction, the three-act structure is a way to put everything together nicely. It’s a tried and true guideline for writing that most readers and writers prefer.
How Three Act Structure Works
The three-act structure works by taking a story and the main character from the first act to the end of the third act, progressively amping up the conflict, character development, and plot points. This story structure allows the reader to get to know the character because the point of any fiction is to get the reader to care about what happens to the characters. The goal of the three-act structure is to ask a dramatic question, and at the end of the story, have an answer to that dramatic question.
Examples of that question are:
- Will the prince and princess fall in love?
- Will the cowboy get his cattle across the border safely?
- Will the killer get caught?
- Will the characters make it to their destination?
This article will guide you through the three-act structure and explain the parts of each act and what is required of each of them. This article will also provide several three-act structure examples.
Three-Act Structure Examples
To help you understand how the three-act structure works, below are some literary masterpieces to consider. These pieces have their beginning, middle, and ending, further divided into sub-parts.
- Annie Hall by Woody Allen
- Star Wars: A New Hope by George Lucas
- The Wizard of Oz by Lyman Frank Baum
- Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Read on to learn more about the three acts and how they appear, progress, and come to a resolution. Below are its parts categorized under their respective and appropriate act numbers and plot points.
The first act, also known as the exposition act, is where we are first introduced to the protagonist or main character. Since there are three acts total, you might think that each act is split equally and takes about a third of the story before its completion. However, this is not accurate.
Act one of a novel or short story entails only about the first quarter of the book or play. Because there is limited space in which to lay out the background of the protagonist and other characters, the first act is usually one that writers have a more challenging time with.
The main character should be introduced almost immediately when the first act begins. We should see the protagonist interacting with others in the story as he or she would in everyday life. The reader is witness to the goings-on of the world that the author has created. We see what the setting is, we see who the characters are, and we start to bond with the protagonist.
It’s crucial that enough backstory is given about the main character so that we come to invest emotionally on some level with the character. Stories are only successful because we come to care about the protagonist, and we want to know what happens to him or her. If we weren’t inclined to care for the author’s characters, we wouldn’t care about the conflict or the plot.
The inciting incident occurs in act one, or the setup act. This is when a small conflict or problem presents itself to the protagonist. The character must deal with the problem. This first problem, known as the inciting incident, is what sets everything in motion. Because of this catalyst event, the story progresses and gains momentum.
In Suzanne Collins’ bestselling dystopian novel, Hunger Games, our protagonist is a teenage girl named Katniss Everdeen. The country’s citizens have been segregated into twelve districts, and once a year, young tributes must compete in a marathon-style fight to the death so that the district they represent can have resources for the year. Desperation and starvation are what fuels these young people to fight each other and kill each other.
We meet Katniss almost immediately, and the character is nicely developed early on when we learn that she is very family-oriented and brave. We see her going about life in what is her ordinary world. She has the unique skill of archery in her district, and she hunts illegally to provide her family with food. This is all just backstory that we learn so that we, as readers, can start to get a feel for what’s important to the character, what sort of person she is, and how she handles hardship.
Then, we get to the inciting incident.
The names are drawn randomly to decide who will represent each district in the games. Katniss, who we have already established is fiercely loyal and close to her family, is shocked and terrified when her little sister’s name is pulled. This is the inciting incident.
The reader bears witness right along with Katniss as the name is read, and she must decide whether she will take action or stand idly by while her sister is forced to fight for the district in what spells almost certain death for the child.
No matter what action Katniss takes, there is no going back to the way things were at this point in the story. If she stands idly by and lets her sister compete, she will have to deal with the guilt and fear associated with that. If she takes action, there will be dangerous consequences for her.
Regardless of which way she goes, there is no going back to the way things were at the beginning of the story. Because of this catalyst event, we come to the next element of the three-act structure.
First Plot Point
The first plot point, which is always at the end of act one, is the second, more dramatic event that takes place because of the catalyst event. In the case of Hunger Games, Katniss cannot bear to do nothing while her sister goes off to her death in an effort to provide resources to the district. So Katniss does the only thing she can think of to save her sister’s life, and she speaks up at the name drawing assembly and volunteers to be the tribute herself.
This plot point helps us to develop that dramatic question that was brought up earlier in this article. While we can gather from reading about the characters that her sister definitely wouldn’t live through the games, it begs the question: Will Katniss survive the Hunger Games?
This is the dramatic question that we will spend the rest of the book trying to figure out the answer to. The plot point solidified that that was going to be the question of the story. Thus ends the first act and begins the second.
The second act, or act ii, is typically where the meat of the story is. It’s where we see rising action that is leading up to the big confrontation that is bound to occur. It’s where the majority of the character development takes place, and it’s where the readers really get hooked.
The Confrontation Act
The second act is also known as the confrontation act because the protagonist exerts a lot of time and energy attempting to solve the issue that occurred at the end of the previous act. In most cases, here is where the hero’s journey really begins.
Katniss has to deal with competing in the Hunger Games since she made the decision to volunteer in place of her sister. She can’t undo the decision and just go back to the status quo, so the rising action occurs as she deals with the fear and turmoil of leaving her family behind and risking death in the games.
It was the only way to save her sister, so she had to deal with it. Her volunteering as tribute was the turning point in the story, and now the possibility of going back to her old life is gone. The only option now is for the action to build.
New Character Introductions
New characters are often introduced in act two. The hero experiences many things in the new world she is thrown into. Therefore she does the best she can to create a comfort zone for herself. The protagonist’s goal is to live through the games and emerge victoriously, and to do that; the other tributes must die.
We know this, and so does Katniss, so from this point forward, in every single scene that she makes a new friend or acquaintance who is a fellow tribute, the reader must accept that for Katniss to live, she must lose this new friend.
Act ii also allows the writer to tell a ‘b-story’ if it helps the plot. A b-story is a side story that won’t really affect the outcome of the main story but can help the reader to invest more emotionally in other characters and circumstances.
In the story we are using as an example, Peeta is our b-story candidate. He forms a close friendship with Katniss, and although he’s not as important as our protagonist, the reader starts to care about him and the friendship that he and Katniss form.
This act makes act one look like a walk in the park compared to the character’s turmoil. The first turning point has made a mess of things for the protagonist.
Darkest Moment, Darkest Hour, Dark Night of the Soul
These all sound like poetic terms, and in a way, they are. In act two, the story structure demands that the character hits rock bottom and is faced with an issue that the reader understands could go devastatingly badly.
In our example story, Katniss hits her rock bottom when Peeta gets an injured leg. Conflicted and unsure of what to do, she decides to take the risk and once again put her own life on the line. She decides to help him when playing it safe, and getting closer to the chance of winning the games would be the smarter move for her, her family, and her entire district.
She goes in a different direction from the goal in the beginning of defeating all of her competition and doing whatever it takes to win the games. The bonds she has formed with her new friends now mean just as much to her.
This is referred to by some as the “dark night of the soul” because it’s truly conflicting and tense. Of all the acts in the story, it’s act two that builds the reader up and puts them on the edge of their seat, so to speak.
The third act of the three-act structure is where it all comes to a close. To get there, we have to employ the rest of the essential elements of fiction writing. The third act is the final act (also known as act iii).
The Final Battle
The third act is where we reach the most intense point of the story. The hero’s journey is coming to an end, and the events leading up to the climax have come to a head. We’re almost to the finish line. The climax, or last major action, takes place here.
In the story example, Katniss must decide how she will win the games, and then she must act on the decision. The last act gives the protagonist one last chance to tie up loose ends. There is typically a pre-climax, where the final action begins, and then the climax, where resolution takes place, for better or worse. Afterward, if our hero is still alive to do so, the hero reflects on their actions and celebrates victory or accepts defeat.
The third act can end predictably, on a cliffhanger or in shock. For example, in the Sixth Sense, the audience is shocked when they find out that they were wrong about a character they felt they knew for the entirety of the story. Happy endings don’t have to occur. As long as all of the elements of the story are present, the story can end any way that the writer chooses.