last updated: 21 November 2018 (approximate reading time: 4 minutes; 696 words)
To oversimplify, a story involves a character pursuing a goal, but there is a block so the character cannot readily achieve that goal. The story then typically revolves around the character trying to get past that block.
Three Act Structure
Much fiction then puts what is often called the three act structure around this basic notion. The three act structure looks something like this:
- act one: the protagonists want something, but finds a problem
- act two: the protagonist looks for ways around the problem but the problem gets worse for the protagonist with new challenges and new complications
- act three: the problem is resolved—the protagonist succeeds or fails
In short, act one is the introduction and act three is the climax. Act two is the protagonist’s journey through the story.
There is much to commend the three act structure, but it can also be rather unspecific, and for this reason, I like to break the acts down into smaller more manageable chunks when I think about writing stories.
Here’s how I think about the three act structure.
The primary aim of the first act is to bring the reader into the story.
Hook the Reader
The reader needs to be pulled into the story, fast. Click here to read more of my thoughts about first scenes.
Once the reader has a grasp on some of the characters and their world, then the protagonist can encounter the inciting incident which sets up the central conflict of the story.
At the end of the first act, the protagonist must commit to addressing the central conflict that has arisen through the inciting incident—this commitment sets the story on course for act two.
Act Two (part one)
I find that the second act can be better looked at in terms of two halves. For the first half, the protagonist is investigating and learning the new world in which they find themselves.
Protagonist Makes Progress
Sometimes a protagonist advances and sometimes they retreat. Some of these moves have a certain logic behind them as I set out in the physics of story telling.
When thinking about the action, I find it helpful to consider advancing scenes and retreating scenes in isolation. In reality, when it comes to creating a book, the two are likely to be merged (or at least mixed to an extent)—so one step forward, two back, three forward, one back rather then ten forward followed by ten back.
But There is Resistance
Having advanced—having kicked the hornet’s nest—there will be consequences.
Act Two (part two)
For the second half of act two, the protagonist is putting their knowledge into action. More significantly, for the second half, the antagonist has become aware of the protagonist and so is a much more significant adversary.
In light of the reaction by the antagonist to the protagonist’s earlier moves, the protagonist will adapt and pursue a modified plan.
Protagonist Experiences Further Resistance
While the protagonist is following a modified plan, the antagonist will react to the new situation and will push back against the protagonist.
The push back by the antagonist will likely be more extreme in nature and will force the protagonist to the low point—the point at which it gets as bad as it can get.
This turns us into the third act.
The third act concludes the story.
There is a showdown between the protagonist and the antagonist—both muster all their resources to address the central conflict.
The protagonist succeeds or fails.
The world has changed and the characters come to terms with the situation after the central conflict has been resolved.
When I start to outline a novel, I start with a (very) simple template based on this structure. You can find the template by following this link.
And just to be really clear, both with the notes here and the template: I’m dealing with words on a page. If I don’t like something—if something doesn’t work in the context of the story I want to tell—then I make a change and ignore these structures. These pages are simply my starting point.