The Basics: The Three-Act Structure

The three act structure is a method of structuring and organizing your story that was first mentioned by Aristotle and has been one of the most important and basic techniques that surround fiction writing. Aristotle first came up with the idea that all stories needed a beginning, a middle and an end. Throughout the years, writers and authors all around the world have adapted this concept and transformed it into the three-act structure, a division of your plot that consists on three large pieces of the story, separated by a major or relevant event that, as some believe, should always be a disaster.

Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy, two award-winning and best-selling authors, swear by this rule. In their book, “Writing Fiction for Dummies”, they describe the three-act structure as follows:

Act 1 takes up roughly the first quarter and ends with a major disaster. The first disaster comes at the end of Act 1 and links it to Act 2.

Act 2 takes up the second and third quarters, and each quarter ends with an even worse disaster. The second disaster comes at the midpoint of Act 2 (ending the second quarter) and serves as an antidote to what people often call the sagging middle. The third disaster strikes at the end of Act 2 (ending the third quarter) and links it to Act 3.

Act 3 takes up the last quarter and includes a climax (also called a resolution), which answers the story question — the question of whether your lead character will succeed. The climax typically falls late in the fourth quarter, and everything after it serves to wind down the story.

But why is the three-act structure so important? We can consider the three-act structure a fundamental tenet for both the writer and the reader. For the writer, it is the most helpful way to clarify your ideas, letting you hold the main points of your story and letting you assess the amount of drama and emotion that your plot contains. For the reader, it’s the disassembly of the story in three acts that balances the emotional “bumps” that the story delivers – before each disaster, tension rises, thrilling the readers and leading them to read the story through their own excitement to discover what comes next. After the disaster, there is moment of inactivity, where the characters “evaluate the damage” that the disaster induced; it is also the best moment to introduce the barren and necessary parts of the plot, mostly the ones where you explain a character’s background or probe a character’s feelings.

But how can you quickly delineate your own three-act structure? I will use Randy Ingermanson’s exercise, since it’s the simplest and clearest I could find:

1. Write a first sentence that introduces one or more characters and sets up the conflict.  Name your principal characters and tell any essential information. You may even include key backstory details.

2. Write three sentences, each describing a major disaster in your story.  The three disasters should be from a single character’s point of view, usually the lead character’s.

3. Write a final sentence that explains how you resolve the story.  If you don’t reveal the details of the resolution, you should at least give some clear hints about how the story question will be answered.

4. Rework the sentence containing your first disaster, adding in the decision that sets the story goal.

5. Rework the sentence containing your third disaster, explaining why it forces the final confrontation.

6. Polish the entire paragraph until it flows naturally.

7. Save your one-paragraph summary in a safe place and come back to it periodically and make sure that it actually describes the story you’re writing.

In future posts, I’ll explain the best and fool-proof ways to make any storyline succeed – I’ll go deep into the three-act structure and teach you how to make the best out of the beginning, end and disasters of your plot.

~Happy writing!