THE THREE ACT STRUCTURE OF STORIES: A SIMPLE GUIDE WITH A SPIRITUAL FINALE
The three-act structure is perhaps the most widely used technique for plotting stories, deriving from the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle’s view that a story (in Aristotle’s case, a tragic story) must have a beginning, middle, and end.
This well-known three-act model has been developed to include various stages and moments that every storyteller, whether writing fiction or nonfiction, needs to know, even if they decide to use other structural templates.
In this brief introduction, I’m going to talk about the things that are distinctive about each of the three acts, including the key moments in each of the three Acts, such as plot point 1 and plot point 2, midpoint of Act 2, climax and denouement.
This is sometimes called the Set Up to the whole story. It accounts for about 25% of the total story. Here the storyteller expounds (hence exposition) about the main character (hero/protagonist) and some of their challenges.
There should be a hint in this first Act of the challenges that lie ahead, some of the impending conflict, a question that needs answering, a problem that needs resolving by the end of the story. "There may be trouble ahead" is the song you'd sing as you write Act 1!
Towards the end of Act 1, there should be what’s called an Inciting Incident. Something happens to the main character that acts as a catalyst, propelling them forward into a new season of their life - a new relationship, adventure, diagnosis, contract etc.
This is followed by what’s called Plot Point 1, which I prefer (along with others, such as James Scott Bell) to call the first doorway of no return. The main character crosses a threshold here. They will never be the same again.
In the first Star Wars film (A New Hope), Luke Skywalker is the main character. He is shown growing up on his uncle and aunt’s farm. His parents have died so he is an orphan, living with them now. In the larger context, there is civil war in the Star Wars universe.
When Luke acquires two droids, one of them activates a holographic recording of Princess Leia crying for help. She has acquired the plans for the Death Star which threatens to destroy them all. This is the inciting incident. When Luke’s uncle and aunt are killed, this is Plot Point 1.
This is sometimes known as the Confrontation and usually accounts for 50% of the story. If Act 1 is 20,000 words, Act 2 will be double that, 40,000 words. This is the largest section of the story and it is, in my experience, the most challenging to write.
In Act 2, there needs to be a rising sense of conflict, a sense of the stakes getting higher for the main character and his friends, problems becoming more complex. Here the hero faces tests and trials. Act 2 is therefore about SETBACKS.
Act 2 needs to be dramatic. Drama is really all about conflict, so there needs to be a sense of both external forces at work creating conflict, as well as internal forces within the main character’s soul. If you can combine external and internal conflict in your story, so much the better.
In Act 2, the main character has responded to the call to adventure, crossed the threshold, but now faces tests and trials, acquires friends and enemies, before experiencing an ordeal. This is the central moment in the second Act.
The challenge here is to create what’s called a MIDPOINT in Act 2 – an ordeal where things go wrong for the main character – an injury, failed test, wound, death, disappointment, betrayal, confusion etc – but where the hero resolves to go on.
Thereafter, the action rises, the difficulties increase rather than decrease for the hero, until a second plot point – a second doorway of no return, an event that propels the hero irrevocably into Act 3. At this point, the main character needs to be proactive, not reactive.
If there is no sense of rising action in Act 2, then you as a storyteller have failed to do your job. This is the hardest of the three Acts to write and master. You need to keep the reader/listener/viewer engaged by making sure that the stakes get higher for your hero, the darkness gets darker too.
Now, in Act 2 of Star Wars, Luke learns about the Force from his mentor Obi-Wan, teams up with Han and Chewie, discovers about the Dark Side, has run-ins with storm troopers, and boards the Millennium Falcon in order to embark on his mission.
The friends set off on their quest to rescue Princess Leia and to acquire the plans of the Death Star – plans that are vital for the destruction of the evil Empire’s lethal, planet destroying weapon in the civil war that is now intensifying.
However, they face an unexpected ordeal (midpoint of Act 2) when they head for Alderaan, only to find that it has been destroyed. Luke and his friends are almost captured but escape to head for the Death Star to rescue Leia.
There they rescue Leia from prison, encounter a terrifying worm in the garbage bay, before escaping the Death Star – this only when Obi-Wan gives his life fighting Darth Vader (Plot Point 2), a critical moment for Luke.
This Act begins after the crisis at the end of Act 2. It usually accounts for about 25% of your story. If Act 1 is 20,000 words and Act 2 is 40,000, then Act 3 will be approximately 20,000, sometimes even less than that, depending on how much resolution is required.
In this Act, the problem posed in Act 1, the question raised in Act 1, is addressed and resolved. After the dark night of the soul for the main character in Plot Point 2 (the crisis that leads to Act 3), we move to the final battle.
At this point, the conflicts the main character has been facing – both external and internal – often become fiercest and we see the dark side emerging with full force in a scene that functions as the climactic moment in the entire story.
This climax is portrayed in a vivid scene in which the hero solves the problem, answers the question, finds their treasure, fulfils the quest, achieves a sense of healing, defeats their nemesis, solves the crime, or experiences true enlightenment.
The dénouement is a final phase devoted to tying up all the loose ends. If there are any issues still to be resolved after the climactic scene, these are dealt with in these final moments of the story as you wrap things up so that the reader is not left frustrated.
Here the clarity that the main character has discovered – accompanied by an inner transformation – is emphasized. The main theme of the story is underlined too. Tension is released. The darkness withdraws. The hero has prevailed, in spite of loss and disaster.
In Star Wars, Luke experiences a dark night of the soul after Obi-Wan's sacrifice. This is an inner crisis after his mentor’s death, but he then rallies to attempt an apparently suicidal mission to destroy the Death Star, with the help of the rebels.
Now Luke needs to overcome all his fears and learn - with the help of Obi Wan's words - to rely on the Force as he approaches the external exhaust port, identified by Princess Leia’s plans as the weak spot, the Achilles Heel, the access point to the Death Star.
Darth Vader chases Luke with two other Tie Fighters. Here, in the final battle, it looks as if all will be lost, but Luke, remembering Obi-Wan’s words, relies on the Force and – in the climax of the film - blows up the Death Star.
The story ends in almost fairy tale way with the dénouement - medals awarded with cheering crowds and smiling heroes. Equilibrium has been restored in the galaxy. Luke has fulfilled his quest, and the problems posed at the start have been solved.
This is obviously a very satisfying story structure, but it should not be used as a formula, only as a guide. A too slavish, obvious adherence to it will give your story a contrived and formulaic feel. It's basically a good place to begin.
Further comments: there are other structures available, such as the Hero’s Journey (see my blog on this), so don’t feel that you have to stick to a three-act model. The Hero's Journey comprises twelve stages rather than just three, although these twelve stages can be fit into a three act structure.
Furthermore, don’t be fooled into thinking this is only usable in fictional stories (such as Star Wars). I have encouraged many of our clients at BookLab to write their own memoirs or autobiographies using this structure to great effect.
One of the finest autobiographies I’ve ever read is The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom (a WW2 holocaust survivor story) and this nonfiction, true and harrowing story is clearly designed using the structure and stages above.
As Dorothy Sayers said, we are made in the mind of the Maker and the Maker is, according to traditional Christian theology, three-in-one and one-in-three – a tripartite, divine being. Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
If this is true – and that is a matter of faith, not science, of course – then maybe we default to three-act structures because, as Tolkien said, we are sub-creators made in the likeness of the Ultimate Creator, the Divine Storyteller.
But that's another story.
For another time!