Writing

How to Write Three Act Structure

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 22, 2019 • 6 min read

Novelists, playwrights, and screenwriters have many options for organizing the structure of their novels, plays, movies, and television episodes. Traditionally, these narratives are broken into acts, which are subdivisions of the overall story. Some stories are told in a single act, like short stories and one-act plays. Sometimes a storyline demands many acts; Willam Shakespeare, for instance, was loyal to the five-act structure when writing his plays.

Yet of all the ways to subdivide a story, writers have shown great loyalty to the three act structure, which is typical of most forms of modern storytelling. The notion of three-act storytelling traces back to Aristotle, who theorized on story beats in Poetics. He argued that stories are a chain of cause-and-effect actions, with each action inspiring subsequent actions until a story reaches its end.

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What Is Three Act Structure?

Three act structure divides a story into three distinct sections, each anchored around one or more plot points that drive the overall action. Over the course of the three acts, a complete story structure unfolds. The main character passes through the stations of a character arc, the main plot builds toward the realization of the protagonist’s goal, and by the end, the action is resolved and key loose ends are tied up.

What Are the Elements of Three Act Structure?

At their most basic, the three acts of a book or script represent a beginning, a middle, and an end. In most three-act stories, about 50 percent of the actual storytelling occurs in the second act, with 25 percent of the story falling in the first act and 25 percent falling in the final act.

  • Act one: The first act typically starts with exposition—one or more scenes that establish the world of the story. If the story contains supernatural elements, the rules of the supernatural world would be established here. This act should also establish the ordinary world of the story’s main character. Before the act is over, however, an inciting incident should occur—one that pulls the protagonist out of their normal world and into the main action of the story. The act concludes with some sort of turning point that launches the action into act two.
  • Act two: A story’s middle act consists of a rising action that leads to a midpoint, then devolves into a crisis. Let’s say a story is about a detective who is tracking the killer of her murdered partner. The Act one inciting incident would be her partner’s murder, and the turning point would be her decision to track the killer. Thus the rising action of act two would involve the sleuthing she must do to track down the murderer. Act two will raise the stakes of the protagonist’s journey, perhaps revealing the danger to which she’s exposing herself. By the story’s midpoint, the detective would be fully immersed in her journey. The second act typically ends with another turning point that makes it seem as if the protagonist will fail. This is sometimes called the “dark night of the soul.” Perhaps our detective has gotten too close to the killer and has been wounded by one of his henchmen, allowing him to escape.
  • Act three: The third act begins with what’s known as a pre-climax. This consists of events leading up to a climactic confrontation in which the hero faces a point of no return: they must either prevail or perish. In our detective story, perhaps our hero has regained the trail of the killer and has traced him to a safehouse. This launches us into the actual climax, where the detective apprehends her partner’s killer—either taking him into custody or killing him. Finally the story de-escalates in a denouement, where the events of the climax wind back down into normal life. Of course the hero detective’s life will never be the same again.

Note that almost all novels, movies, and TV episodes have subplots (also known as B-stories) that occur concurrently with the main plot. These subplots, often crucial to character development, may also follow a standard three act structure, but they way they play out varies greatly from story to story.

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An Example of Three Act Structure

A well known example of the three act structure is the original Star Wars film, released in 1977. George Lucas, responsible for both the screenwriting and the direction of the film, opted for a classic narrative arc known as “the hero’s journey,” applying it to Luke Skywalker’s path to becoming a heroic Jedi knight. Here’s how the three act structure works in this legendary Hollywood blockbuster.

  • Act one: Lucas establishes the world of the story. An opening text crawl explains some backstory, and we launch into the first plot point, wherein Darth Vader kidnaps Princess Leia. However, the film’s true inciting incident comes later, when the newly introduced Luke Skywalker buys a runaway droid that leads him to Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi. Obi-Wan tries to recruit Luke to embrace the life of the Jedi, but Luke ultimately rejects this call to action—which is a key plot point in an archetypal hero’s journey.
  • Act two: Tragedy strikes when Luke discovers his aunt and uncle murdered by Darth Vader’s stormtroopers. This marks a turning point for Luke; he realizes the stakes are too high for him to deny his duty. He embraces his destiny a Jedi knight and leaves his comfort zone. The second half of the middle of the story culminates in tragedy, as Darth Vader kills Obi-Wan, Luke’s mentor. Act two ends with Luke’s “dark night of the soul.”
  • Act three: Luke and his comrades take on Darth Vader in an action that’s sometimes called “storming the castle.” In the film’s climax, Luke and company engage in a final battle with Vader. They destroy Vader’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star, resulting in a triumphant victory. A very brief denouement follows, featuring a celebration, and the film reaches its end.

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How to Use Three Act Structure in Your Writing

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The best way to incorporate three act structure into your own writing is to map out the key plot elements that should populate each act.

  • Act one: exposition, inciting action, turning point into act two
  • Act two: rising action, midpoint, turning point into act three (often a “dark night of the soul”)
  • Act three: pre-climax, climax, denouement

Some novelists and screenwriters consider these story points when they brainstorm; others brainstorm in a far more open-ended way and only later do they consider specific plot points. If you’re the type of writer who prefers open-ended brainstorming, perhaps via the snowflake method, don’t disrupt your process by thinking about act breaks and a specific plot structure.

If you prefer to be hyper-organized in your writing process, it may make sense to keep the three act story structure in mind from the very beginning. It can be a useful planning tool to think of the story in terms of exposition, inciting action, rising action, and beyond. Just remember when you are writing a novel or a screenplay that good stories don’t start with templates for act breaks; they start with memorable characters, vivid worldbuilding, and a protagonist whose journey is worth following. Once you have those in place, a three act structure will likely naturally reveal itself.

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