On Pacing and Structure (Part 3): The Three Act Structure

The Three Act structure is the most basic form of storytelling structure which is commonly employed in Western literature. (I don’t know anything about other traditions of literature, so you need to go elsewhere for those.) It is so basic, it is insufficient for use in designing and examining novels. HOWEVER I do think it can be used to design and examine short stories. (It can also be used to examine individual scenes- I’ll talk about this in a later post.)

While this tool is a bit simple for the use in structuring an entire novel, consider using this as a narrative tool to set up an individual character arc for your protagonist or a side character. Every important character should have an individual character arc (I like to call them internal plot), and this is great for structuring those. This is a bad tool for external plots (aka a mystery in a mystery novel or a fantasy adventure in a fantasy novel) because it’s just too small.

Here is an infographic describing the three act format. (I got this graphic from wikipedia.)

The Three Act Structure has three parts:

Act 1: The Status Quo, and Why It Changes

Act 2: Conflict and a State of Flux

Act 3: Climax and Resolution

To restate, when using this guide I recommend that you DO NOT use this for novels; it’s better for short stories. For this reason, I will analyze ‘The Paper Menagerie’ by Ken Liu, ‘Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience‘ by Rebecca Roanhorse and ‘Chivalry‘ by Neil Gaiman. I suggest you read them to get a handle of the ideas I’m discussing.


Act 1: The Status Quo, and Why It Changes

When writing a story, it has to begin somewhere. Books which follow the Three Act structure show the initial status quo, and then show an event which causes that status quo to change. This is the inciting incident. In a fantasy novel, the equivalent is when the orphan farmboy is forced out of his comfort zone and made to leave on an adventure. In a romance novel, the inciting incident is when the two romantic leads meet. In a mystery novel, the inciting incident is either when the detective first takes the case, or when the crime is first committed.

This Act has two phases: first, it shows the story’s world in it’s natural state of equilibrium; then after the inciting incident it shows how the story’s world reacts to the incident.

The Act ends with the introduction of an important plot point: in a mystery, this is the introduction of an important clue; in a romance this might be when the two romantic leads have a falling out, or perhaps are forced to work together; in a fantasy story, this might be when the protagonist arrives at magic school. Or maybe the next act begins when your protagonist makes a choice which they can never take back, like telling their love interest ‘I love you.’ The possibilities for what this plot point is is endless.

Why does this Act exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • Every story has to start somewhere! This act serves to bring your reader into the story, show them the pre-existing conflicts, show them what causes those pre-existing conflicts to change when outside forces intervene.

Example:

  •  In ‘Paper Menagerie,’ the inciting incident is the protagonist’s mother creating a paper oragami tiger. Plot point 1 is when he becomes self-conscious of his Chinese heritage.
  • In ‘Welcome,’ the inciting incident is when the protagonist takes a job with the tourist. Plot point 1 is when he is fired from his job.
  • In ‘Chivalry,’ the inciting incident is the protagonist purchasing the Holy Grail. Plot point 1 is when a knight visits her on a quest for the Holy Grail.

In these three stories, we see the status quo established, and then turned on it’s head.


Act 2: Conflict and a State of Flux

In Act 2, the upset status quo of Act 1 is further elaborated upon. More conflict is generated within the setting of the story, increasing the story’s tension linearly as the story nears it’s climax. At the midpoint of this act, there should be a significant plot point which sends the story in another new direction.

A word of advice: many good stories try to use the midpoint as a mini-climax of it’s own. That mini-climax might be a fight scene, a reconciliation, a political scene- whatever it is depends on your genre. But whatever your midpoint conflict is, make it spicy so your readers are salivating to know how you top it in the story’s true climax. Whatever the midpoint conflict scene is, it resolves nothing, and that lack of resolution raises the stakes in and of itself.

If you’re telling a thematic story, the second act is where you do the bulk of the heavy work of exploring the topic you’re talking about. I can’t provide an in-depth explanation for this Act, because each story is different. Whatever story you’re trying to tell, this act is when you’re trying to establish the message and tell your story

This Act ends with the introduction of a second important plot point.

  • That plot point forces the protagonist to make a choice they can never take back, propelling the story forward.
  • Or that plot point makes their environment change in some other way which increases the tension yet again, so the story avalanches towards the finale.

Why does this Act exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • To do the bulk of the storytelling. Think of this act as a microcosm of your entire story, starting your protagonist in one viewpoint and changing them to be in another by the end of it.
  • The midpoint should contain a conflict/fight, where the heroes have either a false victory or a false defeat. Because this is a false victory/defeat, the tension ramps up because it seems the protagonist is further than ever away from achieving their goals.
  • The act ends with an additional plot point, usually going against the best interests of the protagonist. The protagonist might have a ‘Dark Night of the Soul,’ when things look hopeless and they might consider giving up.

Examples:

  • In ‘Paper Menagerie,’ in this Act the protagonist internalizes his dislike for his Chinese heritage, and tries to become more ‘American’ by rejecting his mother’s paper origami toys. Plot point 2 is his mother’s death.
  • In ‘Welcome,’ in this Act the protagonist goes on a drunken bender after getting himself fired. Plot point 2 is when the protagonist goes home to find his wife gone.
  • In ‘Chivalry,’ in this Act, Sir Galahad does the protagonist’s chores and gets her valuable artifacts in an attempt to prove himself worthy of the Holy Grail. Plot Point 2 is when Galahad brings the protagonist an Apple of the Hesperides.

The thing all of these three stories have in common in this act is rising tension: we see the ‘Paper Megagerie’ protagonist grow more jaded; we see the ‘Welcome’ protagonist become less emotionally stable as a result of losing his job; in ‘Chivalry’ we see Galahad introduce himself and try to prove himself worthy. The narrative difference beginning of this act vs the end of this act is defined by the incorporation of plot point 1 into the upset status quo, further upsetting the status quo.

The addition of plot point 2 further ups the stakes and the tension, leading to the climax and conclusion of Act 3.


Act 3: Climax and Resolution

Act three is all about resolution. Tension is steadily built in Acts 1 &2. The only possible release for the narrative tension is the establishment of a new status quo. This is where you have your final confrontation; your duels to the death; the atonement of feuding lovers.

Act 3 is divided into two halves. The first half takes the plot point 2 and explores it, leading up to the climax. The climax serves as an outlet for the tension, finishing the plot and serving as the beginning the second half of the act. In the second half, we explore the new, final status quo very briefly before the end of the story.

The climax of this act is where the internal plot (aka the protagonist’s character arc) and the external plot (aka the plot of the story writ large, so the mystery in a mystery novel, the romance in a romance novel, the quest in a fantasy quest novel)) intersect one another. To triumph, the protagonist uses the plot tools they’ve gained from both the internal plot (self-confidence, friendship, wisdom, or whatever else was the point of their character arc) along with the plot tools they’ve gained from the external plot (the McGuffin, the training montage, the engagement ring) to triumph and conclude the story.

Why does this Act exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • To build up and resolve the tension. This Act begins by taking the plot point added at the end of Act 2 and showing the consequences of that plot point, shows the true climax, and then wraps up the story with denouement.
  • Oftentimes this Act serves as a narrative echo of Act 1 (and in the best stories, an ironic echo of Act 1), where features of the protagonist and the story present in the first Act are contrasted with the changes which have taken place in the second Act. To summarize, Act 3 is where you contrast the status quo of Act 1 with the changes brought about by Act 2.

Examples

  • In ‘Paper Menagerie,’ after his mother’s death, the protagonist feels bad and wants to reconnect with her and her Chinese heritage. The climax has him reconnect with her very briefly from beyond the grave.
  • In ‘Welcome,’ the protagonist discovers that his wife wants a divorce. The climax of the story is him having a mental break (paralleling the fake-Vision Quest from the first act), and question his own existence.
  • In ‘Chivalry,’ the protagonist agrees to give Galahad the Holy Grail, and then life pretty much goes back to how it was before.

We see in this act that the tension escalates up to the breaking point in the climax- and then the climax serves to establish a new, permanent status quo.

When writing this act, focus on tension and resolution of that tension. Think about your message, and how your story represents that message. Try to create a satisfying resolution to the tension in order to create a memorable story.


And there you go! You can in theory apply this structure to a novel, but honestly this structure is too basic to use for a novel length work (have you ever read a book with only 2-3 plot points? Probably not). You CAN use it when writing an individual scene. Check out this video for an example. (This specific scene is about dialog, but it applies to scenes in general.) I’ll discuss this topic more in a later article.

In the next addition to this series, I’ll be discussing the Five Act Structure.

 

Here’s some more resources you an use

5 Point Plot Structure- The Script Lab

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