What is the three-act structure? It comes from Aristotle and is the basic plot structure for Greek tragedies. The simplest definition is, it is a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. A large majority of the good stories out there have this same structure. Why? Because it works. We recognize it as good storytelling whether we are aware of it or not. It has become so ingrained in us that we expect stories to follow this same structure. Let’s talk about what typically happens in the three-act structure.
Act 1: Beginning
The beginning or the first act is used to introduce the main and secondary characters of the story. Their relationships, motivations, and their environment are established. Often, this is when the characters’ voices are revealed, we discover what’s important to the characters, and what the characters’ strengths and weaknesses are. The main goal is introduced along with the main obstacle standing in the protagonist(s) way. This part of the story is usually light on the backstory until the characters are established and the plot is well under way. The first act typically ends with the inciting incident. This is the event that sets the characters on their course of action and eventual climax and resolution.
Act 2: Middle
The middle, also called rising action, is the meat of the story. Conflict is a major factor as the goals of the protagonist and the antagonist collide. We see the twists and turns the players must navigate as they work through a series of obstacles as the story progresses. And the protagonist fails at many of the attempts to make things right. Each obstacle is progressively worse and raises the tense a notch or two as the story nears the climax. Act 2 is where we see character growth. While the protagonist is not always equipped to handle each situation, the secondary characters oftentimes lend a helping hand. Regardless, the characters should learn from each failure and become stronger. In other words, they basically learn how to rise to the occasion. Act 2 ends with the lowest point in the story. That moment when all seems lost and the antagonist is poised to triumph.
Act 3: End
The end, also called resolution, is where climax reaches its pinnacle. This is the most exciting part of the story. Once the climax is reached, the plot and subplots achieve a resolution. The protagonist comes to a new self-awareness, having risen to the challenge and discovering that they are more capable than they realized.
There are variations of this model with any number of scenes and acts, but at the core, these still follow the fundamental three-act design. There are some out there who don’t think the three-act structure is a good model for all novels, and common sense would have to agree that it can’t possibly be the best plot for every novel out there. But for the majority of books, including most best-sellers, the three-act model is a solid foundation to build a story around.
What type of structure does your story follow? Do you think the three-act structure is the only way to go or do you have a difficult time sticking to Aristotle’s outline? Let me know!
Now… go write something!