Three Act Structure: Act I

The three-act structure is frequently discussed for screenplays, but less so for fiction. Yet, this structure is very useful in fiction too, especially in the early stage of outlining a story. In a screenplay, act 1 is 30 pages, act 2 is 60, and act three is 30, for a total of 120 pages. Although most novels exceed 120 pages, the proportions should be respected. Act 2 is the same length as the first and third acts combined; and the first and third acts are the same length.

An effective story has at least three plot points. One ends act 1, the second is in the middle of act 2 (also the middle of the story), and the third is at the end of act 2. Plot points are a major shift in plot direction. Thus, for the reader, they signal a new section of the story. For example, in a rescue plot, act one could consist of the protagonist’s daughter going missing, the protagonist trying to figure out why without any real luck, and ending with plot point 1—a kidnapper contacts the protagonist, demanding payment. This changes the plot direction, because previously the protagonist did not know why his daughter was missing (maybe she ran off voluntarily) and whether she was still alive. Now he knows someone is holding her captive, so he can go after her. The second act could consist of the protagonist trying to raise the money, while at the same time commencing his search for her, ending with plot point 3—finding the kidnapper’s stronghold where she is being held hostage. He can now storm the castle, the major shift in plot direction. Previous to this point, he was only following clues, leading to empty rooms.

What specifically happens in each act? First, act 1. Some of the most exciting stories start with a hook, an action sequence, which is peculiar and gripping. Done right, you will hook the reader. Without it, the reader may stop after the first twenty pages. A reader’s human curiosity will start her reading a story, but that curiosity doesn’t last long. The hook keeps the reader interested. This opening sequence could be an unusual murder, where the rest of the story is about the protagonist detective trying to capture the murderer. Or it could be a British intelligence agent stealing information, but being shot while running away. The rest of the story is about James Bond going after the villain who slaughtered the agent.

After this opening sequence, the next sequences introduce the protagonist and the world in which she lives: where she lives, where she works, and what she does for fun. Just don’t start this section with an alarm clocking sounding, and the protagonist awaking and slapping it, which has been overdone. Half way through act one, a major change occurs in the protagonist’s life, imposing a problem on the protagonist. For example, the father’s daughter goes missing. He can hardly ignore this problem. Solving it creates his story goal: in this example, recovering his daughter. The second half of act 1 consists of either attempting to solve the problem or avoiding it, and in both cases offers more introduction to the story world. If the protagonist avoids the problem, something forces the protagonist to cease avoiding it by the end of act 1. As already discussed, act 1 ends with plot point one, an event significantly shifting the plot direction.

The next article will address the organs of Act two.