Category Archives: Three Act Structure

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.

Three Act Structure: Act II

Act two is really the story, as act one was only the introduction. It consists of a series of obstacles or problems which the protagonist must overcome or solve to reach her story goal. Make the problems too easy to solve, and act two lacks any real conflict and thus drama. (Drama is conflict.) As the author, stick it to your protagonist, really drag her through the mud. Don’t play nice as god of the story. The more the protagonist struggles, the more the reader will identify with her, for what reader doesn’t understand hardship? The obstacles should also become larger and harder to overcome as the story progresses. The protagonist will become stronger and more capable after overcoming each obstacle. Thus, to truly challenge the protagonist, the problems must get harder. No use repeating the challenges of eighth grade; you’ve done that. Now you’re ready for the challenges of ninth grade. Similarly, Bilbo Baggins has outwitted Gollum and escaped his cave. No use making Bilbo encounter another riddle session with another Gollum. Why? No suspense. We know Bilbo is very capable of winning. How about making Bilbo next confront a huge, intelligent, fire-fuming dragon! Let’s see Bilbo outsmart it and escape its dark dwelling.

Plot point two falls in the middle of act two. The reason for it is to hold the reader’s attention with a major shift in plot direction, to shake the reader’s drowsiness by the this point and curtail a growing boredom with the story. The second act will nearly end with the protagonist’s dark moment, when things could not get worse for the protagonist and when the odds of achieving her goal are overwhelmingly against her. As a cruel god of this world, the author has placed the protagonist at her wit’s end, giving her no real chance to prevail. She will be crushed. The author has taken nearly everything from her. Only plot point three at the end of this act shifts the plot in a new direction, providing the protagonist a ray of hope.

Given that act two is the longest section of the overall story (the same length as acts one and two combined), luring the reader forward through it is a challenge. Two techniques are the ticking bomb and raising stakes. The ticking bomb can be literal. The villain plans to build a bomb, is building it, and is delivering it to a final destination. The timer probably won’t start its countdown until act three. James Bond had better learn of the bomb, and then find it. In act three, he had better snip the right wire before the timer reaches zero.

Or the ticking bomb can be figurative, referring to other time limits or deadlines. The protagonist must achieve his story goal within a limited amount of time. A lot of tension will be absent, if he has all the time in the world. Consider having to buy avocados for a party this evening. If you have all day, no real pressure. If the store closes in five minutes and you can’t find a parking place, a great deal of pressure. Deadlines always create stress, if you need to meet one but don’t have sufficient time. The same holds true in stories, as the reader vicariously feels the protagonist’s stress. So what else can create a deadline, besides a ticking bomb reaching zero? A train is heading through a mountain pass toward a bridge it must cross, except the bridge is ruined. The protagonist must rescue his wife from the train before it reaches the bridge. The bridge becomes the deadline. The Titanic strikes an iceberg and begins to sink. Two lovers must leave the ship in a safety boat before it entirely sinks. Total submersion is the deadline. Hence, a vehicle moving toward a destructive end creates a deadline. Other deadlines exist, and original stories find new forms of them.

Another tool for attracting a reader through act two is raising the stakes, which is just another way of saying increasing the protagonist’s potential loss. As an angry god in the story world, the author puts more and more at risk for the protagonist. Initially, John may lose his job if he fails to reach his story goal. Later, he will lose his marriage too. Harry Potter’s story goal is to defeat Voldemort. If he fails to, Voldemort will kill all non-magicians, stripping Harry of their existence. Voldemort will also oppress all magicians, which will adversely affect Harry’s friends. More of his friends may die, thereby losing them. Later, Harry has the very real risk of losing his own life. Rowling keeps stacking the ugly consequences and raising what is at stake if Harry does not fulfill his story goal. A valuable exercise for any author is to consider other forms of loss besides people and the protagonist’s own life. Although readers relate to these losses, the possibilities are not limited to these alone.

The next article addresses Act three.

Three Act Structure: Act III

The reader takes an additional interest in act three from plot point three, which shifts the plotline of act two. Where will this shift lead, the reader asks. Does the protagonist have a chance of reaching her story goal after all? Act three is primarily composed of the climactic sequence and, afterwards, fairly brief resolutions of the subplots. Great stories offer a lengthy climactic sequence, otherwise readers feel cheated: you mean I waited all this time for the battle between the hero and villain and it was no more than a brief skirmish! This story is lame, the reader concludes. Thus, act three is the beginning of the end, and might be regarded as one long sequence leading up to that battle in such stories. Bilbo Baggins has reached the Lonely Mountain, the dwelling of Smaug. Isn’t this the beginning of the end, the long sequence of confronting Smaug and slaying the evil monster? Batman finds the Joker, but is caught. He must first escape his bindings before a blade slices him in half. Then he must thwart Joker’s plan finally. Then he must beat Joker in a physical confrontation. Or the story consists of an inmate wrongly imprisoned and suffering various abuses within the jail. His goal is to escape. Act three begins with the long sequence of the night of his escape. Plot point two half-way through act two was his decision to escape, and the second half of act two was his planning for it. Plot point three was his decision to escape tonight.

What really helps any action sequence, including this one, are reversals. These are changes of the protagonist’s fate, flipping the direction between whether the protagonist will and will not achieve his story goal. In the grand hall where Smaug sleeps, Bilbo’s goal is to steal the Arkenstone. He can walk very quietly, as he’s a hobbit. Good, he’ll achieve his goal. But the treasure he walks on is loose; items tumble, making a noise; Smaug awakes—a reversal of Bilbo’s fate. He will not successfully steal the stone. Yet, the dragon does not kill Bilbo immediately, but engages him in dialogue. Bilbo spots the stone, and while Smaug looks away, the hobbit snatches it. Another reversal: Bilbo will succeed in the theft. But wait, the angered dragon vomits fire, which will fry the smuggler. Reversal. But, Bilbo uses the ring and becomes invisible. The dragon cannot see him. Reversal. But, Smaug has astute hearing, so the hobbit cannot simply walk out. Reversal. This volleyball effect creates a great deal of suspense. Many stories have been told with action sequences using reversals. Imagine a car chase, and you can easily enumerate the standard reversals. Action sequences become dull with cliché reversals. An author should make the extra effort to create unique ones, which will make act three far more engaging and memorable.

Once the protagonist achieves her story goal, what’s left? Shouldn’t the story end there? There are two problems with that approach. First, the reader just experienced an intense sequence, and needs time to calm down, at least a little. Second, what about resolution in the other stories (B,C, and D), the subplots? Beating the villain may have paved the way for resolution in the subplots, but more likely isn’t the resolution. A father rescues his daughter from a kidnapping, where the climactic sequence is storming the kidnapper’s hideout and shooting the villain through the skull. But a subplot was the father’s strained relationship with his daughter. If he would have spent less time at work, she would not have wandered off with a dubious friend, leading to her kidnapping. On their way home, the father now apologizes to his daughter, vowing to work less. Killing the villain paved the way to this resolution, as the father now has the opportunity to make the apology. But the apology is a distinct action from killing the villain. During this apology scene, the final scene in the story, the reader not only gets resolution of the subplot, but can also calm down—a much better ending point.