How-To: The Three-Act Structure

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In screenwriting courses, most students are taught to use what is called the three-act structure. It is a method of organizing scenes and sequences into a tried-and-tested format that effectively captured the attention of the viewer and keeps them interested until the end. Essentially it assigns certain responsibilities to the beginning, middle, and end of a screenplay.

Although this format saw its origins in Hollywood, it is also being used as a tool for storytelling in general. I’ve attended seminars where published authors have recommended the use of this technique for writing novels. And most successful stories follow the basic tenets of the structure regardless of whether or not it’s a film, whether or not the author realized it. This is because the three-act structure is largely instinctual. It works, and people know it.

So it came as a bit of a surprise to me when I found that many people are vehemently opposed to the three-act structure. “It’s just a resource!” I said to myself. “It’s a storytelling tool to help organize your story and keep track of the rising and falling action! How could someone hate it?” I did some more research with the intent of understanding the source of this animosity. The conclusion I eventually came to is that some people are confused about what the device is for, and how to use it properly. So rather than just making another redundant post about what the three-act structure is, I will also weigh the effectiveness thereof, and examine its applicability to various storytelling formats.

What is it?

I talked briefly about how the three-act structure assigns responsibilities to the parts of a story. And that’s a good explanation in a nutshell. But in order to more fully understand how and when to use it, we need to know more about it in detail.

The three-act structure divides a story into three acts. What a plot twist, right? Within each act, there are a number of basic events that occur. These events are basic milestones that help advance the narrative.

The first act is often called “The Setup.” In the Monomyth, it’s called “The Departure.” It’s when we learn everything we need to know about the main character and the setting. It ends when the “Inciting Incident” occurs, otherwise called the “Call to Adventure.” It’s also called a turning point or a plot point. This is the point in the story when the status quo has been broken. It’s when everything changes for the main character. It’s when Bilbo Baggins is visited by a host of dwarves who want him to go on an adventure. It’s when Harry Potter discovers that he’s a wizard. It’s when Luke Skywalker receives a mission to go to Alderaan.

This is where the second act comes in. It’s where the bulk of the adventures take place in the narrative. In this act, called “The Confrontation” or “The Initiation,” the protagonist will face many trips, traps, and trials. They’ll have their goal from the end of Act One and this is when they are actively pursuing that goal. There are many challenges down the road, but the hero will ultimately make their way through. Act Two ends in what is known as the “Darkest Hour.” This is often when a major plot twist occurs. And it always goes badly for the protagonist. All seems lost. The bad guys are going to win. This is also called the second plot point.

Act Three begins. The protagonist is in the depths of despair until they catch a gleam of hope. One chance at success. A narrow one, but a chance nonetheless. The good guys now have an edge on the bad guys that they can exploit. This leads up to the climax, which is the ultimate confrontation that will decide the fate of the characters and often the setting. It’s worth mentioning that the climax isn’t necessarily an enormous fight scene. In less action-packed stories, it can be something more mundane. It can be an emotionally-tense dinner party, or it could be when the detective reveals the killer. After the climax, “The Resolution” occurs. Also called the “Denouement,” this is the point at which all of the plot lines are resolved, particularly the main story.

It’s a resource!

One of the major complaints I’ve seen from people on the three-act structure is the restrictiveness. They say that it stifles their creativity to tell the story how they want. They seem to think that applying the three-act structure to your story means handcuffing yourself to a moving train; that there’s no allowance for course changes. But this is simply not the case. The three-act structure is a resource to be used as seen fit. It can be modified if so desired. It’s one of the most universally successful tools we’ve found for storytelling, but that’s not to say that other formats could work just as well if not better. Because there is no universal rule for storytelling. It’s art, not science. You should never feel like you’re in the train-handcuff scenario.

So go ahead and tweak the structure! Make it better fit your story! You want Act Two to have multiple major plot twists? Go for it. You want a fake resolution in Act Three to throw off the readers? Go the distance. The point is that the three-act structure gives you a foundation. It’s a lot easier to start with something imperfect than to start with nothing.

If you ultimately decide that the three-act structure is garbage, then you also have full rights to ignore it entirely. Like I said, it’s a resource. You aren’t obligated to use the resources available to you.

So does it work?

Most Hollywood films follow this structure. Lately, there’s also been a tendency to release a three-film series, each following the three act structure on its own. And each film’s resolution performs almost like a larger plot point in the entire series.

I don’t think this is necessarily a testament to our laziness as storytellers either. It’s certainly a factor, but it’s not on account of the three-act structure itself. There is a certain degree of predictability in stories that follow this structure, but it’s loose enough that it’s not an inherent problem. The structure describes only the very basics. If a story is well-written, then even the scrutinizing, educated readers/viewers won’t be able to predict how or when the events will unfold. At most, they’ll be able to recognize when the Acts end.

So does it work? I say it does. And it’s not reserved only for films. The basics of the three-act structure have been around for a long time, though under different names. Joseph Campbell describes the Journey of the Hero and the Monomyth as being characteristics of pretty much all mythologies. The foundations of the three-act structure have been in place for as long as humans have been telling stories. A hero must face obstacles to success before ultimately succeeding. It’s the subtle variations on this idea that make stories unique.