What the Three Act Structure Means

By Claude Monet, Water Lilies (Nymphéas)

Every story follows a pattern. There is a beginning, middle, and an end. If you look in a little more detail there are also key points that crop up throughout a story, even if the writer didn’t intend to put them there. They just happen by themselves.

Sometimes you read, or even write a story, and find the structure is lacking something, but it’s hard to figure out what. Usually that means one of the key points in the narrative arc is missing. The best course of action, therefore, is to go back to basics and look at what makes a story.

The Three Act structure, whilst regularly referenced or alluded to, is one of the most often-misunderstood concepts of a narrative. Some writers will slavishly adhere to it, matching every beat to guarantee their story flows in a way the audience is used to, regularly resulting in formulaic and repetitive storytelling. Others will disregard it completely, viewing it as a confining structure that stifles originality, and as a consequence frequently output nonsensical tales that either overcomplicate themselves or meander without direction.

When used effectively, the Three Act structure is a way of mapping stories, not steering them. It allows for almost unlimited flexibility—much more than people realise—whilst simultaneously ensuring certain changes in narrative direction are taken to keep the audience engaged.

We have all been told that stories require a beginning, a middle, and an end. That is exactly what the Three Act structure provides. Some tales may adjust or reorder elements; others will miss out parts of or even entire acts from the page, yet the story still works.

Act One

The opening act (on occasion separated into two as part of a Five Act structure) is the beginning of the story. How much of it is on the page is entirely down to you, but the elements it introduces must be known to the writer: the world, the theme, the characters, the thing that launches the plot. From there, a character must be locked into their arc; otherwise the story can just cease to exist.

Act Two

The central act (sometimes split into two for a Four or Five Act structure) is the middle of the tale. Here, the narrative progresses. Multiple stories can exist at once in parallel, and usually do. The second act is the main section that writers take issue with, as it can feel constrictive. The story points that it requires, however, are there to prevent the narrative trailing off into an abyss. How much you use them depends on your requirements: if your story is lagging, check to see if you have missed anything.

Act Three

The final act is the end of the narrative. It is when the strands of the middle come together to a resolution. As with the first act, the amount of it you use depends entirely on what you want to put on the page, but as a writer you should know the individual elements that it comprises of, even if they are not clear to the audience.

How to Write the Three Acts

This structure is not a set of directions, but instead more of a basic map to refer to. It should gently guide or show the way already taken, instead of carving an unwavering path that disregards any other factors.

The steps that make up each of the acts will all occur naturally in any story, and although the order doesn’t always matter, their existence does. They can happen off the page, before the story starts, but they must be there. The Road by Cormac McCarthy has Act One occur before the story begins, and we join the tale someway into Act Two. They are all still there, though, hidden in thoughts and dripped into scenes and conversations. As the backstory of the man and his boy unfolds, we discover what sent them on their journey and why. The story then stops just as Act Three begins, leaving the reader to conclude what happens next.

You may find when writing that you have already included the three acts and not realised, yet you have missed one of the key steps within an Act. By mapping stories using the Three Acts, or overlaying the structure itself onto an existing narrative, it is possible to spot pitfalls and dead-ends that otherwise might have caused greater issue. Entire storylines and character arcs can be planned and projected, the details tweaked and reformed, allowing forward planning in a simple yet reliable fashion.

These points need to occur. That will give your story a sense of completion, of being whole. If ever you find something is lacking, but you can’t put your finger on it, return to these key plot points and establish what you missed.

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