What storytelling structure should I use? This is a question every writer asks themselves! What structure will work best to share my story with the world? A 3-act structure is one of the oldest and most common narrative structures.
Aristotle’s treatise Poetics describes his belief that story structure comes down to having a beginning, a middle, and an end. Is the 3-act structure that simple? You bet it is! Keep reading to learn more and see some examples of the 3-act structure!
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How do you write a 3-act story structure?
A 3-act structure can be used to write screenplays, short stories, novels, and even non-fiction pieces!
Writing a story using a 3-act structure isn’t all that different from using any other narrative structure. You still need to go about the same planning and pre-writing steps you would take with any other story.
What’s important to understand about 3-act structure is the need for delineation between your beginning, middle, and end.
What is the order of the 3-act structure?
Remember how Aristotle believed all stories are broken down into a beginning, middle, and end? Essentially that’s all the 3-act structure is! The beginning is act 1, the middle is act 2, and the end is act 3! Screenwriter Syd Field took Aristotle’s theory and made it specific to screenwriting. He names these 3 acts: setup, confrontation, and resolution.
During this act, the story’s characters and world are introduced. The inciting incident of the story, a conflict that changes the course for the protagonist and sets them on a new path, occurs and pushes the story into act 2.
The middle of the story should contain obstacles that increase the stakes. Often the longest act. There should be a midpoint or a turning point which often acts as a reversal of fortune and sets the protagonist further from their goals.
The crisis reaches a climax, the highest point of the story’s action. The action falls as storylines are wrapped up.
How many plot points are in a typical 3 act story?
The number of plot points in a typical 3-act story can vary depending on who’s model of the structure you look at. Someone might say there are 5, 8, 9, or more plot points in a 3-act story. The main plot points I refer to are:
- Exposition: Introduces the setup (characters, world) of the story
- Inciting Incident: The conflict that changes the course of the protagonist’s life
- Plot Point One: Often a point of no return, the protagonist is forced on their journey. This plot point ushers us into Act 2.
- Rising Action: The Protagonist begins to see major challenges or obstacles
- Midpoint: The stakes are rising, and the protagonist encounters their biggest setback or plot twist yet
- Plot Point Two: The protagonist discovers something that invigorates them
- Darkest Hour: The protagonist is ready to overcome their biggest obstacle or face the antagonist, but they face their biggest setback. There’s no hope. How can the protagonist possibly win?
- Climax: The highest point of action. Against all odds, the protagonist uses all they’ve learned to overcome.
- Denouement: The protagonist has ended their conflict, and a resolution is reached. Storylines are wrapped up.
Do all films follow a 3-act structure?
While the 3-act structure is extremely popular, not all films follow it. Films utilize many other storytelling structures, such as The Hero’s Journey, a five-act structure, or a nonlinear structure.
Some examples of films that use something other than a 3-act structure include “Memento,” “Pulp Fiction,” and “The Tree of Life.”
Because the nature of 3 act structure is based on having a beginning, middle, and end, many movies can be broken down in this way, even if they weren’t written with a 3-act intent.
Do TV shows follow the 3-act structure?
Like with films, some TV shows are written with a 3-act structure, and others are not.
The length of each episode, what platform the show airs on, and the overall format of the show all play into what type of structure a TV show is written with.
Hour-long dramas that must contend with commercial breaks are often written in 4 or 5 acts. Half-hour sitcoms are often written in 3 acts.
Do short stories follow a 3-act structure?
Short stories may or may not follow a 3-act structure like their film and television counterparts.
Since a 3-act structure is popular in many forms of writing, you will likely come across plenty of short stories that utilize it.
You can also find short stories without much narrative structure or use one of the many other narrative structures.
Examples of 3-Act Structure in Movies
Now that we’ve spent all this time talking about the 3-act structure, where can we see it? Some good examples of scripts that follow a 3-act structure are:
And that’s a 3-act structure! Hopefully, this blog was able to teach you more about the 3-act structure and what makes it such a popular way to tell stories!