Understanding The Three-Act Structure
Today I’m pleased to present a guest blog from Erick Mertz, author and ghostwriter, who is an expert when it comes to structuring a book. I asked him to write this article to give my readers a good foundation in the three-act structure.
Writing a good book, one that connects with readers, requires the mastery of story fundamentals. You must understand characters, the “who” of your book, as well as the setting, the time and locations where your story takes place. No element, however, is more richly rewarding than the plot.
The plot describes the series of events that take place throughout the course of your story. It is the action, those challenges your character faces on his or her path toward achieving their end goal.
A lot gets written about how to properly formulate a plot. Structuring the events in a story the right way leads to a higher degree of readability, meaning your readers will simply enjoy the book more. Getting the right events in place is important, but the right events in the wrong order will leave your readers confused, or unsatisfied, which ultimately leads them to put your book aside in frustration.
Don’t let that happen. Once your readers get into your book, you must do everything that you possibly can to keep them engaged. Getting the right events in the right order is critical to achieving this. One of the ways you give yourself the best chance of achieving this is to follow a classic story structure that has been around and engaging readers for nearly two thousand years.
What Is The Three-Act Structure?
The first thing you may have thought of when “three-act structure” was mentioned was the theater. Stage plays breaks into acts, usually two or three, with an intermission between them. This is the time when the stage changes form and you can go out into the lobby for a quick breath of fresh air.
Using a three-act structure in a book or a screenplay is not indicated by a roadblock break in the action. There is no end of Act I break written on the page. In a book, structural shifts are seamless. While some changes may come in the form of a chapter break, there isn’t a callout anywhere that says, commencing Act II, as there would be in a stage play script.
Rather than roadblocks, a writer signals changes in the act by way of subtle shifts in the focus of events. Instead of being told the act change has happened, the reader senses it through the events that unfold. Events in a three-act structure build off of one another, behaving like emotional building blocks. Early scenes set the tone for future events, always narrowing in focus and increasing in intensity until the very end when the main character — your protagonist — reaches their goal.
Three-Act Structure & Character
Before diving into the elements of the three-act structure, it is important to establish a fundamental understanding of core character archetypes. In the most rudimentary terms, characters break down into three main types: protagonist, antagonist, and ancillary characters.
The main character, or the protagonist, is the central focus of the story’s central journey. They are the person (or creature, force of nature, or animal) whose path of change we are following. Change comes to all characters, but the protagonist’s change is the one we really care about the most.
Opposing the protagonist is the antagonist. This is the story’s villain, the force putting up the resistance to the main character’s change. Their actions are focused on holding back, slowing down, or stopping the protagonist on his or her way toward their goal.
By and large, ancillary characters are along for the ride. They attach themselves to either protagonist or antagonist (although sometimes they act alone) and are the ones helping achieve those ends. Think of them as the cast of fun, interesting, helpful, or hindering partners that move the story along.
When we refer to events within the three-act structure, they come in reference to what the protagonist is doing and where they are. In rare instances, those events connect to what is being done to them. You will see that the other character roles are usually there to affect what the protagonist is doing.
During the first act, setting and character are established. This is what writers call the ordinary world, where the main character has their roots planted before the real story starts. We see this is how they were living before the “inciting incident” an event that happens during this section.
Act One is important for a couple of reasons. First, it provides the necessary context. We need to see who our hero or heroine is before the adventure. At some point in this story they are going to change — hopefully drastically, in the direction toward a better self — so this is our chance to see their life before.
The other reason Act One is important is because it is where the “inciting incident” occurs. Every hero receives a call and it usually comes in the ordinary world when they least expect it.
The demarcation between Acts One and Two is the moment when the story’s hero chooses to accept their call to action, something they may have denied before. They’ve debated about the ordeal long enough. They’re no longer thinking about doing something extraordinary — they’re on the path to doing it.
Act Two is the book’s longest section. It comprises roughly 50-60% of the length. This act comprises most of the action, from the early part of the adventure to the introduction of antagonist forces to the set-up for the final conflict.
Every hero is faced with a unique challenge all their own. In Act Two, they are meeting that obstacle, learning about the mountain they must climb, and actually climbing it. This is where they stumble and fall down, before getting strong enough to make the push to the end
Any storyline can be thought of this way, from fiction to memoir to business book. All of our lives and journeys, real or imagined, are filled with conflicts that require acceptance, practice, and trials before the climactic moment on the path to ultimate success.
Act Three commences moments before the final challenge is breached. It is arguably the shortest section of a story, centered around the climactic confrontation and falling action.
What is the climactic confrontation? Think of the moment in the story when the hero meets the villain, opposite forces facing off against one another. The protagonist has been moving steadily toward meeting their goal and the antagonist has been pushing back. This is when push comes to shove, the moment when someone has to triumph.
What constitutes the falling action is everything that happens after the climax has been resolved. Maybe the antagonist is vanquished, and the protagonist receives the proper laurels. In one way or another, the journey of transformation has been completed and the hero can return home.
The Three-Act Structure In Action
Perhaps the simplest visualization of a three-act structure is through the Disney classic, “Dumbo”.
In Act One, our protagonist, a baby elephant with ears too big, is born into an unforgiving world. He is an outcast in the circus and struggles to find his worth in a world cruel to misfits.
Act Two begins when Dumbo works to find his place in the circus. His journey is to find his means of fitting in despite an outcast status he is helpless to do anything about. At first, he fails in his big change, but with some grit and determination (and the help of his guide Timothy Q Mouse) he works to find a place for himself. Through this process, he learns that he may have the ability to fly.
At the beginning of Act Three, Dumbo on the edge of trying out his new trick of flying in front of a packed entire circus tent. After much trepidation, he is successful, which ultimately solidifies his place in the circus as an equal to his peers. The antagonist of prejudice has been vanquished.
The Three-Act Structure — In Conclusion
Understanding how to employ the three-act structure is an invaluable tool for reaching your readers. While the idea of a structure might seem rigid, it actually works quite the opposite way. Knowing where certain events should fall makes structure intuitive and leads to happy readers.
Erick Mertz is a ghostwriter/editor/manuscript consultant from Portland, Oregon. You can read more of his thoughts about the business and craft of writing at his website here.