Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Three Act Structure

Before I start, I wanted to post a link. I'm a little late joining in, but I wanted to post a link to Do the Write Thing for Nashville. If you haven't heard about it, it's a group of amazing authors getting together to help raise funds to help with the horrible flood damage in Nashville. Check it out. It's a great cause with great people.

Today I want to talk about three act structure. The diagram above shows a pretty basic format for a three act structure. I'd probably label the middle hills "try/fail" instead of "crises" but you get the general idea. I hadn't heard about this until about a year ago. I was using it, but I never really knew what it was called. We see it all the time--in plays, movies, tv shows, books. It's everywhere. Why? Because it works.

Aristotle was the one who original divided drama into the three act structure--beginning, middle, and end. As part of the three act structure, there are generally five main plot points--beginning, inciting incident, plot points one and two, and ending.

Almost boring, right? Yes, but we can apply this very simple format to nearly every form of entertainment around us. Try it some time... No, not right now, finish the post first. Sheesh--rude. :P

I've heard the three act structure described in many ways. One I think I heard on Writing Excuses, was as follows:

Act 1: Get your characters stuck in a tree.
Act 2: Throw rocks at them.
Act 3: Get them down.

I love this one. It's much more visual than the other descriptions I've read, and I'm a VERY visual person.

The question I found myself asking is, why does this format work? I think part of the reason it works so well is because it is used so widely. People go into any form of entertainment with certain expectations. Those expectations are set by everything else they have seen before. If the entertainment doesn't meet those expectations they naturally feel disappointed.

How do you feel when a plot fizzles at the climax. Or there isn't a viable resolution. When they don't have enough tension to hold your interest. If it isn't all there, we're bothered because it wasn't what we were expecting.

One aspect of this structure that I think is crucial is the try/fail cycle. If your MC overcomes their obstacles on the first try, it just doesn't work. In life, few things go perfect on the first try. Your tension is gone, your story is over and you haven't hit the half way mark yet.

Try/fail cycles are where your characters adapt and grow. Stagnant characters are boring. Give them a chance to get interesting.

How about you? Do you follow the three act structure? How many try/fail cycles do your characters have? Is there any part you struggle with?


  1. When I first learned of the 3 act structure, I was like you. I didn't know about it, but I already wrote like that. I agree with you about the tension or try/fail thing. That part is absolutely essential.

  2. I love getting characters stuck in a tree. During the last Nano I literally had my characters hauled up giant trees and then they were too scared to get down. I went away and decided to leave them there until they got some guts. It worked.
    Great post :-)

  3. I'm so glad you posted this Jenn! I love the three act structure, but had no idea about it when I started writing. Plus the throwing the rocks up the tree really helps. =)

  4. what what an awesome post, Jenn! to be honest, i'm not sure if i even fit the bill tho -- i'm such a random writer, i just kind of.. start writing, and it all just seems to fit together somehow.

    but this is such an invaluable post! thanks for taking the time to put it together for all of us!!


  5. The 3 act structure works for me because I tend to ramble if I don't have a goal in mind. Plus, when I can fit my storyline into this type of arc, it just makes me feel better. :) Great post.

  6. I don't know if I follow it. *sigh*

    All these charts and graphs hurt my creative brain. lol.

    I just write my story. If it happens to follow some flow chart then great, but I never plan it that way.

  7. Yep this was one of those things I learn in grammer school they used to teach this when they taught us how to write stories. I am not trying to be insulting I think it's the reason why so many do it thinking they were not aware of it. Yet if you ever did a book report in school it was based on the characters, conflict and resolution. Beginning middle and end. People in a tree-beginning/characters--Rocks thrown- middle or conflict---People coming out of tree--end or resolution of conflict.

    It happens in every movie, every tv show when you look for it. I don't think you have to have it in mind to be a good writer, but when you finish I bet you will find all those things in your story.

    Thanks Jenn Great post! Also my prayers are with all the folks suffering in Nashville.

  8. I'm shaking right now. Literally shaking. I don't write this way, and when I try, I fail.

    ha ha! How's that for a try/fail cycle??

  9. I remember laughing when I listened to that episode of Writing Excuses. But it's oh-so true! :)

  10. I love the three act structure and almost always use it - or a variation of it, at least. This is a great post, thanks! I wish I could put up the ice cream cone model with role functions. Combine that with the three act structure and you've got one tight story!

  11. Three Act Structure works for me. I like how it allows me to carry the whole story in my head, if that makes sense and it's a great framework to hang details on, ramble away from and back to. Thanks for the post and the diagram!

    And you know I just realized I could literally get one of mc's stuck up a tree...hmmmm....thanks again!!

  12. Great shout out for the Do The Right Thing For Nashville group. There are a hoard of excellent authors, agents, editors, and literary folk coming together to make a difference. I was so inspired by them I wrote a post on Writers Improving The World and featured them, among others. As for the three act structure, I love it and absolutely use it! I usually have trouble when I have to stop throwing rocks… :)

  13. When I first learned of the 3 act structure, I was like you
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