Story structure comes naturally to some writers, but for many of us, it’s an odd sort of voodoo. It can easily feel confining, or make you think that all writing has to follow some crazy formula. That’s not what structure is for, though. Structure is a tool to help you ensure that your story follows an emotionally compelling path.
Three act structure is basically just a system of framing your story. In film and photo terms, we use the rule of thirds to arrange the composition of an image. We place the key details in spots we know are visually appealing, and draw the eye to the correct focus for telling our story. Three act structure is basically the same thing for your writing. It isn’t intended to change the elements of your story, it’s more to help you place those elements into the story in a way which will be the most interesting to your audience and help them keep track of the key details.
I generally over simplify three act structure for my stories, because I’m more interested in discovering what’s going to happen to the characters than I am locking myself into a complex structure. But even my thumbnail sketch helps me keep my story on track. (Note that I’m entirely writing with a classically comedic story arc here. So if you’re writing a tragedy, you’ll probably want to operate slightly differently.)
If you’re a Scrivener user, I generally start out by just making folders in the binder for Act I, II and III and then throwing docs into them to hit the various “key events” I want. This could easily be done with just titles in a word processor, but Scrivener does a nice job of making it beautiful. (Scrivener is not paying me for these endorsements, btw, but if they decide to do so in the future I won’t complain.)
1. Build your foundation
I tend to think of Act I as the starting world. Who is my character, and what is their life like before the conflict changes everything? That’s immediately boring, so be careful. You don’t want to write hundreds of pages of Act I (and sometimes you may not want any Act I in your story at all) but understanding where your character begins is essential to establishing who they are and why the central conflict matters.
Here’s a few tips to keep Act I interesting. Remember that ordinary isn’t perfect. Your character should have problems and struggles even in their starting world. In fact, your character should have at least one massive flaw with which we’re going to spend the rest of the story dealing. Act I is a great time to help us understand that flaw before everything goes crazy.
2. Take your character out of their comfort zone
Act II begins as the central character crosses the boundary from their ordinary life into the extraordinary. In the classic fantasy trope, it would be the moment where the character from our world is magically transported into the fantasy realm. It’s the moment where the Little Mermaid suddenly gets legs, or Mister Incredible finds himself trapped in the drudgery of a completely ordinary life (which is a nice example of turning the formula on it’s head).
Over the course of this act, your central character should in some way come face to face with the totality of the conflict or antagonist that they face. They should fail or barely succeed. It’s your moment to convince your audience beyond a shadow of a doubt that your hero is facing something capable of defeating them — and that is likely to defeat them.
3. Kill hope
I generally begin Act III with the climactic moments of the story. Whatever massive cataclysmic issue your character faces, whether it’s a super villain, or their own terrible choices should reach their high point here. The villain is ascendant. The hero is an utter failure. All hope is lost.
Don’t get caught up in the conflict language here. This is all just as important in a romance as it is in a war story. In a romance, this is the moment where the character realizes who she’s really in love with but has just done something so horrible she thinks they’ll never take her back. <Cue dramatic music>
In it’s simplest form, Act III is all about death and resurrection. Whatever it is that we’ve been rooting for, the victory, the hero, the relationship… it comes to a brutal and gruesome end.
4. Bring us back to earth
And then you get to write the heroic comeback (if that’s how your story goes) and tell us a bit about what it all means. Tie up the lose ends you mean to tie up, give us a glimpse of your character in the new world, the transformed world that comes about as a result of all of this, and then type ‘THE END.’
Back in film school, I wrote up a simple 12 step guide (using the hero’s journey) to a more intricate structure. If there’s interest, I’d be happy to post it for your use. Just let me know in the comments.
Christopher Vogler has written a great book covering the hero’s journey that could help if you’re interested in learning more about how to view a story through that lens.
One of the classic works on three act structure is Robert McKee’s book, Story. I highly recommend giving it a read. Folks sometimes find his system too constraining. Just look at his work as guidelines instead of rules, and I think you’ll find it very valuable.
The antithesis of McKee and three act structure is John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. If you find three act structure really constraining, this is the book for you. Regardless of your philosophy, Truby offers a lot of great information of how to develop your stories and characters to their maximum potential.