Three act structure: How to write a satisfyingly structured novel

Three act structure - A useful graph on how to structure a novel

 

First analysed by the Greek writer Aristotle more than 2,000 years ago, the three act structure still has relevance for writers today. Although it is more commonly used in teaching screenplay writing, many novelists embrace the concept and create three act novels as this structure is useful for keeping a story on track.

What is three act structure? An explanation

Within each of the three acts sections, certain events or turning points should occur. When you first begin working with the three-act structure, it can often be easier to identify these elements in films rather than in fiction. Novelists who prefer not to outline their plots in advance can still benefit from the three-act structure by using it to keep the story moving along at a compelling pace.

Let’s imagine you are writing a book that is about 400 pages long. Your first act should be roughly the first quarter of the novel. The inciting incident that sets off the major conflict driving the novel happens in the first act. We can look at a few inciting incidents from famous films. In Casablanca it is the moment that Rick receives the letters of transit. In The Wizard of Oz, it is when Toto is taken away from Dorothy. The inciting incident must build toward the turning point at the end of the first section. The turning point in Casablanca occurs when Ilsa walks into Rick’s bar. In The Wizard of Oz, it is the tornado that carries Dorothy to Oz. Your inciting incident should generally happen in the first 50 pages and the turning point at about 100 pages.

The second act should be about twice as long as the beginning section and should have the turning point around page 200. This is sometimes also referred to as the point of no return because the protagonist makes a choice or ends up in a situation from which there is no going back. In the film The Fellowship of the Ring, this is the moment when the fellowship comes together at Rivendell and agrees to take the ring to Mordor. The second act ends around page 300 when things are at their worst and the protagonist has all but failed.

The third act is roughly the length of the beginning, and it contains the climax and resolution. One key to remember about these plot points is that they should come near the end of the book. The third act should build toward the climax, and once the climax has been resolved, the story should not drag on and on. This whole section should be about 100 pages long, but the resolution should generally only occur in the last few pages.

Remember other options for structuring your novel

A three act novel is only one of the story structures your novel can use. Another is ‘The Hero’s Journey’. Based on the mythology studies of Joseph Campbell, this story structure has been especially popular with fantasy writers as it is well-suited to quest narratives. Many novels create their own structure according to their needs. David Mitchell’s bestselling historical pastiche Cloud Atlas has a mirror structure: each section is left unresolved, working towards the novel’s middle, after which all the separate story strands resolve in reverse order to their exposition. The overall effect is that of a mirror, and the clever structure keeps the reader anticipating resolution right until the end of the book.

Many literary works of fiction follow this particular form all the same. Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel Beloved, begins each of the novel’s three acts with a description of the haunted house in which the novel is set (‘124 was mean’). This circling back lends a sense of familiarity whereby the reader is firmly anchored in a place and where developments in the story are framed in such a way that the entire plot is coherent and obeys its own internal logic.

Another place in fiction where you can find ideas for using the three act structure is children’s and fairy tales. Many famous stories for younger readers use events in threes. The events that occur in ‘The Three Little Pigs’  or Goldilocks trying the three bears’ porridge in ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ are both classic examples. Writing short stories using this structure can be helpful preparation for writing your own three act novels. It will help you to produce a satisfying structure in miniature that you can later use more loosely in a longer story arc.

While structuring your whole novel is important, so is making every scene begin, develop and end with clarity and direction. Download our free guide to scene structure here for examples, tips and checklists.

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  • Rebecca Anderson

    I really enjoyed reading this post and I think your use of examples throughout are extremely helpful.

    I am currently writing my first novel and I am using the three act structure. In answer to your question ‘in what ways has it been useful’, my answer would be ‘in every way!”. I enjoy being relatively organised with my writing, and having a loose framework to work over has helped me with the pacing of my story and to keep things moving forward.
    At the beginning stages of my planning I really, really struggled with getting my head around the three act structure, as well as how everything else (character arc, conflict, scenes etc) ‘plugged’ into it. As a graphic designer I have attempted to make a graphic that showed this visually (see http://twincreatives.com/2015/09/27/planning-the-bigger-picture/), and it may or may not be helpful to others in a similar situation. 🙂

    Please let me know what you think of it and I am keen to hear any comments you may have in order to improve it.

    Thanks again.

    Rebecca (one half of Twin Creatives)

  • Rebecca Anderson

    I really enjoyed reading this post and I think your use of examples throughout are extremely helpful.

    I am currently writing my first novel and I am using the three act structure. In answer to your question ‘in what ways has it been useful’, my answer would be ‘in every way!”. I enjoy being relatively organised with my writing, and having a loose framework to work over has helped me with the pacing of my story and to keep things moving forward.

    At the beginning stages of my planning I really, really struggled with getting my head around the three act structure, as well as how everything else (character arc, conflict, scenes etc) ‘plugged’ into it. As a graphic designer I attempted to make a graphic that showed this visually (see http://twincreatives.com/2015/09/27/planning-the-bigger-picture/ ) and I see that I am not the only one who found such a graphic useful – you have done it too!

    Please let me know what you think of mine and I am keen to hear any comments and suggestions you may have in order to improve it. 🙂

    Thanks again

    Rebecca (one half of Twin Creatives)

    • Thanks for reading and sharing your process, Rebecca. I had a look at your graphic – I really like how you’ve designed the hero’s arc as a staircase. I’ve shared it on Twitter.

      • Rebecca Anderson

        Hi Bridget, how amazing to hear such kind words from someone who really knows their stuff, thank you! I appreciate you taking to time to have a look and offer your professional opinion. Exciting that you have also shared on Twitter, this news has made my Monday morning a thousand times better. Thanks again, Rebecca

        • It’s a pleasure, Rebecca! Thanks for telling me about your graphic. I love to see writers and designers and other creatives helping each other out.

          • Rebecca Anderson

            Yes I agree, it is lovely to be a part of such a supportive community! All the best – although I know that this most definitely will not be the last time I frequent your blog, it’s awesome.

  • marissa

    Can you break down your three act structure graph? For example what are second thoughts?

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