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.
Image from here