The three act structure is one of the most popular models I've used in my own storytelling. Its simplicity and accessibility make implementation easy for me, even in the early days when I had never written a story. Now that I have written stories – and this can work for screenplays, novels, and short stories – I realize I've hit some story beats in this structure without even knowing it.
Familiarizing myself with the three act story structure has been an excellent way for me to ensure I'm writing stories that readers will love. And if you want to make a career out of this business, this is something you will want to know. Taking the time to learn about effective narrative structures like the three act model has proven invaluable in improving my storytelling abilities and engaging my audience.
So read on as I explore this story structure in all its brilliant detail!
- The details of the three act structure
- Examples of the structure in action
- Why the three act structure is effective
Table of contents
If you want an easy way to plot your story, I recommend the software Plottr. With it, you can easily follow the three act structure to outline your novel. More on that later.
An Overview of the Three Act Structure
The three act structure breaks down into major story beats that your protagonist(s) will follow. Here’s an overview of the structure to keep in mind as I go through each act and story beat/plot point in detail.
- Act One: The Setup
- Inciting Incident
- Plot Point One
- Act Two: Confrontation
- Rising Action
- Plot Point 2
- Act Three: Resolution
Nine major steps or plot points to keep your story on track. Sounds pretty easy, right? Well, it is. There’s a reason the three act structure is so popular and used by professional writers of all kinds.
Does this mean you need to outline? If you’re a discovery writer (aka a “pantser”), should you ignore the three act structure? Absolutely not to both questions. Whether you’re a discovery writer or a plotter, you can still use the three act structure effectively. More on this once I've gone over the structure in detail!
Let’s get the story started by diving into act one.
Act I: The Setup
There’s three key things that should happen in act one: familiarizing readers with the world and protagonist(s), inciting the conflict that will drive the story, and then introducing a major plot point that will propel the story into act two. Let’s take a look at each of these three steps.
Exposition is all about familiarizing your readers (or watchers, or listeners) with the world in which your story takes place. It’s also where you introduce your protagonist. Most often, it’s also a way to show the protagonist in their everyday life while hinting that something is missing from their life or the world as they see it. This is the internal conflict, and it should tie in with the main conflict of the story, creating a nice through-line for the reader.
The type of exposition will depend on what genre you’re writing in, but it’s important to keep things interesting. A lot of new writers get bogged down in exposition, showing the character going along in their everyday life for too long. The last thing you want to do at the very beginning of your book is bore your reader. So accomplish the following quickly and interestingly:
- Show your character as a three-dimensional person with unfulfilled wants or needs.
- Give a reason for the reader to like the character. (i.e. “Save the cat.”)
- Introduce the reader to the character’s world.
Tip: The general rule of thumb for Exposition is that it shouldn’t exceed 10% of the total story.
We like stories because they have conflict. Which is why too much “everyday life” will bore readers. So it’s best to get to the inciting incident as soon as you have the world and your character established. The inciting incident is where things get interesting — and difficult for the protagonist. It’s also known as the “call to adventure.”
In a mystery, this will be a murder. In a survival story, it could be a plane crash. In a romance, it often features the two characters' first meeting, or the first “spark” between characters who already know each other.
The inciting incident is the impetus for the rest of the story, so it’s important to get it right. It should be nearly impossible for the character to ignore. Even though the protagonist may be initially unwilling to engage, he or she shouldn’t have the choice to just walk away. The inciting incident sets up the external goal (find the murderer, get back to civilization, live happily ever after). But it should also play into the protagonist’s internal conflict. The inciting incident is a turning point in a good story.
- Throw your character out of their comfort zone. Ask yourself, “what should go wrong?”
- Make the stakes of the character’s action or inaction clear. (Make inaction unacceptable or impossible.)
- Show how the external conflict ties in with the character’s internal conflict.
Tip: The inciting incident should happen around the 15% mark of the story.
Plot Point 1 – Crossing the Threshold
Plot Point One marks the point of no return for the protagonist. Your character can be reluctant to leave their comfort zone, but this first major plot point should solidify the stakes of that indecision. It should force them to head out on the journey, leaving their normal life behind.
This doesn’t have to involve physical action. It can be emotional, as in a romance. But there should be a clear threshold that the character crosses, heading into a world that is far out of their comfort zone.
Sometimes Plot Point One involves a mentor, but not always. And in some stories, the Inciting Incident and Plot Point One happen almost simultaneously.
- Mark the point of no return — the character is invested from this point on, whether willingly or not.
- Re-establish the main conflict of the story and how it ties to the character’s internal conflict.
Tip: Plot Point One marks the end of Act One and should happen around the 25% mark.
Act I Example:
In the first act of the movie The Matrix, we can see clearly the different story beats of this structure. The movie starts with Trinity, who becomes surrounded and escapes using superhuman powers. This opening sequence lays some ground rules for the world (exposition) while simultaneously engaging the audience by presenting conflict and posing questions that will be answered as the movie continues.
We then shift to Thomas Anderson (Neo) in his everyday life, working in the rat race during the day and hacking at night. It’s clear that Neo isn’t happy. Something is missing, and he spends much of his time searching for it, knowing it has something to do with “the Matrix.” A lot of this is also exposition and character establishment.
Neo meets the mysterious Trinity, and she tells him that a man named Morpheus has the answers he’s looking for. When he’s at work the next day, police and “agents” show up to arrest him, but Neo receives a phone call from a man who guides him perfectly to an escape route. But Neo decides it’s too dangerous and he can’t do it. He resists this initial call to adventure.
Neo then meets up with Trinity and their people again, and again he almost leaves when they have guns on him in the car. Trinity talks him out of it. They remove the “bug” from his belly and then take him to meet Morpheus, who then provides more exposition and gives Neo a choice: the blue pill or the red pill. When Neo takes the red pill and consequently goes “down the rabbit hole,” it marks Plot Point One and the end of Act One.
Act II: Confrontation
The second act is usually the longest portion of the story — and it’s also where a lot of writers struggle. You may have heard people talk about “the muddle” instead of the middle. It’s easy to let things get dull in this act, but as long as you keep increasing the conflict and raising the stakes with setbacks, you can write a second act that’s completely enthralling!
The rising action is just what it sounds like. This part of the story should ultimately propel the protagonist toward the climax, but it should seem an impossible feat at this stage. The character is now out of their comfort zone and fully engulfed in the adventure and the challenges that come along with it.
Most often, the protagonist is reacting to things in this stage, trying to get oriented to the new world he or she is in. Things don’t go smoothly, and the character needs to learn from the setbacks, getting gradually better and more confident.
- The Rising Action portion is a great place to introduce other characters who will help the protagonist.
- The challenges should be dangerous (whether physically, emotionally, or mentally) and the protagonist should fail at some challenges — with real consequences.
- Feel free to explore subplots here. Just make sure they interweave with the main conflict.
Tip: Rising Action should take place around the 30% mark.
At the Midpoint, the protagonist should have undergone some growth and adjusted to the new world. Often, characters think they’re ready to face the antagonist at this point in the story, but they soon find out that they still have more work to do. This lesson should be hard, and it should make the protagonist rethink their goal and consider whether they’re really up to the task at hand.
However, this setback shouldn’t completely break the character down. Not yet. Still, the stakes continue to rise, so the setback at the Midpoint should be bigger than any previous. It should also restate the central conflict of the story, ensuring that the reader knows what success looks like. Perhaps more importantly, it should show what failure looks like.
- Re-establish the goal and raise the stakes.
- Make sure the midpoint causes the protagonist to reflect on their goal and doubt whether they can accomplish it.
Tip: The midpoint should happen right around the 50% mark.
Plot Point 2
After the setback of the midpoint, the protagonist should doubt their abilities. But they push through regardless, often with the help or tough love of a mentor character. This is often a time for reflection, digging deep to see what the character is really made of.
After being reactive, this is the place for the protagonist to become proactive. It’s also a good place to have the character build their confidence back up with small successes that involve the skills or tools needed to succeed against the antagonist.
- Plot Point Two should involve a revelation, pushing the protagonist back into action with renewed vigor.
- It’s a good time to start bringing some subplots together with the main conflict.
Tip: Plot Point Two should happen around the 75% mark of the story.
Act II Example
The second act in The Matrix begins as Neo is pulled out of the Matrix and into the real world. Once on the ship with Morpheus and Trinity, he gets a more in-depth explanation of what exactly the Matrix is. At first, he rejects this. But then, he begins to adjust to the new world. He trains with Morpheus. There’s promise there, but he still has a lot to learn. This is the Rising Action sequence of the second act.
The Midpoint of the movie comes when Neo and company go to see the Oracle in the Matrix. Neo is told that he isn’t the One, which is a setback in and of itself. However, on their way out of the Matrix, they see a “glitch” and suddenly come under attack. Morpheus gets kidnapped by the agents, leaving Neo distraught. One crew member gets killed in the skirmish and another two by a traitor on the ship in the real world. This shows the stakes rising.
Although the Oracle has given Neo bad news, he resolves to go back into the Matrix with Trinity to save Morpheus before the agents can interrogate him and learn the location of the hidden city of Zion in the real world. This marks Plot Point Two — Neo is no longer being reactive. He decides to go into the Matrix in spite of the news about him not being the One and the defeat they’ve just suffered. This is the end of Act Two.
Act III: Resolution
The final act of this narrative structure is where things get their worst for the protagonist. It’s also where you should wrap up any subplots and answer any questions posed in the preceding chapters. Character development should come clear here, as well. It has all been building up to this, so make the payoff as satisfying as possible for the reader! And if you follow this format, you’ll do just that.
The protagonist is now being proactive, heading for a confrontation with the antagonist. There’s often some kind of plan to defeat the antagonist (or to finally overcome the biggest obstacle and win the heart of the other protagonist). But that plan often comes crumbling down. Things don’t work out at all for the main character. In fact, this is the biggest setback yet — and the most dramatic turning point. The antagonist is stronger than imagined, and all hope seems lost. It is the Darkest Hour.
- This setback will often be both physical and mental.
- Even though the reader knows this isn’t the climax, the severity of the protagonist’s defeat should surprise them.
- This section should deal directly with the main conflict of the story, ending in the antagonist's favor.
Tip: The Pre-Climax should happen around the 80% mark.
The Climax is the crescendo of the story. The main character needs to overcome their greatest obstacle yet, using all they have learned — especially what they learned from the defeat during the Pre-Climax. They gather their strength and, against all odds, they defeat the antagonist in a surprising yet seemingly inevitable show of strength, resilience, and determination.
- All major strings concerning the character arc should come together neatly here.
- How the protagonist defeats the antagonist should be satisfying. Meaning, no coincidences in their favor. No deus ex machina that swoops in to save the day at the last minute. The protagonist needs to work for it!
Tip: The Climax generally happens around the 90% mark of the story.
The Denouement is where any minor loose ends are tied up. These can include the things from the character arc, as long as they’re minor. Secondary characters should also see their character arcs tied up here in act three of the story structure. It’s also important to resolve any minor questions left unanswered in this section. If you’re writing in a series, this is a good place to create a hook for the next installment.
- Show how the protagonist has changed from his or her experiences throughout the story.
- Overcome any minor obstacles left over.
- How does the protagonist’s ordinary world look now?
Tip: The Denouement should occur in the last 5% of the book.
Act III Example
The Pre-Climax in The Matrix begins as Trinity and Neo assault the building where Morpheus is being held. They rescue Morpheus and get him out of the Matrix, but Neo is left behind. Instead of running to find another phone so he can exit the Matrix, he stays to fight Agent Smith in the subway.
After Neo temporarily defeats Smith, he runs to find another phone so he can leave. He needs to get out before the crew of the ship in the real world can use their EMP to disable the machines that are coming to kill them. If he doesn’t, he dies or everyone on the ship dies. When he runs into the building with the phone, Smith is waiting for him. The agent shoots Neo in the chest several times. The audience believes all is lost. Neo is dead, and it’s just a matter of time before the machines win.
But Trinity, back in the real world, confesses her love for Neo, who then wakes up and finds that he has become the One. He stops bullets in midair and defeats Agent Smith. They pull Neo out of the Matrix and use the EMP to disable the machines just in time. In the next scene, the Denouement, is Neo talking on the phone, promising a world where anything is possible. He flies away, and the story is over.
Why the Three Act Structure Works
The Matrix is an excellent example of a good story using the three act structure. But you can take this narrative structure and see that most stories follow it to some degree. The original Star Wars movies are great examples of this, as well. Luke Skywalker's story follows this structure. (And there's a reason why Darth Vader is one of the best antagonists ever!)
This structure works well because it helps the writer do a couple of things:
- Provide a coherent overall narrative question from start to finish.
- Ratchet up the action, increasing the tension with rising stakes and setbacks.
- Stay on track with character arcs and subplots.
- Give the reader a satisfying climax that wraps up the story.
Having a career as an author means you give the readers what they want with a few satisfying surprises along the way. The three act structure can help you do that.
No matter what structure you want to use, I recommend giving Plottr a shot. It provides pre-built templates to walk you through outlining your story so you can ensure you're hitting each plot point and story beat you need to, depending on what narrative structure you'd like to follow!