I'm sure if you've been in the writing world long enough, you've heard people talk about the three-act structure and it's importance. It tends to be the more popular of the narrative structures, so this blog post will go ahead and break it down step by step for those who just need a refresher or they're just starting out.
I tend to lean more towards this structure myself because of it's simplicity!
But first, we have to actually know what the three act structure means and what it contains.
WHAT IS THE THREE ACT STRUCTURE?
The three act structure is a narrative structure that divides a story into three main parts, with each one serving a specific purpose for plot progression and character development. We briefly went over this in last week's blog post: Screenwriting 101: Essential Elements For a Compelling Screenplay.
This structure was originally created by Aristotle, a Greek philosopher, scientist and storyteller. It was mostly used for plays and poetry at the time since that was the most popular medium for writing at the time. However, Syd Field popularized the concept in 1979 when he published his book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. I recommend the book for anyone who hasn't read it. It's an amazing tool for screenwriters and novelists.
Because of this, it's one of the more popular types of narrative structures and it's one that I find myself coming back to most often.
But, for those who are unfamiliar with it or don't know where to start, I'll be breaking down each act and what it contains.
BREAKDOWN OF ACT ONE
Essentially, Act One is your starting point for the story. This is where you start introducing your world, your characters, their motivations, and your antagonists. This is your chance to show people why they should care about your story, so it's important to hook them within the first few chapters or the first few minutes (if you're writing a screenplay).
- Opening Scene - this is where you introduce the beginning of everything. You want to immediately hook your reader/viewer and give them a brief idea on what to expect.
- A great example of this would be Marriage Story (2019). The opening scene is of the two characters talking about their love for each other before we abruptly cut to the main plot of the film. Check out this breakdown here: Marriage Story Opening Scene.
- The Set Up/Exposition - essentially, this is your character's "normal world" before everything goes wrong. Take your time to show what they're lacking and how their life is being affected because of it. Is your character working a dead-end job they hate and they're just looking for that one thing to change their entire life? What things in their life are driving them to this point of wanting change?
- Harry Potter: The Philosopher's Stone (2001) does a good job with establishing Harry's home life, how he came to be, and what he wants.
- Inciting Incident - this is the event that changes it all. What will end up throwing your main character out of their comfort zone? This can be anything as long as it shakes them up and thrust them into achieving their goal.
- First Key Plot Point - your character officially has to make a choice. Will they go forward with this new change in order to change their life or will they stay the same?
BREAKDOWN OF ACT TWO
Now that you've made it past Act One, now you have to get into the meat and potatoes of your story. You have to decide what will happen next to help your character progress and how the conflict will develop over time to aid in that. Your character may face more challenges during this time and you can start building up towards the core of your story.
- Rising Action/Fun & Games - this is the point in the story where things should start propelling your character towards the climax. This is kind of the "fun and games" section or the point where the character is getting acclimated with their new reality.
- Midpoint - setback time! This should reiterate the central conflict of the story and hone in on the character's goal and how they can achieve it. Basically, the character thinks they know everything until something proves that they really don't.
- Post Mid-Point/Second Key Plot Point - around this point, the character goes through a point of reflection and they may push harder to achieve their goal.
BREAKDOWN OF ACT THREE
You're almost to the end! This is the point where everything is at an all time high and your character is at a point where it's all or nothing. This will decide what the resolution of the story is and where your character goes next.
- Dark Night Of The Soul - this setback for your character is so monumental that maybe they think all is lost. Whatever plan they had crumbled. Maybe they lost everything or everyone. This is the deciding point for your character. Are they going to give up or come out of the situation stronger than ever. Still keep in mind that the main conflict of the story should be highlighted here.
- Climax - this is the biggest point of the story. This is what your character's entire journey has led up to. They do whatever it takes to defeat the antagonist in order to achieve their ultimate goal.
- Resolution - you've made it to the end! Everything is going great and this is where any loose ends are tied up. Your characters have succeeded. This is where you show how your character has changed over the course of the story and what their life looks like now that things have changed.
- For those writing a series, your resolution might leave off on a cliffhanger that leads into the rest of your story.
Since I recently saw this movie, let's breakdown Wonka (2023). Spoilers ahead for anyone who hasn't seen it yet.
I think the film does a good job with following the three-act structure! So let's break it down.
- OPENING SCENE - the film opens up with the viewer being introduced to our main character, Wonka. He sings on a boat and we can tell that he's on the way to somewhere new with a specific goal in mind.
- SET UP/EXPOSITION - within the first couple of minutes, a couple things happen to our main character that's going to set up the rest of the film:
- Wonka is approached by Bleacher & Mrs. Scrubitts (Antagonist Group #1) who offer him lodging. Despite being warned, Wonka signs the contract to stay at the hotel, which will come back to bite him later.
- Wonka attempts to sell chocolate in the square and is met by The Big Three (Antagonist Group #2) who sell chocolate in the town. Despite dazzling the public, he is met with pushback from both law enforcement and the main antagonists.
- The viewer is introduced to Wonka's motivation: to open his own chocolate shop and share it with the public.
- INCITING INCIDENT - Wonka soon learns that because of the contract he signed, he is forced to pay off a $10,000 debt before he can be set free. Because he doesn't have the money, he's sent down to the laundromat where we meet the rest of the supporting cast. This is a setback towards his initial goal, but he's still determined.
- FIRST PLOT POINT - now that Wonka is having to adjust to his new world, he has a choice to make: will he be idle or still work to achieve his dream? He decides to team up with the supporting cast to sell chocolate so everyone can be rid of their debt and he can earn enough to own a shop so he can sell chocolate freely without the police or the Antagonist Group #2 interfering.
- RISING ACTION - Wonka and the supporting cast put their plan into action. They decide to use the sewer system to their advantage to avoid the police so they can sell chocolate freely. Everything is going good, but the Antagonist Group #1 & #2 are slowly closing in. Unbeknownst to the main group, they figured out their plan.
- MIDPOINT - Wonka and friends make enough money to get the shop that Wonka was daydreaming about in Act One. They believe that they've succeeded and they can no longer be touched by law enforcement or Antagonist Group #2. That is, until their grand opening is ruined by poisoned chocolate.
- POST MID-POINT - With the shop being destroyed, Wonka feels the crushing weight of this setback and believes that his mother lied to him. It's soon discovered that Antagonist Group #1 & #2 worked to take him down. But Wonka is still determined until he's offered something he can't refuse: his debt, along with his friends debt, will be paid as long as he leaves and quits making chocolate forever. Despite this war with his own motivation, this moment reinforces his promise to one of the characters to offer her a better life, even if that means sacrificing his dream.
- DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL - As Wonka heads towards the boat that will take him away for good, he is dejected and feels like he'll never achieve his dream. The antagonists have won the battle. But when all hope is lost, Wonka finds out something that ignites his passion to take the antagonists down once and for all and achieve his goal.
- CLIMAX - Once Wonka is free and gathers all the people necessary, he enacts a plan to take down the antagonists once and for all and tell the public the truth. Despite being caught, Wonka has one last plan up his sleeve to achieve his goal. With his quick planning, the characters are able to outsmart everyone and achieve victory.
- RESOLUTION - Wonka discovers the answer he's been searching for throughout the film and everyone is reunited with their lost loved ones. Everything is right in the world.
You see how each part of the film hit every major plot point that the three-act structure contains? The formula is simple, but you still have room to make it your own as long as you make sure to pay attention to each essential element.
LIST OF OTHER NOVELS/FILMS THAT GET IT RIGHT
Here's a solid list of books/films that I've personally liked that I think do a brilliant job with the three act structure:
- Marriage Story (2019)
- Whiplash (2014)
- Disney Franchise
- Pride & Prejudice (2005)
- The Hunger Games Franchise (2012)
- Captain American: The First Avenger (2011)
- Harry Potter Franchise (2001)
- Godzilla: Minus One (2023)
- Queen & Slim (2019)
- Seven Days in June by Tia Williams
- Hotel Maginifique by Emily J. Taylor
- Percy Jackson (Series) by Rick Riordan
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
- The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
- The Many Dates of Indigo by Amber D. Samuel
- The Guardians Daughter by A.M McPherson
- Sistah Samurai by Tatiana Obey
This list doesn't even make a dent in the amount of books and films that follow the three-act structure really well, but this is a good one to start with if you want to start studying it for yourself.
What are your thoughts about the three-act structure? Do you have any other recommendations that I missed? Feel free to let me know in the comments.
Happy writing everyone!