How to Write a Story with a Three-Act Structure
  • 5-minute read
  • 17th June 2019

How to Write a Story with a Three-Act Structure

Are you writing a story? Perhaps for a novel or screenplay? If so, you may want to use a three-act structure. But what exactly does this mean? Let us look at how a three-act structure works.

What Is a Three-Act Structure?

The three-act structure is an ancient idea (literally; it goes back to the Greeks and Romans). The basic notion is that a story can be broken down into three sections or “acts.” These are usually described as follows:

  • Act One (Setup) – This is the beginning of your story, where the world and characters are introduced. It should also be where something happens to disrupt the status quo and set up the action for the rest of the story.
  • Act Two (Confrontation) – This is the main part of your story, where the characters develop and the stakes get higher. Eventually, though, they run into an obstacle or crisis that stops them.
  • Act Three (Resolution) – This is the end of your story, where the characters face their problems and finally overcome them. This may be followed by an epilogue where you wrap up the plot and subplots.
The standard three-act structure.
The standard three-act structure.
(Image: Bratislav/wikimedia)

This is a very common structure in novels, movies, and other narrative fiction. Using this to guide your story will therefore make it easier to follow and more satisfying for most readers. And in the rest of this post, we’ll look at what each act should include in more detail.

Act One: Setup

The “setup” of your three-act story is where you set the stage for what follows. This begins with introducing the main characters and what their lives are like. Later, though, something will happen that disrupts this status quo (an inciting incident). And this will lead to the first turning point, setting up act two by having your protagonist (i.e., the lead character) decide to take action.

We can use Star Wars to illustrate this. To begin with, Luke Skywalker is living with his aunt and uncle on Tatooine. But then he finds R2D2 and a message from Princess Leia, an inciting incident that means he becomes involved with the rebellion. The turning point then occurs when his aunt and uncle are killed, leaving him resolved to help Leia and the rebels on Alderaan.

Beware getting mixed up with strange 'droids.
Beware getting mixed up with strange ‘droids.
(Photo: Darryl Moran/flickr)

Act Two: Confrontation

The second act should present rising action, which is where your protagonist starts to pursue their goals, confronting various challenges as they do so. It is also where you can introduce extra characters and subplots. This will usually take up about half of the overall story.

Around the midpoint, the characters will come close to achieving their aims only to fail (the “crisis”). This is usually based on a weakness the protagonist will need to overcome. The second act then ends with the characters deciding to keep going despite their setbacks (the second “turning point”).

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We can look again to Star Wars to see how this works. After deciding to help Leia, Luke and Obi Wan Kenobi need a way to leave the planet. The rising action here includes meeting Han Solo and Chewbacca (a key subplot), as well as outsmarting the stormtroopers to escape Tatooine. We also see Luke first trying to understand the Force with help from Obi Wan Kenobi.

Frustrated (plastic) stormtroopers.
Frustrated (plastic) stormtroopers.
(Photo: JD Hancock/flickr)

The second crisis comes after they arrive at Alderaan only to find that it has been destroyed. While trying to rescue Leia, they are then discovered and have to flee. But before they do, Darth Vader kills Obi Wan, leaving Luke without anyone who can teach him about the Force.

Act Three: Resolution

Act three is where your characters regroup, prepare and finally achieve their goals. This is usually the last quarter of the story, so it is where you need to wrap up the plot and subplots.

Typically, the third act will build to a big confrontation with the main antagonist (known as the climax). This is followed by the denouement, where things settle down and a new “normal” is established based on how the characters have developed during the story.

In Star Wars, this takes the form of the rebels planning an attack on the Death Star. The climax involves Luke, who is being chased by Darth Vader, using the Force – thereby overcoming the loss of his mentor – to pull off a perfect shot and destroy the Death Star. The denouement is shown with their return to the rebel base, where a medal ceremony takes place for our heroes. The end.

No medals for wookies.
No medals for wookies.
(Image: Lucasfilm Ltd. [Fair Use])
And so your three-act story is complete. This isn’t the only way to write a narrative, but it is a great starting point. Good luck with your writing, and let us know if you’d like help with the editing.

Comments (1)
Robert Kipping
24th May 2020 at 19:05
Having read this structure I realize that almost all of my theatre and cinema experience follows. A similar pattern.

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