Friday, August 5

The Three Act Structure

Plotting and outlining your writing can be a groaning task. You know what you want to write, but you need a plan of action in order to get it down.

Writers are not always the best organisers. Creativity and organisation were never the easiest pair, but when teamed up they can be very productive.

Productivity, good. Procrastination, bad.

I've researched a fair amount on basic outlining structures, but the one I found that has helped me the most is the Three Act Structure. I learned about it in the book 'Making a Good Script Great' by Linda Seger.

It has served me best when writing screenplays, but can also be used for other creative writing mediums. It works well enough as the skeleton for novels, although I also severed it up into seven parts for short story writing.

Act One

Set Up

This is used in feature films. It is the first few minutes that show the protagonist's life before something changes and the real story starts. If you are writing a novel, this part should be as short as possible...or in the best case scenario, non-existent.

Alex Rook is an author who just can't seem to get over his writer's block. He is so absorbed in his novel, frustrated by his decline from best-seller to trade paper back, that he is neglecting his girlfriend and mates to stress over what is going to be his "make or break" novel.

If the story continued as above, it would be rather dull. In fact, if I opened a book that began like this and had to read in detail about Alex's aggravation, it would suck. It wouldn't matter if I could identify with his stress or literary woes. I just wouldn't want to spend a lot of time on his whinging.

If this was a film, it would cover the first five minutes or so. Ten tops.

Inciting Incident

This is where the story really starts. Something changes for the protagonist and their life takes a new turn. This is what your audience really wants to see.

Since Alex is such a loser, I've decided that he gets hit by a meteor. Thus ends Alex's story - but wait! Alex isn't the protagonist of my story. It is in fact his girlfriend, Erica.

Now that Alex is out of her life (she has been with him for a long time) and her home is destroyed, she has to find a way to pull herself together and continue.

First Turning Point

This moment occurs soon before the end of Act One. Your story has a lot going for it but it's time to up the stakes and change the pace. Something changes again for the main character which defines how the story will develop. Perhaps they have to make a choice. Maybe they have no choice at all and need to take a leap.

With such a freak event occurring right in her own home, Erica is propelled to stardom and encouraged to write her own book, narrating her experiences. Soon she is getting a taste of what it was like for Alex to feel that exhilaration of hitting the best-seller list and and the pressure to produce more.

Act Two

Play On!

The story is still developing. The stakes have been upped. Perhaps now is a good time to explore the relationships in your protagonist's life, as well as any secondary story lines you want to develop. Whatever you do, do not slow down. The middle can be a muddle, but it is a chance to explore new twists and turns. Experiment.

Erica is confronted by Alex's sister, who is bitter that Erica is getting famous and rich over her brother's death. Erica is also going to group grief sessions, where she might pick up a few enemies or a potential love interest.


This is where the pace of the book/film really changes. Your protagonist's life has been altered. Now it's time to alter it again. They could rebel against a corrupted system they're caught in. End their treatment for cancer and live what life they have left. They could just stop running. Whatever from, whatever for.

This is a point where your story takes a turn. Your protagonist can make a choice or be thrown into a different path on their journey.

Time for Erica's life to take a turn. Her book disappears off the shelves, but it's not due to sky-rocketing sales. Someone doesn't want her in the press. There is something more behind the meteor crash.

One of Alex's crazed fans hacked into a system that diverted the meteor to hit him. On top of that, the meteor was actually lined up to hit someplace else in an attempted look at an unforeseen natural disaster.

Life Sucks in the Most Interesting Way

Remember all those other story elements you were exploring? Relationships, sub-plots, toilet training cats (oh, that wasn't you?) are all going to be affected by the mid-point. Whether your story just got glass-half-empty or glass-half-full, your protagonist is going to have to skull it and hope they don't choke. Things are beginning to accelerate, and if they weren't complicated enough before, they're sure going to be fun to deal with now.

So, I've got Erica. She's experienced what it's like to be a best-selling author,  is faced with a secret organisation that is defacing her to the media, and now - all too late - sympathises with Alex, whom she misses.

Oh...and the whole conspiracy surrounding the meteor crash? It's really putting a damper on her dates with the guy from her grief counseling group.

Act Three

Second Turning Point

After the beginning of the third act, we have the second turning point. This is when the stakes sky-rocket. The jeopardy of your story is nearing its peak. This is the moment to ask: What is the story goal? What does my character want? It's time to throw your character a curve ball and then have them strategise a plan to blast the thing.

That promotion that your protagonist looked like they were never going to get? They're going for it.

That fear of heights they always had? It's time to face up to it...on extreme levels.

That company mistake they covered up? It's time to set things right.

With everything torn from her, Erica can't sit still. She has antagonism coming at her from all angles and she's itching to find out why she's become the target of this organisation. Why was Alex was hit by a redirected meteor that was meant to destroy a national landmark and kill lots of people? She sets out to deface the organisation and find some answers. To give Alex's death some meaning. To find closure.

The Clock is Ticking

It's time for tension to take center stage. It's time for your protagonist to brush noses with the enemy. Whether it is an individual or a circumstance they must face, they are getting closer. They are taking charge, grabbing their terror and turning it into bravery.

Erica infiltrates the science center that was overlooking the meteor. It wasn't an entire meteor that crashed into Alex's and her house, but a fragment that they were keeping tabs on. She discoverers who was in charge of redirecting the meteor. Then she is discovered.


The peak of your story. The audience knows the climax is coming, but they don't necessarily know what to expect. They are left in anticipation and now is when you blow everything apart in a shower of awesome. Oh yeah.

It turns out that the meteor was going to be redirected towards the national landmark as a political stunt. A tragedy to pull together the sufferers and unify their vote. It isn't a politician who finds Erica, however. It's the crazed fan who redirected the meteor fragment to Alex...and that crazed fan is the man who she has been seeing from her grief counseling sessions.


Maybe your character saves the world. Maybe they die. Maybe they live happily ever after. I don't know. What I know is that this is when your story goal should be accomplished...or fail in a way that still affects the plot, and doesn't make the whole story seem like a waste of time.

Erica doesn't save the world but she does uncover the truth about the political scheme. She retires from writing and moves away to start a new life. The crazed fan goes to prison and writes his own best-selling book.

So, there you have the Three Act Structure, to help outline your screenplay or a novel, whatever you choose to make of it. I made up my own plot for this example on the spot. Is it flawed? Yep. Does some of it make no sense whatsoever? Of course.

The point is, I now have the vague outline of a story, where before I had nothing. I have something to work with and adapt, which is far better than staring at a blank screen, agonising over the fact that I haven't written a single word. I wouldn't want to end up like Alex!

To finish off the process, I have decided to title my story, 'Star Smashed.'

Well. I hope that helps. There are plenty more references to the Three Act Structure, in books and online.

What outline do you find works best for you?

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