Explaining the Three Act Structure for Writing Fiction

If you’re a fiction writer who finds yourself stuck trying to figure out the plot of your next story or book, a three act structure offers a way to plan your story ahead – with a beginning, middle and end as one of the most popular quotes about writing dictates. The three act structure is seen in thousands of movies, books and short stories (and it doesn’t have to cut out the possibility of a damn good twist). 

Here are the steps to applying three act structure to your fiction for better planning, better plots and better stories. 

Aren’t Acts Just for Movies? 

Acts aren’t just for plays and movies. They can also be useful when they’re applied to fiction. Most fictional stories – no matter what form they take – will have scenes and acts just like plays, these are just expressed in a different form (scene breaks, for example, usually mean separated by a new paragraph). 

Three act structure has been in use since mankind has been re-telling stories from one person to another. Stories have to start somewhere, progress somewhere and end somewhere – and most stories do. This is why  three act structure is ever-popular and even appears in almost every TV episode that you could choose. 

What’s Three Act Structure? 

The work of mystery writer Agatha Christie is a good example of three act structure. There’s a beginning (usually the murder), then the middle (where the detective interrogates and asks) and then the end (where the murderer is entrapped into a confession or simply ousted as the guilty party – and always caught).

The first act sets the scene and introduces most leading characters.

The second act winds up the tension and builds up the plot.

The third act brings together plot points and plot twists to a confrontation (and then finally a conclusion thereafter). 

You’ll see it in a lot of movies, TV shows and other stories, especially when you know to look out for it. It’s used in Star Wars, it’s used in episodes of Bones, it appears in classic cartoons like Courage the Cowardly Dog, you’ll see it in CSI, Sherlock Holmes, Scooby Doo, Rick & Morty. There’s Die Hard, there’s Rambo, there’s Bruce Almighty. 

See why three act structure is so popularly used? It’s used because it works. 

Planning according to three act structure can also eliminate the chances of writer’s block because you already have a good idea of where your story will end up if you’ve planned it well. 

The Three Acts Explained

Planning your story according to three act structure means that you can take a step back after you’ve done your outline and see your story at a glance. Here, you can see what works, what fits, what’s best moved around and what doesn’t work at all. You can even throw a few twists into your outline – it doesn’t help, of course, if your conclusion at the end is obvious to anyone who reads it. 

Three acts doesn’t have to mean linear, either. You can stick to three act structure and still mess around with the time-line of your story as much as you like. (Want to see an example? Twelve Monkeys – the movie, not the series.) 

Here’s a quick look at how to approach each of the three acts.

o Act I: Just Getting Started…

Introduce settings, scenes, characters and important plot points here. The beginning of the story (whether long or short) offers a solid background or starting point. (It doesn’t have to be a linear starting point, but ask yourself where your story really kicks off.)  

o Act II: Building Up the Plot

Act II gives you a better idea of what your characters are doing and how they are all connected. This is the  middle part of the story where the tension or story builds up. Readers’ attention should be captured in the third act, and then held well throughout the third. This is a good place for your story’s side-plots and twists. 

o Act III: Bringing It Together

Act III allows for the build-up to the conclusion. Here is where you’ll place the main confrontation (think of stories like The Stand; it even applies to Spider-Man). What does it all come to? What have the characters been fighting for or working towards? Never end a story on an anti-climax (e.g. “She realized that it was a dream.”) – cliffhangers are OK, even some loose ends are great for tension, but anti-climactic ends never are.