Three Act Structure

Thousands of books exist on the singular topic of how to structure a book or screenplay. While many of these books on how to write books are designed for fiction, the techniques can be adapted for nonfiction narrative.

In this series of posts on story structure, I’ll be sharing a variety of popular structures. Most books that discuss plots and story structure include examples from books and movies. My example for these posts will be the classic story of Peter Rabbit. You can read the full (short) tale at this post.

A Note on Structure

In the writing world, authors are generally categorized as “pantsers” or “plotters.” Pantsers write their first drafts without any plan, and hope that everything comes together at the end. While many writers are able to craft a story straight from their minds, typically adjustments and reworking of material occur during the editing phase of the book.

I prefer the other approach – plotter. Plotters write their first drafts based on an outline of the narrative. Outlines can vary in complexity and length. Generally, the plot of the story – the structure that moves the story along – is comprised of various parts. Different models have different numbers of elements. It is helpful to use a plot structure when writing narrative – either fiction or nonfiction.

3 Act Structure

The first story structure is a classic – not just because of long-time use – but because the Greek philosopher Aristotle is the first recognized author who wrote about the structure. Aristotle wrote in his book Poetics (335 BC):

A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it. A well-constructed plot, therefore, must neither begin nor end at random, but conform to these principles.

Aristotle, Poetics

According to Aristotle, a story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is a tried-and-true approach that many authors use. The traditional screenwriting approach is to allocate 25% of the length to the beginning, 50% to middle and 25% to the end. These are the three acts of the narrative.

Act 1 (Beginning) is where the primary characters are introduced along with the setting of the story. Act 1 includes the introduction to the essential problem or challenge of the story.

Separating each act is a transition, also known as an “act break.” Between the first (beginning) and second (middle) acts is a transition referred to as the “point of no return.” Whatever has caused the hero of the story to start the journey of the story (literal or metaphorical) cannot be undone without experiencing more complications than embarking on the journey itself.

Act 2 (Middle) consists of a variety of increasingly challenging obstacles that the primary character of the story must overcome.

The transition from the second to the third acts is defined as the “all is lost” or “crisis” moment in other structural models and sets up the end of the story. The hero of the story is at the lowest point (darkest before the dawn) and leads into Act 3.

Act 3 (End) often features a major and final confrontation between the protagonist (hero) of the story and the opposing (enemy) character. All of the various elements of the story are wrapped up (fancy French word = denouement).

When developing a story using a structural approach, a first step is to create a basic outline. The Three Act Structure outline actually has five points: each of the three acts and the two transitions.

The Tale of Peter Rabbit

Act 1 – Beginning

Peter Rabbit lived with his mother and siblings. Mrs. Rabbit warned the rabbits not to enter Mr. McGregor’s garden, because Mr. Rabbit was killed there.

Transition A – Point of No Return

As soon as Mrs. Rabbit left home, Peter entered the forbidden garden through the gate.

Act 2 – Middle

Things went well for Peter initially, until he encountered Mr. McGregor. Peter’s adventure devolved from bad to worse as Peter tried to evade Mr. McGregor, sneak around the cat, and escape through the gate. 

Transition B – Crisis

Peter located the gate while sitting on a wheelbarrow, but Mr. McGregor blocked the path between the wheelbarrow and the gate.

Act 3 – End

Peter ran as fast as he could through the garden, under the gate and all the way home. Though safely home, Peter was ill as a result of his misadventures, and Mrs. Rabbit sent him straight to bed without any supper.

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