In today’s blog post and podcast episode, we’ll discuss the three-act story structure. Before we get started, I want to ask you a couple of important questions. You don’t have to answer them now, but I want you to think about them as you read and listen.
What is story structure? Why should you use it when writing fiction?
The story structure is a set of elements used to plot your novel, before you sit down to write. However, if you have written the first draft of your novel, you can use these same tools to revise your story during the editing process.
Depending on how little or how much pre planning you do before you write your short story or novel, your story structure can be as simple or as complex as you want. This plan gives you the basic plot points to use as a road map, while paving the way for creative storytelling.
If you’d like to listen to my explanation of each of the key points below, please listen to the latest episode of Inspirational Journeys:
The Three Act Story Structure
This first act consists of the following three elements: The hook, The inciting incident, and the first plot point.
The hook is the opening sentence or paragraph that pulls your readers into the story and keeps them engaged to the end. This hook should do three things: Introduce the protagonist, establish her day to day life, and show her dealing with a normal conflict. Remember the post I did on Character development? You may want to learn more about your protagonist, before you write the opening hook. However, some writers develop their characters as they write. You can change your hook during edits, if you’re a true pantser or you write the bare bones of a plot like I do. Remember, the conflict you introduce in the hook is the element that moves your story forward. You won’t have a story if everything stays the same as it did when you started out.
For more resources on character development, visit the following links:
4 Tips for Creating Well-Rounded Characters blog post:
• Dynamic Character: How to write a compelling protagonist
Crafting Incredible Characters
My Favorite Method of Building Character Personalities
8 Character Development Exercises to Help You Nail Your Character
A Surefire Way to Craft Well-Developed Characters
The inciting incident is the situation that sets your story into motion. This beat gives your character a sense of adventure. For example, something must happen to make your character react in a way that moves the story forward. It is important to note that your protagonist may not grab the opportunity presenting itself in this beat, because it takes her out of her comfort zone. Some sort of internal fear or flaw holds her back.
What is the Narrative Arc? A Guide to Storytelling Through Story Structure
How to Craft Your Character’s “Lie”
Writing the Perfect Flaw
Your Character’s Greatest Fear
The first plot point, is the part of the story, where the character has become heavily involved in the point of conflict. In some cases, the inciting incident and the first plot point are the same beat. However, in other stories, there are extra scenes to build up to this point of no return, which leaves the character no choice, but to get into the action of the story. In this first plot point, the steaks are too high for your protagonist to refuse to take the opportunity presented to her. The first plot point should take place within the first fifteen to twenty-five percent of your story.
The First Act: Nailing Your Novel’s Opening Chapters
How to Determine Your Character’s Goal
The second act is the middle build where your story escalates. It includes the following elements: the pre-midpoint action, the midpoint, and the post mid-point action.
The pre-midpoint is where the protagonist moves forward within the story, though she may not understand the reason for her actions. She tries her best to avoid meeting or coming into conflict with the villain. This is the beat that takes place before the big game changer brings a whole new plot twist into the story. However, your protagonist will face many trials during this plot point. Some of her conflict could be with her friends, her own internal conflict, or road blocks placed by the antagonist. For information about the pre midpoint action, click on the links below:
The Four Main Types of Epic Antagonists
How to Determine Your Character’s Story Goal
The midpoint, is where the protagonist gets a little too close to the truth and his or her efforts are discovered by the villain. At this point, your main character is unable to ignore the danger your villain and/or his cronies pose to her and her loved ones. Therefore, she must face the conflict head on and fight against the evil forces. This is the game changer, which heightens the steaks in your story. Click on these resources to learn more:
The Six Types of Conflict in Fiction: How to Identify Them and Make Them Work in Your Story
Breaking Down the Four Main Types of External Conflict
How to Raise the Stakes in Your Story
The post mid-point action, is the point at which the protagonist is ready to meet the villain head on, while striving to get what she wants. There are several plot points or scenes between the post mid-point and the third act that ramp up the action. These scenes may include unexpected twists and turns leading up to your story’s climax. Your Protagonist must face her enemy to protect supporting characters that are close to her. But watch out, for there will be a loss that throws a monkey wrench into her mission.
The Second Act: Is the Middle of Your Story Dragging?
The Second Half of the Second Act
The Pre-Write Project: Prep Your Masterful Story
The third and final act includes the following key elements to finish the story: The dark night of the soul, The climax, and the resolution.
The Dark night of the soul is where the protagonist loses something or someone near and dear to her. This loss can almost derail your main character’s mission, but the journey isn’t over at this point, the only thing for her to do is keep moving forward and fight to the end. Here’s where her central fear or flaw will come back to bite her. This short but powerful beat is the point at which the steaks ramp up, you remind your reader of your protagonist’s power, and complete her development as the story’s hero.
How to Build Emotional Conflict by Utilizing Your Character’s Lie
Seeing Theme in the Dark Night of the Soul
What is the Theme of a Story? A Guide for Authors
The climax, is the point at which the protagonist confronts the villain. She also conquers her central flaw or fear.
How to Build a Powerful Theme for Your Story
How to Craft Riveting Internal Conflict
What is the Role of Theme in a Story’s Climax?
The resolution, is where all the loose ends of your story are tied up. If the conflict with your antagonist has not yet been resolved, this is one of several loose ends that are tied up. Your character faces her central fear or flaw, and finds a much more positive normality in her life. This norm is better than the one she started out with at the beginning of your story.
Please note, I am working on a mystery as I write this, therefore this genre is the one in which I give examples to explain the key elements of story structure in the podcast episode linked above. Each genre is different, therefore your structure will very from story to story, though the same principals apply.
Tell me, what kind of writer are you? Do you completely pants your stories, with no regard to story structure in the first draft? Do you heavily outline your story, with each beat or key element strategically outlined, or are you a pantser with a plan? Do you simply write the bare bones of your story and allow your characters and your muse to drive the story from these foundational points? How do you use the three act story structure in your own novel writing? Leave your answers in the comments below, or visit my contact page to send me an email at:
I hope this lesson on story structure has been helpful in either the planning stage of your novel or during the editing process. I’ve found the breakdown of each beat, within each act helpful in my own writing.
Until next time, happy writing and God bless.