Narrative Structure: The Three-Act Structure

Perhaps one of the more popular narrative structures, the Three-Act Structure is a solid choice when plotting out your novel. As mentioned in my last post about the seven types of narrative structure, the website Helping Writers Become Authors (from K.M. Weiland) has a fantastic, in-depth series on the Three-Act Structure.

Photo by Evgeny Tchebotarev from Pexels

Why should you care about story structure? It’s one of the parts of a story that is most often overlooked by writers. Many writers believe that by utilizing narrative structure, they’ll sap the beauty and art of writing right out of their work. That, or they think using narrative structure is too complicated to bother with. I beg to differ. By applying narrative structure to your story, you help bring readers along in your story. Our brains automatically know when certain plot points are supposed to happen. That’s part of the magic of movies: We inherently know when an exciting bit of action is supposed to happen based on its narrative structure. Narrative structure is intuitive.

Back to our Three-Act Structure. It is, as its name suggests, made up of three separate acts. Act I makes up the first 25% of your story. Act II makes up the middle, or 50%, of your story. Act III makes up the last 25% of your story.

Act I

Act I is comprised of a few parts, including the Hook, Inciting Event, and Key Event.

The Hook is just that—it’s the thing that draws your readers in, makes them want to find out what happens to the protagonist. Essentially, when broken down into its most basic form, the Hook is a question: What’s going to happen? It should also be boiled down to a more specific question, such as: What assignment will Jonas receive at the Ceremony of Twelves? (The Giver by Lois Lowry.) Your hook should be specific and easily posed as a question. It should be inherent to the plot, but doesn’t necessarily need to contain action.

The Inciting Event (click for my post about the Inciting Event) is that major event in your protagonist’s life that changes it forever. They can’t go back from this point. It is the moment when your story officially begins.

The Key Event can be, and sometimes is, the same as the Inciting Event, but it can be separate. Think of the Inciting Event as the moment when your story begins, and the Key Event as the moment that defines what the story is about. This is the moment when your protagonist is engaged with the Inciting Event.

Act II

Act II begins, and Act I ends, with The First Plot Point. Act II is the biggest chunk in your story, made up of highs and lows, and growing action. It is also comprised of the Midpoint, which is the very middle plot point at the 50% mark, and two Pinch Points (note: you can have more than two Pinch Points). K.M. Weiland’s series on this structure breaks down Act II into two separate parts — the First Half of the Second Act and the Second Half of the Second Act, divided by the Midpoint.

The First Plot Point marks the end of Act I and the beginning of Act II. It is generally found at the 25% point of your story, and it’s another event that your protagonist can’t come back from. As Weiland puts it, this event isn’t just happening to your protagonist. He reacts to it in an irrevocable way. In my current WIP that’s with beta readers, The Sound of Snap Dragons, Kylie is attacked by a serial killer, which sets her on her hunt to find justice. It’s the character’s reaction that truly begins the first half of Act II.

Pinch Point #1 is a reminder that the antagonist is out there, flexing his biceps. Whether the protagonist attempts to confront the antagonist in some way, or the protagonist falls trap to something, it’s a reminder that our hero isn’t infallible. The first pinch point may reveal certain clues to the mystery, as well. This plot point can happen anywhere in the first half of the second act.

The Midpoint happens at exactly that —the very middle point of your book. Say your manuscript is 100,000 words; the Midpoint should happen at almost exactly 50,000 words into your story, give or take a thousands words or so. By delaying the midpoint, your readers may feel like the story is dragging. It is the centerpiece of your story; it’s the turning point from reaction to action on the protagonist’s part. This is a major plot point in your story, so make sure it doesn’t fall flat.

Pinch Point #2 is the second flex from the antagonist. It’s another blow to the protagonist’s journey, yet it should reveal new information. Again, this can happen anywhere in the second half of Act II.

Act III

Like the previous two acts, Act III should open with a bang, as Weiland puts it. It opens with the Third Plot Point, which should be major in the protagonist’s life and journey. It’s the point of no turning back for our hero, and his back is against a wall. Act III is comprised of the Third Plot Point, the Climax, and Resolution. Unlike our other acts, it’s a bit more flexible in its placement: It can be as early as 70% or as late as 75% in your story.

The Third Plot Point opens Act III in a pivotal moment. It places our protagonist on his last road to the Climax, and all your dominoes should be lined up for the Climax. This point may be utter upheaval for our hero, and may throw his life into total chaos. As Weiland gives, a great example is It’s a Wonderful Life: the third act opens with the appearance of the angel Clarence, who grants George Bailey his wish of never being born.

The Climax is exactly what it sounds like: It’s the moment when our hero battles evil, takes it head-on. Depending on whether your story is a comedy or a tragedy, your hero should either win the battle or lose it. It should have your readers on the edge of their seats. If you’ve built up your story correctly, your readers should have an idea of what’s to come (unless, of course, you throw in some sort of plot twist). It should occur near the very end of Act III.

The Resolution is only a few pages long, maybe one or two scenes, in which all the loose ends are tied up. It should give your readers closure in some way, even if you plan on writing a series. Here, we see how the climax has affected our protagonist’s life, whether he won or lost the battle.

And that’s the end of the Three-Act Structure. To sum up, it’s comprised of three acts, which are also made up of specific plot points. It’s one of the more popular narrative structures for writing novels, but bear in mind that it’s not the only one. Check back soon for my next post on our next narrative structure: Freytag’s Pyramid!

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