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.

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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!

The 7 Types of Narrative Structure

Did you know there are seven, seven, types of narrative structure? From the Three-Act Structure to the Seven-Point Structure, you have a few to choose from when writing your stories. Today, I will be giving you a brief overview of each narrative structure, and be prepared for future posts solely on each story type of narrative structure.

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What exactly is narrative structure? Essentially, it’s a blueprint to follow when outlining your story structure, telling you where to plot certain points in the narrative. It’s the particular order in which narrative is presented in a story, but it’s also made up of narrative elements that drive the action, such as character, conflict, setting, etc. Remember that your plot is driven by a lot of varying factors, so you can think of a novel as one giant spider’s web, all interwoven and connected. Every element should make sense within your story, and every plot point should have a purpose.

Basic story structure goes as follows:
1. Normal life/Status Quo
Your character is going along, going about his everyday business. Everything is hunky dory (or maybe not so hunky dory, depending on your character’s background, like in The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith, where Cormoran Strike is sleeping in his office, has broken up with his intermittent girlfriend, and all around down and out with very few jobs as a private detective). You can make this as short or (sort of) long as you want.

2. The Inciting Event/Incident
This is the event that brings your protagonist’s normal life to a total and utter halt. He cannot come back from his event, and his life is about to change forever, whether for the better or for the worse. This should point your protagonist in the direction his ultimate goal, if not at least begin to lead him in that direction.

3. Rising Action
Your protagonist is pursuing their goal, hindered by the obstacles you put in his way, and each time he gets a little closer.

4. Climax/All-Is-Lost
This is the big moment in your story that you’ve been building up to. It’s the final showdown, a battle of wits. There is also most likely a moment when your protagonist thinks he has lost it all, that the battle is lost, and he’s about to give up.

5. Resolution
Here, your character has either a) won the battle, victory! or b) lost the battle or c) lost the battle, but realized they have something more important.

These are the most common “beats” in a story structure. When you dive into the different types of narrative structure, you’ll find that the placement and types of beats within a story structure will vary.

There are seven varying forms of narrative structure. Below, you’ll find a brief description of each one.

  1. Three-Act Structure
    This structure splits your story into three acts: First Act(25%), Second Act(50%), Third Act(25%). The first act makes up the beginning quarter of your story; the second act makes up the entire middle of your story, or 50% of your overall story (give or take); and finally, the third act makes up the ending 25% of your story. Act one is your status quo/normal life and inciting event, and ends with the first plot point. The first plot point then leads into the second act, which includes your rising action and a midpoint. The third plot point leads into the third act, which includes your climax and resolution. For a great series on the Three-Act Structure, check out helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com.
  2. Freytag’s Pyramid
    This is essentially what it sounds like: picture your story like a pyramid of rising and falling action, with your climax at the very peak. While this structure is named after a 19th-century German novelist, it’s actually based on the Greek tragedies of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides. It’s one of the more basic structures, including an introduction, rising action, climax, the fall, and a disastrous catastrophe. (It wouldn’t be a tragedy without a catastrophic ending, would it? Think the ending of the stage version of Little Shop of Horrors — everyone is eaten by the blood-thirsty plant, Audrey II.)
  3. The Hero’s Journey
    The Hero’s Journey has quite a few more plot points than some of the other narrative structures, but it falls similarly to the Three-Act Structure. The basic plot points are as follows:
    The Ordinary World. Your status quo, your protagonist is going about his daily life.
    The Call to Adventure. Think of this as your inciting incident.
    Refusal of the Call. Our hero doesn’t want to take on the journey.
    Meeting the Mentor. The protagonist meets the person who will teach them or prepare them somehow.
    Crossing the Threshold. Our hero steps out of his comfort zone.
    Tests, Allies, Enemies. Think of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, when Luke, Obi Wan Kenobi, and the droids pick up Han Solo and Chewbacca for passage to Alderaan.
    Approach to the Inmost Cave. Our hero is nearing whatever it is he wants; he nears his goal.
    The Ordeal. Our hero meets and beats his greatest challenge yet.
    Reward/Seizing the Sword. Our hero gains or obtains something they were after, and victory is in sight.
    The Road Back. Things are going backwards for our hero, and he realizes that seizing the sword might have made things harder for him.
    Resurrection. Our hero faces his ultimate challenge or battle, and the climax of the story rests upon everything the hero has learned over their journey. (Like Luke using the Force to fire at a 2-meter wide shot that he must make.)
    Return with the Elixir. Our hero returns to his normal life (or as normal as it can be).
  4. The Story Circle
    This is actually a narrative structure created by Rick and Morty co-creator, Dan Harmon. It is inspired by The Hero’s Journey, but instead of abstract beats, it simply makes the writer think about the character’s wants and needs by instead using beats like: Protagonist is in a Zone of Comfort, They Want Something, They Enter an Unfamiliar Situation, Adapt to It, Gets What They Wanted, Pay a Heavy Price, They Return to Their Familiar Situation, They Have Changed (whether for better or for worse).
  5. Fichtean Curve
    This narrative structure is fleshed out in John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. It puts your protagonist through a series of crises and obstacles on his rising way to the climax. It bypasses the “ordinary world” or status quo of structures like the Three-Act Structure, and it begs for the protagonist to continue having to overcome obstacles in order to keep the tension of the story, therefore keeping the reader engaged to the very end.
  6. Save the Cat
    Similar to the Three-Act Structure, this narrative structure was created by screenwriter Blake Snyder, and it tends to remain a popular choice. It’s made up of 15 plot points, all in a certain order. Each “beat” is numbered by page, assuming you were writing a 110-page screenplay.
  7. Seven-Point Story Structure
    Similar to the Hero’s Journey, the Seven-Point Story focuses on the highs and lows of a narrative. It includes major plot points and beats called “pinch points” — basically, when something goes wrong for your protagonist.

Bear in mind that narrative structures aren’t an exact science, especially when writing a novel. They can be great tools in outlining your novel, knowing when and where to place your plot points.

The Inciting Event

Every event, every plot point in a story should matter, and that especially goes for the Inciting Event. Sure, maybe it’s not the most significant plot point or even the most noticeable, but it’s still important in your overall story structure, which is why I want to talk about it today.

What exactly is the Inciting Event? Basically, it’s the very first plot point that sets your story in motion. It could even seem incredibly insignificant in the lives of your characters, but it’s what tips over that first domino in a long line of dominoes. Essentially, it should change your character’s life forever, no matter how small or big your Inciting Event is. You’ll hear some writing advice say that the Inciting Event needs to be huge and dramatic to change your character’s life forever; I don’t believe this is true. The Inciting Event can be one small notch in your character’s life, but it should be one that they can’t come back from.

Now, the Inciting Event can even happen before the story begins. In The Days Without You, the story opens with Kylie dreading a concert she agreed to attend with her best friend, and there, she meets Adam by mishap. While this is the beginning of the story, the inciting event would technically be Kylie agreeing to attend the concert with Cat, even though this happens before the start of the story. And, your character/s may not even realize that their lives have been ultimately altered! It’s important to remember that the Inciting Event doesn’t have to be realized by your protagonist.

In many cases, however, the Inciting Event happens within the realm of the story. Bear in mind, too, that it may not be the very first thing to happen in your story. in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, we have character building and world building before the Inciting Event happens. Similar goes for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone. Before the Inciting Event happens, we learn all about what horrible people the Dursleys are, not to mention we also see Dumbledore leaving Harry at the Dursley’s doorstep after being rescued from the wreckage of his home.

Some examples of the Inciting Event:

  1. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
    In the Hunger Games, we learn all about the dark, evil “game” called The Hunger Games, in which one teenage boy and one teenage girl from each District is selected to compete in a battle to the death, and the winner shall be bathed in riches. Katniss, who is our narrator and protagonist, is devastated when her younger sister, Prim, is selected as the next tribute. In desperation to save her sister, Katniss volunteers as tribute to take Prim’s place. This act of volunteering for her sister is the Inciting Event, as it changes Katniss’ life forever. She can no longer go back to her old life; she must now compete in The Hunger Games, fighting for her life.
  2. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
    As previously mentioned, there’s a ton of backstory in this novel before we get to the Inciting Event: when Hagrid, a half-giant who barges in upon the Dursleys and Harry in their off-shore hut, tells Harry, “Yer a wizard, Harry.” (Can we all agree that this is a classic line of dialogue?) We identify this as the Inciting Event because it changes Harry’s life forever. Why isn’t the event of the never-ending letters the Inciting Event? Because Harry could have chosen to ignore them, or the Dursleys could have kept them hidden from Harry, thus not setting into effect the dominoes to Harry’s learning that he’s a wizard.
  3. The Giver by Lois Lowry
    Can I just say this is one of my favorite books, and has been since I was in, like, fourth grade and I’ve read it a bajillion times? Favoritism aside, we open the story upon Jonas, a 12-year-old boy who lives in a futuristic community that seems like a utopia, but really is a dystopia where babies are “Released to Elsewhere” if they don’t weigh enough. He’s nervous about his career assignment, which he is to receive at the Ceremony of Twelves, because he’s worried he doesn’t fit in anywhere. The Ceremony itself is our Inciting Event, because Jonas learns he has been selected as the next Receiver of Memory, in which the Giver passes down memories of the past world so he can advise the community when it needs to make decisions.

So what should your Inciting Event be? Technically, it can be anything! But, it should make sense with your First Plot Point. That is to say, the Inciting Event should be the first domino that knocks over another, then another, and another, leading to the First Plot Point. In my work-in-progress, The Sound of Snap Dragons, the Inciting Event is that Kylie gets hired as an investigative journalist at The New York Star, a major newspaper in her city, leading her to be assigned a story about a serial killer.

I’d love to hear what the Inciting Event is in your manuscript or published books! Tell me, what are your thoughts on this important plot point?