How to Use the Three Act Structure
The Three Act structure, whilst regularly referenced or alluded to, is one of the most often-misunderstood concepts of a narrative. Some writers will slavishly adhere to it, matching every beat to guarantee their story flows in a way the audience is used to, regularly resulting in formulaic and repetitive storytelling. Others will disregard it completely, viewing it as a confining structure that stifles originality, and as a consequence frequently output nonsensical tales that either overcomplicate themselves or meander without direction.
When used effectively, the Three Act structure is a way of mapping stories, not steering them. It allows for almost unlimited flexibility—much more than people realise—whilst simultaneously ensuring certain changes in narrative direction are taken to keep the audience engaged.
We have all been told that stories require a beginning, a middle, and an end. That is exactly what the Three Act structure provides. Some tales may adjust or reorder elements; others will miss out parts of or even entire acts from the page, yet the story still works.
The opening act (on occasion separated into two as part of a Five Act structure) is the beginning of the story. How much of it is on the page is entirely down to you, but the elements it introduces must be known to the writer: the world, the theme, the characters, the thing that launches the plot. From there, a character must be locked into their arc; otherwise the story can just cease to exist.
The central act (sometimes split into two for a Four or Five Act structure) is the middle of the tale. Here, the narrative progresses. Multiple stories can exist at once in parallel, and usually do. The second act is the main section that writers take issue with, as it can feel constrictive. The story points that it requires, however, are there to prevent the narrative trailing off into an abyss. How much you use them depends on your requirements: if your story is lagging, check to see if you have missed anything.
The final act is the end of the narrative. It is when the strands of the middle come together to a resolution. As with the first act, the amount of it you use depends entirely on what you want to put on the page, but as a writer you should know the individual elements that it comprises of, even if they are not clear to the audience.
This structure is not a set of directions, but instead more of a basic map to refer to. It should gently guide or show the way already taken, instead of carving an unwavering path that disregards any other factors.
By mapping stories using the Three Acts, or overlaying the structure itself onto an existing narrative, it is possible to spot pitfalls and dead-ends that otherwise might have caused greater issue. Entire storylines and character arcs can be planned and projected, the details tweaked and reformed, allowing forward planning in a simple yet reliable fashion.
© 2017 Seb Reilly
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.