Want to learn the basic framework for fleshing your idea into a fully-fledged plot? Ready to learn how to take your story to the next level by keeping your audience engaged? Then you need the 3 act structure.
You probably already have a vague idea of the shape of a story. We've all consumed enough of them to have some intuition here. It usually goes: beginning, middle and end. But that won't tell you how to keep up the tension, conflict and momentum in your story, and this is important because it's these qualities that keep your reader or viewer interested.
What is the 3 Act Structure?
The 3 Act Structure is one of the most common frameworks for shaping the plot of a story. It's a highly efficient way to keep track of the dramatic tension in your story and helps to breakdown the mahuuuusive challenge that is fleshing out an entire story into manageable chunks.
Call me a nerd but I love breaking stories down to see how they fit the structure and most good ones do. The Hunger Games (1) by Suzanne Collins is a great example of excellent plot and story shape, for both book and film. I'll assume most writers have heard of it and experienced it in some way, so I'll use this as a key example to demonstrate the following main plot points. Beware, spoilers ahead.
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Act One: Setup
Otherwise known as your beginning. Obviously, all stories start somewhere but that doesn't mean you have to start at 8am with your character getting out of bed. The purpose of this section is to draw your audience immediately into the world of your story and establish the following:
WHERE (and if relevant WHEN) we are.
WHO we're with.
WHAT has happened to start the story. This could be suggesting that something or someone needs to change by the end of the journey. It could even be your theme.
WHY we should care about the WHERE, WHO and WHAT.
This is all known as exposition. It sets up all the basic details to hook your audience by throwing them into the existing world and state of the main character before they begin their journey, and why the journey is necessary. All stories are journeys by definition, so if you want yours to be strong, your main character should go through some kind of satisfying transformation by the end – be it happy or sad.
Let's take a look at them in action, in The Hunger Games:
We're introduced to the dystopian world of Panem and District 12, a poor area in the fascist regime.
We meet Katniss Everdeen and her family. Katniss is a scrappy survivor, helping her mum run the home after the loss of her dad. She's a skilled hunter with a bow and is fiercely protective of her little sister, Prim. Like the other teens in her world, she obeys the rules of the regime, reluctantly taking part in the Hunger Games reaping – which is today.
Prim has now turned of age to take part in reaping. She's scared and Katniss wants to protect her. We also meet Katniss's friend Gale who asks her to run away with him, but she says no. This is the first hint of the lesson Katniss has to learn, also known as the theme = rebellion.
The Hunger Games is a battle to the death with only one winner, and a game of chance if you get chosen. As a young, capable woman who wants to protect her loved ones, we identify with Katniss and want to see her survive the journey.
Once we've set up the foundations of what the story will build on with the exposition, it's time to rock the boat with an inciting incident, also known as the call to action or trigger. This is the vital event that truly kicks the story off. It's the memorable moment that means there's no turning back; the world looks different now and your protagonist must act.
In The Hunger Games, you guessed it: Prim's name is called for the reaping. Katniss wants to protect her sister and must act fast. So, she volunteers and takes Prim's place, leaving for the Capitol to compete in the games. The stakes are raised as Katniss is potentially leaving her family to head to her death. There's no going back now. This scene also sets up the main dramatic question we'll follow for the rest of the plot: will Katniss survive The Hunger Games?
Aaaaall of this takes place in the first two chapters of the book and within the first 15 minutes of the film. Act One's are short and snappy. They're about hooking your audience in and showing them where your story will take them; you can pretty much start any movie or pick up any book and if your audience isn't interested by this point, they probably won't stick with it. A great Act One can make or break your story.
Act Two: Confrontation
This is the point when your story starts to develop. The move into Act Two is often signified by a literal change into a new world for the protagonist. For Katniss, she travels to the rich and glamourous Capitol and takes on the challenge of winning sponsors to improve her chance of survival in the games. The visual of the 3 Act Structure can also be helpful to map your character's literal rise towards their goal. In a romance, this is when we see the romance blossoming. The rising action moments are usually where the 'trailer moments' occur in films. They're the fun and exciting developments your protagonists goes through as they battle on, usually successfully overcoming small obstacles that contribute to the main dramatic question. Think Katniss's firey dress twirl moment or the training grounds. Have a watch of the trailer below and see for yourself.
Intertwined with your protagonist's development you'll also want to introduce your second, smaller plot thread during the rising action – also known as your B story or subplot. This could be your antagonist and their journey – what are they doing to prevent your protagonist from succeeding? You can then alternate these scenes with your protagonist's progression to add some interest through conflict and maintain momentum in your story. Ultimately, your B plot should offer a contribution to your A plot. This could be a reflection of what could happen to the protagonist if they took the wrong path, or what they could be if they took the right one. For instance, if your B plot is the development of a romantic relationship, the counterpart should contribute to helping the protagonist overcome the main obstacle in the A plot, such as discovering a quality about themselves.
For example, in The Hunger Games, we're introduced to our B plot as Katniss's developing relationship with Peter. In this case, their relationship contributes to the A plot – whether Katniss will rebel against the Capitol – as Peter is already rebelling and playing the games his own way. He demonstrates this to Katniss when he says: "I want to show they don't own me". Katniss can't afford to think that way as she is still prioritising her survival rather than the potential to change the status quo. It's only later in the story, as their relationship develops through the tests put to them by the Capitol, that Peter contributes to Katniss changing her mind. That is the power of a B plot.
Halfway through the story you'll likely need to jolt your reader or viewer awake again by cranking up the conflict and tension; turn things upside down. To maintain momentum, your world is likely to change physically again. Moreover, this moment must also be a setback or a false victory, that begins to push your protagonist back down from all the rising development they've just been through. They can't win yet, we're only halfway through the story, right? This scene could be the first big battle between your antagonist that your protagonist loses, or wins by doing something they shouldn't. For your romance, this could be when your lovers think they've overcome what separates them – be it expectations or obligations – but they usually only do this by ignoring or hiding the obstacle rather than defeating it. That comes later.
For Katniss, this is her entrance into the games. She moves from the glamourous world of the Capitol into the hell of the games, where all her training is now put to the test at a higher level. Things kick OFF with the initial scramble as she must escape from the cornucopia with her tools and supplies. The tensions around your main dramatic question rise as Katniss's survival is tested.
From here we move into the crisis section. This is a series of scenes when your protagonist is at their lowest and the bad guys are winning. During this point, you will need to continue to test your protagonist by enabling them to do the total opposite of what they really want or need to do. The total opposite of the reason for the journey. If they're fighting being controlled by someone or a societal obligation, this is the moment they've started to cave and are living under the control, because they think they lack the power to do otherwise. In a superhero movie, this is when the hero has lost all confidence in their power or has been captured by the antagonist. They're powerless to progress until they have their moment of introspection.
But once at the bottom of this pit is where they can learn there is no alternative to what they must do. This is the moment of introspection or dark night of the soul if you're Blake Snyder. At the height of their crisis and lowest point, the protagonist looks inward for the only viable solution – the lesson they had to learn all along. The lovers realise must confront the family keeping them apart. The superhero realises how they defeat the antagonist. Now we are ready to resolve the story in Act Three, in the final battle known as the climax.
For Katniss, she is surviving her "capture" by the Capitol by reverting back to her old ways. She puts her survival first, working alone, and appears powerless in comparison to the groups of trained killers with more resources than her in the arena. It's only when she teams up with Rue and Rue's subsequent death that tips her over the edge. She can't take the cruelty of the regime anymore and she offers an act of rebellion through her flower tribute to Rue and signal to District 11. This is the first glimmer that Katniss has begun to learn the theme and will know what to do in the final battle of who will win the games. So, she teams up with Peter and they go on to face the remaining tributes.
The bulk of your story happens in Act Two. Think of them as alternating moments of conflict; push and pull between your antagonists and protagonists. For the rising action your protagonist is pushing back against the obstacles but beyond the midpoint and crisis, your antagonist is pushing back harder – until the final confrontation in the climax.
Act Three: Resolution
The climax is the highest point of dramatic tension just before its breakpoint. In a superhero story, it's the final all guns blazing battle. The antagonist is at their most powerful, so the protagonist is risking everything. The moment should also answer the main dramatic question set up in your inciting incident, in the form of the final test for your protagonist; that lesson they had to learn, belief they had to change or skill they had to gain is challenged for one last time to see if it holds true. It also must be the test with the highest stakes to create the most tension. Failure = death. Often literally.
This is true for Katniss in The Hunger Games. With her newfound confidence from her realisation of Rue's death and working with Peter, she's defeated the rest of the obstacles thrown at her by the Capitol – beating the other tributes. Now, the antagonist presents the final test: will she eat the berries and die, or kill Peter to survive but belong to the Capitol? Has Katniss learned the theme?? This moment is also a great example of how a climax doesn't have to be an explosive battle. For Katniss, it's a simple decision to commit an act of rebellion, where no one would win the games. Peter, our B story, who already knew that rebellion is the only way, offers her the berries to take them together. After the hell she's been through, Katniss is ready to put what she's learned into action. All the dramatic tension, stakes and events point to this final climactic decision to answer the main dramatic question: will she win the games or will she rebel against the capitol? So, despite being a very action orientated story, the climax didn't need any actual explosives. It's Katniss's decision and action that is explosive, and it changes their world forever when President Snow is forced to allow two victors for the first time ever. The Districts see that the status quo of the Capitol can be changed, and so follows the full-blown rebellion in the later instalments. See, I told you it was good.
The final points in the structure are your ending. Falling action represents the aftermath of the climatic events and usually involve the characters returning to their old world – albeit a world dramatically changed by the events of the story. It might be the clean up after a battle. Travelling somewhere new. Katniss and Peter are retrieved from the arena, alive but mentally scarred and bonded together forever. Not all stories have falling action and it's usually very short to help tie up any loose ends.
The Denouement is your final moment. It could be a scene or just a line. It's the resolution that you leave us with = what's next. Even if you don't plan to write a sequel, your ending should still suggest that the story goes on, as all lives do. Katniss and Peter return home to District 12 as victors, tied in service to the Capitol forever. Don't slack on this one either, this is the last moment your reader or viewer will remember so make it count. The most satisfying endings are those with payoff. Us humans love playing connect the dots, so bring back information from your exposition, such as a locket or a parent's motto that your main character couldn't / forgot / didn't want to access or appreciate at the beginning. Bringing it back in a new light in your ending (especially if you haven't mentioned it for a while) will make your resolution all the more satisfying. This is also known as reversal when you revisit and change an element in the story after the protagonist's transformation. It acts as a neat bow to tie the ends of your threads and a respectful nod to your attentive audience.
Similar to Act One, Act Three is relatively short and snappy. It's the final two chapters and last 20 minutes of the film in The Hunger Games. Pacing typically builds to its peak then quickly drops when the tension is broken in the climax and trails off in your ending. That is the shape of a story.
It's worth noting that not every story sticks to the structure, and not every one should. A ghost or thriller story, for example, might skip the falling action and leave the reader at the end of the climax, right at the top of the mountain (similar to a cliffhanger). Short stories also benefit from this method as they leave the reader winded at the peak of the action – probably screaming YOU WOT?? DON'T END THERE! WHAT JUST HAPPENED?? – and makes for a memorable, punchy ending.