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Acting Out: Writing With the 3 Act Structure

December 13, 2023

Aristotle was the first to say that a whole story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Since his time, stories have evolved across formats and media. But at their core, they remain the same. Even something as simple as a six word story contains a beginning, a middle, and an end. 

These three elements were further developed into a blueprint for writing a story: the 3 Act Structure. This is a method of writing where each major element of a story is given its own section, or act, which ultimately combine to form a completed work of literature. Each act is further given its own set of beats, or action that has a direct effect on the direction of the narrative. 

Breakdown

Throughout the 3 Act Structure, the main character experiences major stages of development, the main plot unfolds, and the character’s goals are either fulfilled or lost as all loose ends tie up. The acts can be summed up as (1) the main character has a problem, (2) they think they know how to solve it, and (3) they were wrong, now what? As the writer, you get to decide if they fail or succeed at that point. 

Here is a detailed look at each act.

Act One: The set-up (25%)

Exposition

This is where it all starts. The beginning of a story should introduce the reader to the main character and the world they live in. It should include a glimpse into their everyday life, what is important to them, and what is missing. The idea of something missing from their life, whether it is an unfulfilled want or need, sets up the main character’s internal conflict. This should tie into the external conflict that will appear later.

At this point, the reader should find a reason to like your main character. Give them a task to complete, a person or animal to save, or a moral decision to make. 

Inciting Incident

The inciting incident is also called the catalyst and the call to adventure. It usually happens around the 15% mark of the story, and it is where the real story begins. 

Here, something happens that introduces conflict into the main character’s world. 

Whatever happens, it must create a problem that ties into their internal conflict and sets up the goal of the plot. Because of this, it will be nearly impossible for the character to walk away from. The stakes should be clear: if they don’t take action, something or someone in their life will suffer. Even if they hesitate to react to the problem, it should be something so big that they feel obligated to take it on. Life as they know it will never be the same but there is a chance it can be fixed if they do something about it.

Examples:

  • A murder
  • A new start to life
  • Signing up for an event or program
  • An opportunity
  • A traumatic event

In order to find an appropriate inciting incident, become familiar with your main character. What are their goals? What is their greatest fear? How are they dissatisfied with life? What could go wrong in their world?

Plot Point One

This is the point of no return. If the main character was hesitant to answer the call to action, they can no longer afford that. Something happens that forces them to start their journey and leave their ordinary world behind.

Plot Point One can occur at the same time as or immediately after the Inciting Incident. 

In Lois Lowry’s The Giver, the inciting incident occurs at the Ceremony of Twelve, when Jonas learns that he will be the next Receiver of Memory. In the same scene, plot point one occurs when he must accept that role, even though he doesn’t know what it is and all the adults seem to find it threatening. This is different from his ordinary world, where everything feels safe and certain.

At the same time, it pushes Jonas towards Act Two of his story.

Act Two: The confrontation (50%)

Rising Action

This is where the main character begins to explore their new world. As they do, they learn about the challenges ahead of them and begin to learn the skills necessary to meet their goal. Here, they remain in a reactive state, only responding to the new things and people around them.

During the rising action, the reader will have a chance to get to know the main character’s allies and enemies. The main plot and its conflict will also become more apparent.

In The Giver, this is where Jonas begins his lessons in receiving memory. He learns what colors are, different ways to play games, what weather is, and how to feel new emotions. Meanwhile the reader gains new insights into his parents and friends as they respond to the changes in him.

Midpoint

The midpoint is a significant event. In most cases, something goes terribly wrong. The main character’s goal is threatened and they question why they’re on this journey. Whatever happens should emphasize the stakes at hand.

In Jonas’ story, the midpoint is when the Giver teaches him what death is. He is horrified and considers quitting his role as Receiver.

Plot Point Two

This is the aftermath of the midpoint. The main character has time to reflect on the conflict and what the midpoint meant for them. In a series of actions, they find a new resolve and begin preparing for their confrontation with the antagonist.

Plot Point Two should act as an inspiring speech or confidence booster that gets the main character to act on their own for the first time.

Act Three: The resolution (25%)

Pre-Climax

The pre-climax marks the beginning of the end. The main character approaches their enemy for the last time but is taken by surprise. The enemy finally shows their true strength and hits the main character where they are most vulnerable – this usually ties into their fears and flaws. 

Up to this point, the reader has been certain of the main character’s ultimate victory. But right now they begin to wonder if they might lose instead.

Climax

This is the point that the main character’s journey has built up to. The character must either find a way to recover from the blow in the pre-climax and finally put an end to the enemy’s schemes or feel the weight of defeat and fail to overcome the enemy. This point signifies the end of the main conflict.

Denouement

Also called the resolution, the denouement is when the dust settles after the final confrontation. It allows the reader to relax while watching how the characters move on with life. All significant loose ends – side plots, character arcs, lingering questions – should be tied up here. If the main character’s goal was not entirely achieved during the climax, they find it here.

Benefits of the 3-Act Structure

  • Offers a clear outline for a story to follow.
  • Splits a story into smaller parts that are easier to write.
  • Allows a writer to think about the beginning and ending before writing.
  • Follows a timeless pattern that readers enjoy.
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