Episode 4: What Is Three Act Structure?


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Season 3, Episode 4: What Is Three Act Structure?

Hi, my friends.

Welcome to Amie Kaufman on Writing, a short podcast that answers one question each week about how writers do what they do.

If you’re a writer, or you’re a reader interested in how your favourite authors craft their stories, then you’re in the right place.

This is Season 3, Episode 4: Three Act Structure.

Here’s my friend and producer Kate with this week’s question. Hi Kate, how are you?

Hi Amie, I’m good!

This week’s question is from Peiling, who says: Could you please do an episode on Three Act Structure? My stories wander all over the place, and I think I might need some structure in my life…

Peiling, you’re on the right track. So far this season we’ve talked about plotters and pantsers, about various outlining methods you can try for your story, but the three act structure lies at the heart of it all.

Whether you come at your story via outlining, or let it flow from your fingertips, if it’s going to keep your reader’s attention, if it’s going to flow with the kind of pacing, tension and escalation you want, then it’s probably going to fit into a three act structure. Almost every story you encounter in a book, in a film or on TV does—which is why you already know it, just from having absorbed so many stories in your life.

The three act structure is a way of giving your story a beginning, a middle and an end—it defines what should happen in each of those parts of the story, and when you move from one part to another, something should happen that takes the story in a new direction.

Act One is often called the set-up. Act Two is called the confrontation. Act Three is called the resolution.

Today, I’m going to give you a very brief summary of the three act structure.

Let’s start with Act One, the set-up. It’s going to contain three things:

Exposition to get us situated or set up in the world. We’ll learn who our protagonist is, and see their life before this adventure begins. They might be bored in class, or heading to work. We’ll start to see the problems in their lives, but those problems don’t explode until we hit …

The Inciting Incident. This is the moment that means the story happens. It’s sometimes known as the “call to adventure,” and it offers the protagonist the chance to jump into the story. It’s Prim’s name being drawn as tribute in the Hunger Games, it’s Gandalf and the gang arriving to ask if Bilbo wants to go on an adventure. Often the protagonist will resist this initial opportunity for an adventure, or debate what they should do.

Finally, Act One will conclude with a turning point, in which the protagonist finds they have no choice but to jump into the adventure, and commit—having said she won’t go on a treasure-hunting adventure, the protagonist finds herself chased by a gang of antique thieves, and forced to escape with the very person she originally said she wouldn’t have anything to do with. They’re off on an adventure, with the big question for the story front and center—will they manage to find X, or escape Y?

Now we’re about a quarter of a way into the book, and we’ve had the exposition, the inciting incident and the first turning point.

Now we’re ready to start Act Two, the confrontation. Act two usually takes up about half your word count, give or take—though this is flexible.

Like Act One, Act Two also has three parts to it. The first is the rising action. This is where the protagonist jumps into the story or the adventure, starting to tackle the challenges ahead. We get to know more about what they’ve got to do to succeed, and we get to know them better. They’re often chasing things down and reacting to problems, rather than being proactive. They’re still learning.

Next comes the midpoint. This is a big turning point that often shows the protagonist that the problem isn’t what they thought at all—it’s different, and worse. If they thought things were going well, and they were making progress, they learn they’re not. There’s often a reveal, or a twist at this moment, which comes—as the name suggests, around the middle of the novel. It’s an inflection point, where the story changes from one thing into another.

After this, the challenges pile on, until we hit the next turning point, which takes us from Act Two into Act Three. Usually we’re about three quarters of the way through the book now. This is the lowest of the low points—but things are about to change. The protagonist will experience a dark, dark moment of doubt, suffering or loss… and then they’ll roll up their sleeves, and start making the plans that will take us through Act Three, and into the climax.

So, we’ve done the set-up, the inciting event, and the first turning point—that’s Act One.

Then we’ve done the rising action, the midpoint, and the second turning point. That’s Act Two.

Now we’re into Act Three, and it’s time for the protagonist to start making and executing their final plan. In the first part of Act Three, the preparation, they’ll gather what they need, go to the place, do what needs doing to set themselves up. These might be literal, logistical plans, but they should also be personal preparations that reflect what the protagonist has learned, and who they’ve become over the course of the story.

Next comes the climax itself—there’s a showdown of some sort, there are surprises, setbacks, there might well be a literal fight. This is where the protagonist does what they’ve set out to do, using the lessons they’ve learned along the way.

And finally comes the denouement—a quieter moment at the end of the story in which the characters return to their normal lives. But of course, they lives aren’t what they were before this story started, because the characters themselves have changed.

So, there you have it:

Act One: The set-up, the inciting incident, and the first turning point.

Act Two: The rising action, the midpoint, and the second turning point.

Act Three: The preparation, the climax, the denouement.

This has been a very basic explanation of the three acts—but I hope it helps you pin down the rough structure in your head.

Here’s an exercise: Jot down the elements of a three act structure, and then take a look at a book you love—or use this as an excuse for a movie night—and mark where each of the moments fall. The more you practice, the easier it will become to spot those transitions.

That’s all for this week. Next week, I’ll be answering a question about whether you should choose first person, or third person point of view for your narration.

In the meantime, I’ll remind you to subscribe, and leave the podcast a review wherever you listen. Both these things help new listeners find the podcast, and I really appreciate it. I’ll also remind you to check out Pub Dates, where Kate and I will take you behind the scenes on the countdown to launching our next books.

You can find me at my website, which is at amiekaufman.com – you can subscribe to my newsletter there, for behind-the-scenes peeks at how I write, and any other news about new books, events or the podcast. You can also submit a question for the podcast on my website. You can find me on Instagram at @AmieKaufmanAuthor or on twitter at @AmieKaufman. This podcast is produced by the lovely Kate Armstrong, host of one of my favourite podcasts, The Exploress, which time travels through women’s history one era at a time. You can find her at theexploresspodcast.com.

For now, thanks so much for listening – enjoy your reading, and enjoy your writing.


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