Plots

Breaking Down the Three-Act Story Structure

Hey, TWNers! Welcome back to another post from TWN. Today I’m going to be talking about the three-act story structure. The inspiration for this post actually came from a TWN reader, Emma. Y’all go check out her awesome book blog right here

When Emma requested a post on writing outlines, I was immediately sold on the idea! Now, y’all know I’m a panster, but I have outlined before and more people than not have tried to convince me I need to start outlining. All that to say is I’m very knowledgeable in writing outlines, even if I’m not as practiced. So when I started thinking about what my post on outlines would be I knew there were several aspects I could talk about. It ended up becoming its own mini series in my mind, which I may or may not ever get around to. But when considering what I would write about, I knew there was one area that needed to be covered first. The plot points. I’m sure most of us are familiar with the three-point plot structure. It’s the most talked about and used of any story structure, and it’s actually very simple to follow along with! And I thought now was the most perfect time to talk about it as I have come across some plot problems with my own WIP Project: Defender as I’m working through my macroedits and am referring heavily to the three-act story structure as I try to fix them. So while I still plan to write later posts about outlines, I do hope, Emma, that this will be helpful as you’re outlining your project. 

If you’re not familiar with the three-act story structure, basically it breaks down the plot into three major sections. You have the beginning which is the set-up for the novel, then the middle which is the confrontation points, and then finally there is the end which is the resolution section for your story.

But how do you take these simple points and turn them into a novel that’s engaging, interesting, and keeps readers flipping the pages? 

Before we talk about how to outline, we must first discuss what exactly makes a good plot great! This is something that will benefit you regardless if you need an outline before writing, you need a general direction where the draft your pansting is going, or you’re ready to start completing those tedious self-edits.

Today I’m going to be walking you through and breaking down the major plot points in the three-act story structure. I’m going to be following along with this great resource I discovered a year ago from Jill Williamson. If you’re trying to outline and want a more simple structure to follow, I could not recommend a better source! You can find her links to several writing resources here or go straight to the template I’m going to be walking through with you. Alright, let’s jump in! 

Every story should start out with a strong beginning. This is where you are introducing your reader to the world, the characters, and the plot. It’s kind of like your contract with the reader. Depending on how you start the tale, it will inform the reader if this is to be an exciting and fast-paced plot or a slow burn, character driven story. There are all sorts of things I could explain about how to pull off a strong beginning, but this post would get very, very long, so we’ll have to save that for another time. A couple of key things to remember is that you don’t want to jump us straight into the action without first giving us some reason, no matter how small, to root for the character, and you also don’t want it to be boring. You want to both give us a glimpse of a normal day for the character while not overdoing it with mundane details, like your character waking up and getting ready for the day. We know what it’s like to wake up and brush your hair and get breakfast. Unless there’s some very important reason to show this to us, let’s skip to the fun stuff. 😉 You should start your story very close to the inciting incident of the plot. Let’s use Jennifer A. Nielsen’s YA fantasy novel The False Prince for an example. This book starts us off with a normal day for Sage, our main character. He’s stolen a roast and is running for his life. As an orphan in Carthya, this is Sage’s normal day. He’s hungry, he steals food, and then he tries to get away. But it’s not a boring opening. It’s actually very exciting!

Our next point is the Inciting Incident. This point is one of the most important parts of your story! This is basically when you’re telling the reader why he/she should keep reading your story. You want to introduce this point as early into the story as possible, usually at the end of the first chapter at the earliest or the end of chapter three at the latest. Again, just like with story beginning, I could do a whole post on how to write a compelling inciting incident, but for now, just remember that the purpose is to propel the story forward. It shakes the character’s “normal” world and makes him/her have to take action. An example of this comes from the movie The Hobbit based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien. The inciting incident is when the dwarves appear at Bilbo’s house and invite him to join in their quest to reclaim their homeland. Bilbo has to decide whether to go or not.

Next is the Climax of Act One. This is the end of the first act. As you go through the plot, the climax for each act will get more and more intense. So just make sure your climactic moment of act one isn’t more climactic than act three. Your story should be gradually building, preparing the reader for that final climax moment that is honestly the best part of the story! But it doesn’t mean you can’t have a little bit of fun with this one.

Then we move into the confrontation section as we enter act two. Jill Williamson includes two obstacle scenes in her template. This is the point in the story when we see the character taking moves to complete the task, goal, assignment, or whatever it was that happened for your inciting incident, but something or someone tries to stop them. Such as the dwarves and Bilbo in The Hobbit, trying to get to the Lonely Mountain only to meet constant conflict with those attempting to prevent them from completing the task, whether they are orcs, goblins, or elves. Remember. It shouldn’t be all terrible and failures all the time.

Make sure you have moments where your character is accomplishing something but then gets pushed back again by an obstacle.

From here we move into the midpoint twist, probably one of the most fun points to write. This is when the story you thought was going one way takes a drastic turn, maybe due to a plot twist or obstacle no one saw coming. This helps keep your story from becoming predictable and boring. I mean, who doesn’t love a good turn of events, a twist that never could’ve been predicted? Such as in Ally Carter’s YA thriller All Fall Down. Grace believes a man with a scar murdered her mother, though everyone tells her that it’s not true and her mother’s death was an accident. But Grace finds a man with a scar who she believes to be the one who killed her mother. Throughout the first half of the story, we see that Grace is trying to prove that this is the man and that she is not crazy. And then we reach the midpoint twist when *SPOILER WARNING* she realizes that this man is actually a friend of her grandfather’s. Wow, wasn’t expecting that, amiright!

So make it fun. Twist the story. Change the direction. Make it exciting!

From here, I’ve seen stories take one or two directions. You could go straight into the climax of act two or have your disaster and crisis moment. We’re going to continue following Jill Williamson’s template which moves us into the disaster and crisis. I’m lumping these two together because they each have a direct impact on the other. The disaster is when everything takes a turn for the worst. Maybe everything the character has worked so hard for is ruined. Or his plan to save the day failed. Things are usually worse than they were before, which is why it leads so smoothly into the crisis moment. (Also known as the “dark night of the soul.”) This is when your character is at his/her lowest point. Usually a moment of reflection or change that prepares him/her to rise up and conquer the enemy or obstacle once and for all. (Which is why sometimes I just like to put these two points after the climax of act two so we can move right into the climax of act three, but like I said, I’ve seen it done both ways.) Again, this will probably have spoilers but I’m going to use an example from a book I just recently read: Roadside Assistance by Amy Clipston. I thought the disaster and crisis moments were really well done, especially for a contemporary romance novel! I’m sure you’re aware how a romance book goes. Girl meets Dude and they fall in love. But the disaster for this book happens when Emily, our main character, and Zander, the love interest, get into a fight and they break up. From here, Emily feels her whole life is falling apart. Still dealing with the grief over losing her mother to cancer a year earlier, Emily closes herself off from God, family, friends, and any other source of help. This puts us into the crisis.

From here you’ll have your climax of act two, where the character will have to rise from the crisis. He/she could face off against the antagonist here (but will have to lose since we’re not at the final climax yet) or it could be a moment of being challenged to change what they thought of someone or something or maybe even himself. Maybe the climax is having to ask for help from your long-time rival so you can defeat the antagonist. Or finally figuring out the perfect plan to defeat the antagonist/win the race/save the day. Usually it’s a moment of rising up and preparing for the final climactic face-off with the antagonist.

Which brings us to the climax of act three. This is it. The moment you and your reader have been waiting for. I have a plan post coming up about how to write a strong climax so I’m not going to dive into this point too much. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the big climax moment. My best tip, without going into a long post, is to study other climaxes in books and movies. See what the writer did that worked or didn’t work.

Now we’re in the denouement that wraps everything up. Any loose ends (if you’re not going for a sequel) should be tied up at this point. 

You don’t want to spend too much time in this section since after the climax the interest will begin going down, but at the same time, don’t rush it! I just recently read a book that wrapped up the ending so quickly, I was left with too many questions and it felt incomplete. Unsatisfying.

And that’s the end of your story’s plot! Maybe you’ll have a happy ending or a bittersweet one. It could be a closed ending or an open one, ready for a second installment. Either way, this is where everything comes to a close and is usually a reflection of the opening.

And that’s it! Alright, let’s chat in the comments, writers! What’s your favorite point to write in the three-act story structure? Which point do you have the hardest with? Do you use the three-act story structure or another story structure? And as always, if you have a writing question or post idea, let me know in the comments below.

Until the next post,

Keep on being awesome and never stop writing,

Issabelle Perry

Issabelle Perry is a proud Jesus follower, an extroverted writer of historical fiction, and a homeschool graduate. When she's not writing, you can find her reading, jamming to Skillet, bullet journaling, hunting for Narnia in wardrobes, or envisioning herself wielding a magnificent sword (but due to her clumsiness, let’s hope that never happens). This self-proclaimed exclamation mark enthusiast can be found hanging out at Teen Writers’ Nook, a community of teen authors Issabelle co-founded in 2020. Her short story “Fairly Impish” was featured in Owl Hollow Press’s Change the World anthology, and Issabelle is the co-editor for Teen Writers’ Nook’s Imagine anthology and Grace A. Johnson's upcoming Christian romance anthology. What she’s probably doing right now is fangirling about her favorite books to random people or scanning the pantries for chocolate.

22 Comments

  • Saraina

    Awesome post, girl!!! You explained everything SO well!! Ohh, yes, the midpoint plot twist is always my favorite part!! 😉 (Other than the dark night of the soul and subsequent victory, that is XDD) Also, thank you for adding those epic Bilbo gifs. 😀

    • Issabelle Perry

      THANK YOU SOOOOO MUCH SARAINA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Phew, that’s a relief to hear that actually. I always feel like my explanations are so poor. SO THANK YOU SO SO SO SO MUCH!!!!!!! YESSSSS!!!!! Midpoint twists are SO much fun!!! I always get a little crazy at that part in the story. But hey we gotta keep our readers on their toes. XD (AAAAAH DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL IS ANOTHER FAVORITE POINT OF MINE!!!!!!!!! I have no idea why but the scenes when my character is hurting the most, I enjoy writing the most. #evilauthor) Hahaha you’re welcome. 😉 I haven’t done a true post without at least ONE LOTR or Hobbit GIF. XD

    • Issabelle Perry

      AAAAAHHH GIRL THAT MAKES ME SO HAPPY TO HEAR!!!!!!!!!!! And I am RIGHT there with you! The three act story structure is the BEST!!!! It’s what really helped me go from telling terrible stories to actually pretty decent ones. XDD (Haha NO there is no such thing as loving it too much. XDD) THANK YOU for stopping by, Ava!

  • Joy C. Woodbury

    First off, I want to say I am SO SO overjoyed that y’all are back to TWN! I didn’t get around to commenting on the welcome back post because life has been insane lately, but I really wanted to tell you how glad I am to be seeing new posts from you all in my inbox! Your posts are always so energetic and really brighten my day, so thank you. Excited to see all the things you’ve got planned!

    Like you, I am a pantser, so I don’t have any detailed methods or use any meticulous outlines. Though sometimes I have to resort to creating a simple outline when I’m pressed to meet a deadline. I’m sure you can relate to the fact that one of the disadvantages to being a pantser is that you’re frequently going down rabbit holes, and sometimes the only thing that can put you on the right track is to give in and make an outline. Rabbit holes are fine if you don’t have a deadline to meet, but if you do, you can’t waste time tunneling. 😉

    I’d have to say my favorite part of the three-act structure is the climax of act three. It’s just soooo satisfying to finally be able to give my characters victory after they’ve spent the story struggling through darkness. It just fills me with so much joy, and it’s really exciting and heartrending as well. The final climax of my current WIP, Where Faith Remains, makes me want to sob and laugh at the same time. Because it’s so victorious and yet bittersweet too because the characters have gone through so much, but they’ve at last reached the light at the end of the tunnel.

    The hardest part for me is probably the climax of act one. I have a tough time transitioning from act one into act two, in both an interesting and concise way. I feel that mine tend to be boring and/or confusing, and it takes me a lot of work to fix them into something I love.

    Anyway, this was such a fun and informative post AND I loved the GIFs! 😄

    • Issabelle Perry

      AWWWW JOY THANK YOU SO SO SO SO SO SO SO SO SO SO MUCH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Ah, girl, I feel you. Why is life always insane? Aww, well, I am SO glad you came around to letting me know that because it means SO much to me!!!!! Hopefully these new posts will be just as awesome, if not more so. 😉 Awww, girl, you are too sweet. I am smiling SO hard over here. A million thank youuuuuus!!!! THANK YOU!!!! Excited to show y’all some of the things I got up me sleeve. hehehehe. XD

      YES PANSTERS FOR THE WIN. XD Ooo yes! That makes sense! I have done the same too. I think it’s great when you know how to plot and write by the seat of your pants because every novel requires a different way of getting to “the end.” Hahaha oh yes… the rabbit holes… *awkward cough* *shoves all my rambling nonsensical first drafts away* XD Yes, that’s EXACTLY right! If I’m not on a self-imposed deadline for my stories, I don’t mind the rabbit holes, but like with my current WIP, I put myself on a deadline just to see if I could work under that pressure, and so it’s required me to be a bit more… together one things. XD

      AAAAAAH YESSS!!!! I agree!! The climax of act three is a blast to write!!!! YESS!!!!! IT REALLY IS!!!! And then you get to sit back and be like a super emotionally proud parent to your characters and be like, “look what you kids have done, I’m gonna cry”. XD XD At least, I get that way sometimes. XD IT IS GIRL!!!! You’re like a million different emotions at once. Sad cuz it’s ending, happy and proud because of the victory, relieved the struggle is over. OOOOOOOO THAT CLIMAX SOUNDS AMAZING!!!!!!! I am already getting emotional!!! Aah I can’t wait to read it one day!!!!!!!

      Aaaah the climax of act one can be super difficult! Yes, I feel you girl! I’m sorry to hear you struggle with that part, though I’d say that’s an easier moment to edit than say if you’re climax of act three fell flat. You’re doing awesome! Mine are always *too* climactic, and I’ve had feedback before about not making my opening so dramatic and climactic because it’s harder to make the ending even more so!

      Awww I’m SOOO glad you thought so!!!! THANK YOU SOOOOO MUCH!!!!!!!!! HAHA YESSS THE GIFS!!!! They be the best! 😉

  • Emma

    AHHHH THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR DOING THIS!!!!! This was so helpful!! Your examples were epic, and you just explained everything very well!! I’m totally coming back to this when I’m going to outline and work on the structure of my story!!

    (Also thank you for the shout-out! <33333)

    • Issabelle Perry

      AAAAAAAAHHHH YOU ARE SOOOOO WELCOME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I am SOOOOOOO thrilled to hear it was helpful to you!!!! Awww thank you SOOO much!!!!!! Phew, that’s an honest relief to hear that. WOOHOOO!!!! YESS!!! I hope it will help you out then the next time you need to outline or even fix your story’s plot. 🙂 You go, girlie!

      (Aww, you’re very welcome. <33333 Thank YOU for the post idea!!!!)

    • Issabelle Perry

      Aw, you’re super welcome!!! Thank YOU for reading! OOOOOOOO I hope you did find a way out of writer’s block! You’ve got this! Beat that writer’s block!!! *cheers you on* Thank you SO much for stopping by TWN!!!

  • Alexa

    I LOVE THE THREE-ACT STORY STRUCTURE!! It’s the bomb.com. Thank you SO much for writing this wonderful post for us, Izzy!!! And I love the gifs, as always! I would have to say that my favorite point to write is the midpoint. I love writing plot twists so my WIP is full of them. XD The point I struggle the most with is the biggest climax, the climax of act 3. You would think that it would be the easiest to write because it’s the biggest point, the biggest build-up, but for some weird reason, I don’t think I can build it up as much as I would like to. So I gotta work on that lol. I’ll be on the lookout for your post about that! 😉

    • Issabelle Perry

      THANK YOU SOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO MUCH ALEXA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Awwww, girl, you’re SO welcome. Thank YOU for reading, sister! Aaaah YESSSSSS!!!!!! I mean, it’s not really a post from ole Izzy if there isn’t at least one GIF, right? XD YESSS!!!! The midpoint twist is SOOO much fun!!! You can kinda just allow yourself to get crazy for that one brief moment and do something completely unexpected! GIRL plot twists are the best things EVER!!!! My stories used to be so full of them that I ended up getting sooo lost with all the twists. XD Then I had to cut back. XD *pouts* Aaah the climax is SOOO difficult! It’s one of my biggest struggles too, and don’t worry because you’re not alone. It’s actually really common among writers to struggle with it. I know right! Sadly, writing never lets anything go the way we think it should. NIETHER CAN I! The pain is real! Hahaha me too. Good luck, girl! You’ve got this! YAAAAY!!!!! *now needs to get to work on it* XD

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