Calculating Fiction: The Three-Act Structure

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In some ways, there’s a mathematical process to fiction. By that I mean, whether you realize it or not, certain parts of writing need to be calculated, working together in a certain way when you create. The technical building up of parts works to make what we all agree is a good story. Here I want to specifically talk about the three-act structure, a huge, valuable aspect of writing that everyone should understand.

When building a story, you need a dedicated plot structure. A good plot rises and falls, carrying its characters, world, and story with it. A three-act structure follows specific beats and turns that you need to follow. This doesn’t mean you should only follow one type of plot (there are several varieties!). However, understanding the basic premise of this structure will help shape your writing as it grows. Take a look below at each of the acts and what they contain to boost your writing today!

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Act One

Act One of the three-act structure must set everything up in a story. This includes not only the characters and the setting but also some backstory. When you start from the beginning, add the necessary information that readers will need to know right then. This type of exposition is healthy for a story, as it provides the details readers need to imagine what’s happening and who is who at the moment.

A good beginning and exposition will establish a character and what they’re like, a setting, or an ongoing situation. You don’t need all three, but you at least need one. For example, take a look at the first line of The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.

“Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids” – C. S. Lewis

This does sound like infodumping at first, but the point here is that just from this first line you know the main characters and some specifics of the setting. The inciting incident hasn’t happened yet, but you now know enough that the plot can get started. Just remember not to include all the information in one passage through lots of telling. Not only do readers have no reason to care about all this info, but it will also put them off reading further. If they have to get through a ton of information just to reach the beginning of the story, what’s the point in sticking around?

Next comes the inciting incident. This is when the plot really kicks into high gear and events start happening one after the other. The inciting incident works to set up the main conflict of the story or otherwise drastically change the main character’s world. So this can be good or bad, but it should set the plot in motion and it should work on developing the main character’s arc. Come up with an important plot point that should happen after a few pages or even a chapter (depending on how long your work is), then catapult your plot from there. By the end of the first act, however, your story should establish an important plot point. This might be new information, a change in direction or motivation, or even a plot twist. But it needs to up the stakes.


Act Two

Act Two continues building where you left off. The action of the story must continue rising, and your character should run into obstacles along the way. This not only works to forward their character arc, but it also ups the stakes in preparation for the climax.

Start thinking about a few different things here:

1) What could make the current situation worse/harder for the characters? I keep saying you want to up the stakes. I mean don’t keep the plot one note. Add new information or a bigger challenge for your characters to encounter and attempt to conquer. When pushing your plot to the climax, the decisions your characters make matter. If they don’t come across new events or situations, they won’t develop because nothing stands in their way.

2) How can the events you include work together to build toward the climax? Don’t throw new challenges for your characters out of left field either! How do they advance the plot toward the climax? How do character’s decisions help or hinder them in the long run?

Then comes the most important part of a three-act structure: the climax. The climax occurs because of past build-up. In a three-act structure (and other structures), this determines how the rest of the story will unfold. It also allows readers to see how all the build-up from earlier on paid off. For example, even though Shakespeare often used the five-act structure, his tragedies and comedies both had endings that correlated with the climax. The climax created a pivotal scene that meant all the characters would meet a bad end or a good end (depending on the genre). In Hamlet, for example, all the decisions Hamlet makes leading up to the climax eventually determines what happens to the characters. (Spoilers: it’s not good).

But wait, what about the third act? Glad you asked.

You can read the entire play here.

Act Three

After the climax, the rest of the story plays out. Almost like if you climbed to the top of a snowy mountain with your sled then slid all the way downhill. This part is sometimes called the falling action or denouement as everything in this part of the story wraps up after the climax. So remember these two things:

1) Every plot point should be resolved. You can still end on a cliffhanger or at least set your story up for a sequel when writing a series, but don’t leave you readers hanging. If problems that readers wanted to resolved never happen, they’ll be incredibly frustrated. Make sure that your ending solves the questions your readers asked themselves, or at least acknowledge that some questions need answers at a later time. Speaking of endings…

2) Don’t rush. After the climax, be sure to take things one at a time. If you have a lot to resolve, don’t try to tackle everything at once. Go one scene at a time, then create an ending that leaves your readers satisfied with how everything turned out yet excited to read the next book.

The three-act structure may seem like a lot of new information, but it does wonders for your writing. Understanding the technical beats of a story means you can keep your readers engaged, wanting to learn more as they read. Happy writing!

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