What Is Three Act Structure? Improve Your Story.
Learn what three act structure is and how you can use it to enhance your book or screenplay.
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What is three act structure?
Three act structure is a format certain stories follow, with the first act dedicated to the story's beginning, the second act the story's middle, and the third act the story's end. The first two acts build to their own dramatic conclusions, while the final act builds to the whole story's climax.
Three act structure example
Let's say we have a story about a rebel warrior trying to overthrow a vicious king. The warrior is the hero, the king the villain. The story as a whole builds to whether the warrior will defeat the king. However, the beginning and middle can build to their own conclusions, which would relate to the broader story.
For instance, the beginning of the story may focus on the rebel warrior escaping a prison where he's been unjustly held by the king. A full act would be dedicated to this escape. The act would have various obstacles (ex, cell bars, prison guards) the hero would confront. The events would build toward the answer to the dramatic question: will the hero break out of the prison?
Once this dramatic question is answered, the hero would adjust to his new situation and the story would move toward the second act, which would have its own dramatic question.
For example, in act 1, let's say the hero successfully escapes from prison. He then hides out in a village. He explains to the villagers how he was unjustly imprisoned. The villagers, who already disliked the king, now dislike him even more. The hero explains his desire to overthrow the king. The villagers are motivated to help. However, the king has a powerful army at his command, while the villagers lack combat training.
Act 2's dramatic question would be: can the hero assemble a fighting force to take on the king's army? Act 2 - the story's middle - would follow the hero as he tried to train the villagers and recruit more soldiers to the cause.
Let's assume the second act ends with mixed success - yes, the hero does assemble a solid fighting force, however, it's still a massive underdog against the king's larger, better-resourced army.
The story now crescendos into act 3, the end. Act 3's dramatic question would be: can the hero's underdog army defeat the formidable royal army in a battle?
Act 3 builds toward the battle, then shows the battle itself. The fight would be the climax of not just act 3, but the whole story. Let's assume the hero's force wins and the king is overthrown. Here, the audience will see that the hero does in fact achieve the main want he set for himself at the beginning of the story.
Does a story need three acts?
No, a story doesn't need three acts. Some stories can have fewer than three, others more. For stories with more than three acts, the first and final acts tend to function like the first and final acts of a three act story, while more than one middle act is added.
For example, a five act story would have one beginning act, three middle acts, and one final act.
Do you want to unlock the power of acts in your story?
To learn more about acts, and discover how to apply them to elevate the drama in your story, be sure to check out my Premium Blueprint Course.
You might also like my post on writing a great scene.