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The three act structure


I've heard of it, but have no clue how to use it. I know it goes setup, build-up, payoff, something like that, but how do you know when to end each act, how long should each act be....that kind of thing.

I think learning how to use it would help solve my issue of being able to create good beginnings and good endings, but the middle of my plots are extremely lacking.

Any insight would be awesome :)
I'm not sure the three-act structure is necessarily a solution to your problem, so I'd like to ask for more details on what exactly that problem is. You say that you write good beginnings and good endings. What makes those beginnings and endings good, and why is that not present in middles?


But...ok like I have a good amount of conflict in my beginnings and endings. I can set up a story really well, I can introduce the characters, set the stakes and draw you into the world. And I can close it out pretty well too; I'm good at setting the stage for the final confrontation, conflict resolution and winding up subplots

But the middle just seems to fizzle. My plot developments just don't seem to flow. Like the beginning of one story I have, my 'hero' accepts a task to kill a fallen angel, and he decides to seek out a sword that kill angles, but after obtaining it from its guardian he loses it. He had to go deep into a cavern to get it, and when he 'wins' it he drops it into a deep gorge, and he can't retrieve it. A cruel trick of fate.

At the end, he has discovered another way to stop the angel. The angel is trying to "hitch a ride" back to heaven on the backs of souls of people he kills, so my hero binds his soul to a gem and allows himself to be killed by the angel, and when he tries to hitch a ride on my hero's soul, he becomes trapped within the gem as well. It's.....not as cool telling it here, what I have written is much better than a short explanation.

But every time I try to fill in the middle, like how he discovers what the angel is trying to do, how he learns how to bind his soul....stuff like that I have no clue how to write. Every attempt just seems to lack the tension and conflict of my beginning and end.

Everything I come up with just seems to be there to be there, you know?
Your "beginning" sounds like it could be a story of its own, with its own three-act structure. You create the problem (fallen angel needs to be killed), you have the protagonist attempt to resolve it (get the sword), and you have the conclusion (protagonist's efforts were unsuccessful; sword can't be retrieved.) Many stories can be framed as fractals--the structure of the overall story is also the structure of the subplots, which is in turn the structure of individual arcs--so in this case, you might benefit from trying to extrapolate the structure of your beginning into the structure of the story. Each attack on the problem of the fallen angel comes with its own attempt at resolution and its own conclusion, and each can potentially deepen the protagonist's larger issue of "Is there even a way to defeat this angel?"


Article Team
Here's something I posted on it a while ago.

If you use a three act structure. There are certain types of things that need to happen in the acts and the transitions from one act to another. There are various theories on structure. No one structure is right, but knowing structure(s), allows me to view a story from differ angles and see what I have and what's missing. I use three different structures to shape my stories. There's the classic 3 act structure, there's a 15 story beat structure that I found in a screen writing book called Save the Cat, and finally there's the seven point plot structure, described by author Dan Wells, I found on youtube.

Here's a simple run down of how I see a story. It's not original, but maybe it'll give you ideas. I'll use Star Wars as an example.

Act 1 - Approx 25% of the book

- Introduce the main character in their normal life. - Luke on the farm, dreaming of being like his father.

- Inciting incident - starts the story in motion that will result in the main character being pushed out of their normal world and into the story world. - they buy the R2 and C3P0, eventually leading Luke to Ben and the Empire to the farm.

- Break into act 2 - the point where the main character moves from their normal world and into the story world. The main character must make a conscious choice to do this. - Luke chooses to follow Ben after the farm is razed by stormtroopers.

Act 2 pt 1 - Approx 25% of story

- enter the story world - Luke and Ben enter the Mosiesly Cantena and see all those aliens.

- Act 2 pt 1 is also what's call the fun and games section of the story. It's where the basic premise of a story is fulfilled. Star Wars, the basic premise is the good guys fight the Empire. And that's what Luke and Ben do. It's where a lot of the cool stuff you see in movie trailers happens. Eg. "These are not the droids you are looking for", Ben whipping out the lightsabre in the cantina, meeting Han Solo and fighting Tie Fighters, etc.

- Story Mid Point - this is a very significant point in the story. It's where the fun and games stop and it's back to the main story. It can be a very high point for the heroes, a false Victory (In LOTR it's when they reach Rivendale and meet Elrond), or a very low point, a false defeat. In Star Wars it's when the Millennium Falcon arrives at a blown up Alderan and gets tractor beamed into the Deathstar.

Act 2 pt 2 - Approx 25% of story

- if there's a false victory, then this is where the bad guys regroup and come back at the heroes harder.

- if there's a false defeat, then this is where the heroes hunker down and come up with a plan. In Star Wars they hide in a smuggling hold and when the coast is clear, Ben goes to turn off the power to the tractor beam, and Luke and Han go save the princess.

- Break into act 3 - at this point the heroes have everything they need to win. In Star Wars, they have the princess and the plans to the Deathstar and they have the force.

Act 3 - Approx 25% of story

- The heroes formulate a plan for victory and try to execute it. - Star Wars, send X-Wings to hit the thermal exhaust port and blow up the Deathstar.

- Some where in this act there will be a moment that will be diametrically opposite of what happened at the mid-point, either a false victory or false defeat. In Star Wars, the midpoint was a false defeat, so the false victory in this act is when a X-Wing hits the thermal exhaust port but it doesn't penetrate.

- The plan for victory should fall apart, and the hero has to formulate a new plan on the fly. - In Star Wars, Luke is trying to hit the exhaust port using the targeting computer when Ben speaks to him, telling him to use the force. Luke listens and hits the target, and it's Victory.

Hopefully this makes a bit of sense.


Myth Weaver
I like the Star Wars example, but I think the numbers can vary a bit. In one of my WIPs, the MC reaches the "break into act 2" point at the end of chapter 2, when he realizes that his world and people are under threat, and decides he wants to be the first to do something to prevent it. That's hardly 25% of the story, even at the point I'm at in the writing (just started chapter 13 of an estimated 36 or more). I'm sure other people's stories may have different numbers too.

Could you perhaps elaborate a little more on the other structures you mentioned?


Article Team
Could you perhaps elaborate a little more on the other structures you mentioned?

Here's a link to a pdf which describes the 15 beat story structure.

http://files.meetup.com/138890/Blake Snyder Beat Sheet - Explained.pdf

Here's a link to Dan Well's blog entry with a link to a video where he drescribes his 7 point structure in depth with lots of examples. Also there's a power point file you can download that you can use for reference during and after the video.
How to Build a Story (Now on Video!) « Dan Wells

Also they did a writing excuses expisode on it if you want to hear Dan describe it some more.
Writing Excuses 7.41: Seven-Point Story Structure » Writing Excuses

Also, heres a link to a blog where someone did a quick run down on the structure.
Dan Wells̢۪s Seven-Point Story Stucture | To Eat a Peach

These sources can explain the concepts better than I can but if you need any clarifications on things just ask.


Three act structure comes from the plays of Ancient Greece (it's also known as Aristotle's Incline). I look at it like plot architecture; the scaffolding around which I build my story. It does wonders for pacing and for figuring out what comes next, even if you're a pantser. There are any number of books that can break it down for you, but here's how I use it:


-Inciting Incident (10%)
-Plot Point 1 (25%)


-Pinch Point 1 (37.5%)--added complication, potentially told from the Villain's POV
-Midpoint (50%)--Everything changes!
-Pinch Point 2 (62.5%)--added complication, etc.


-Plot Point 2 (75%)
-Climax (90%)
-Catharsis (100%)

How you use these plot points depends entirely on your story, but they're all turning points of some sort in the primary, or potentially all, your story arcs. The best way I've found of studying it is to watch movies on your computer by watching the streaming bar on the bottom of your screen. At the 10% mark, what happens? Do the same for each plot point. Or by gauging your progress through books by the page number. As you deconstruct (or reverse engineer) stories, you can't help but see story structure everywhere you go.

Larry Brooks at Story Fix (Novel Writing Tips & Fundamentals – Storyfix.com does an excellent job of providing instruction on what he refers to as Story Engineering. I believe he also has a .pdf available that illustrates the sorts of things that belong in each act.

Story engineering was a game changer for me, to be sure!


Om my great goodness that is exactly what I was looking for. All great advice in this thread to be sure, Penpilot's post was really awesome but yours is exactly what I needed; I've googled and googled but could find anything half as good as what has been provided by everyone here.
There's a lot of good advice here.

Still, the 3-act is best known for showing up in plays, and then Syd Field wrote about finding it in almost every movie he could find. It's a great structure, but keep in mind the milestones and ratios can be a lot more flexible when you're writing 80K or 150K of words instead of 110 mass-marketed minutes of film. If the book is going to be 160K maybe you should design Act One to be the recommended 25%, 40,000 words-- but maybe you shouldn't.


I used the 'Monomyth' story structure, as described by Joseph Campbell, in order to give some shape and guidance to my NaNoWriMo novel last year.

It splits the story into three basic sections: departure, initiation and return.

I literally took the circle diagram and made a ton of notes around it fitting my story into it where it could. I was amazed at how it clarified and improved certain elements of my story, gave certain characters a purpose beyond what I had originally given them and helped me work out which settings and scenes should go where in the story.

I did feel a bit like I was cheating, and it may have made the story feel like a more formulaic fantasy quest-tale but in the end I felt happy with it all.

A. E. Lowan

Forum Mom
Yeah, that beast often goes by the common genre name "The Hero's Journey," and sometimes also gets tucked into a three act structure, depending on the writer and how they structure their plots. Nice job making the connection!


The three-act structure is often associated with the Hero's Journey but it's been around much longer. I heard it goes as far back as Aristotle.
The structure is based around set-up (beginning), build-up (middle) and pay-off (end). Even jokes fit this structure.

"Knock Knock" "Who's there?"
"Orange." "Orange who?"
"Orange you glad I didn't say banana?"

There's a three-act story with only 15 words. It can be any length and any level of complexity.
In fact, the only other story structure I've heard about is a Japanese theatre structure which uses five acts.

So, three acts are basically the way you do it.

Also, I feel I should point out that the Hero's Journey is not a story template or even a tool for writing. It was meant to be a tool for analyzing fiction.
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I think that although it's not necessarily meant to be used as a writing tool, if you feel like you're wading through mud then it can be a useful rope. And it seems to be something that people do naturally when story-telling whether or not you acknowledge it whilst formulating the story.

This reminds me of The Prestige, which explains that in magic there are three stages to every trick: the pledge (present the audience with an object), the turn (make the object become/do something extraordinary) and the prestige (return the object to it's original state). I suppose that this version of the Three Acts applies to fiction just as well as magic: You present a character (let's try Frodo), you make him disappear and/or go through some extraordinary circumstances (all of Frodo's adventures, particularly after the fellowship breaks) and then reappear (he does return, right down to returning to Hobbiton to kick out Saruman's evil army). I suppose this could also be said to happen to the worlds in which these stories are set; which are on the brink of destruction, only to be saved at the vital moment by the hero(es). It's interesting how often this trilogy aspect recurs in story telling and human performative culture in general. Even our lives go through childhood, adulthood and old age. Not to mention several religious or mythological narratives.


It seems like this guy is using it for its intended purpose.

I think that although it's not necessarily meant to be used as a writing tool

Doesn't matter whether it's meant to be used as a writing tool or not. We know that it IS being used as a writing tool. The Hobbit and Percy Jackson movies are obvious examples. Writers / authors ADMIT to using it as a writing tool.


Doesn't matter whether it's meant to be used as a writing tool or not. We know that it IS being used as a writing tool. The Hobbit and Percy Jackson movies are obvious examples. Writers / authors ADMIT to using it as a writing tool.

I was agreeing with you; in my earlier post I wrote about how I used it as a writing tool.
When I said "I think that although..." I was responding to, and disagreeing with, this statement:

It was meant to be a tool for analyzing fiction.

Surely since both of those movies are adaptations you're really suggesting that the writers of the novels used it as a writing tool?