The three act structure is arguably the oldest around, if you accept that it began with Aristotle’s assertions that stories must have a beginning, middle, and end. But while this is a decent start, it’s not particularly useful for storytellers. It raises more questions than it answers. When does the beginning become the middle, and at what point does the end start, and how long does it last?
Fortunately, screenwriters will come to our rescue on this one. Most Hollywood movies are crafted to fit the three act structure, with pages broken down so they fit into this framework by percentages. Since one page of screenplay lasts one minute of film, and movies aim to be between 91 and 114 minutes long, there are certain percentages which are usually applied, and the screenplay is expected to reach a particular turning point by a given page.
Act One is generally considered to be the first 25% of the story. It shows the protagonist in their ordinary life, the life the protagonist would go on living if the events in the story never happened to them. This is the place where the readers initially get to know your characters, and where your characters are called to something different—your story.
Act Two is the largest part of your story, 50% or more of it. The characters make choices and sometimes make progress, but overall, do not achieve their goals.
Act Three is whatever is left at the end, usually around 25%. In this section, the protagonist(s) finally identify their major solution to achieving their goal. They throw everything they have into it, and either succeed or fail utterly, depending on whether or not you want a happy ending. And this is by no means a black-and-white dichotomy—your character can ‘win,’ but discover the price of their victory is more than they can bear. Or they can ‘lose,’ but later be glad that they did. Or they can experience mixed feelings about achieving their goal(s) or not.
One common description of the three act structure is that in act one, you chase your protagonist up a tree, in act two, you throw rocks at them, and then in act three you chop the tree down. While this highlights how truly evil writers can be to their beloved characters, the best short description I’ve heard comes from the best-selling fantasy author Brandon Sanderson. He said that in the first act, the protagonist reacts to the antagonist, the major rival/enemy/problem your character faces. In the second act, the protag tries to make things better—and fails. In act three, there’s one last desperate hope, and the character either succeeds or fails utterly.
Let’s say you want to use the three-act structure, and you have an antagonist that isn’t a person, it’s a disease. In the first act, your character finds out they have cancer, and reacts to the new reality of it in their life. In the second act, they would come to terms with their condition and try new therapies, along with deepening relationships with other characters, all to no avail. In the third act, there would be one last treatment or chance for their life, and it would either succeed and the cancer goes into remission, or it would fail and the protagonist would die.
This may sound terribly formulaic, and on a certain level it is. Novelists certainly have more freedom than scriptwriters, since we don’t have to hit turning points on an exact page. But if you consider how much movies can differ from one another, then you can see how much freedom there is to tell a story within this framework.
And the three act structure isn’t the only useful story framework out there. It’s simply one tool in a storyteller’s arsenal.
This has been the three act structure in a single glance. I’ll break down what needs to happen in each act in future posts.
Previous: The Hook