An overview of the Three Act Structure

The three-act structure has its roots in Aristotle, who theorized that stories should be divided into three parts which lead into each other in a cause-and-effect manner.  He believed stories found in books and poetry should be a chain of cause-and-effect actions, or beats.  Every action must instigate their own set of actions until the story runs its course at the conclusion.  Having a series of events, or plot points, connected by a series of cause-and-effect events unifies the actions of the narrative.  Without this unity, you don’t have a story.  Only a series of loosely connected events. 

Aristotle laid the foundations for modern literature in his book, “Poetics,” which is still widely regarded to this day.  The structure was formalized by screenwriter Syd Field in his 1978 work, “Screenplay.”

Classically speaking, all stories consist of 3 acts.  An act is a section of the story that divides the action and is centered around one or more plot points.  A plot point is an action that directly influences what happens next in the story.  There are many ways to divide a story, but the most common is to use a three-act structure.

In the first act we see the normal world of the hero and offer exposition that establishes the world and the story.  The first act ends with an inciting incident that draws the hero into the main action of the story.

In the second act we have the rising action which leads to a midpoint and crisis.  The second act usually ends with a turning point where it looks like the hero and his allies will fail. 

The third act leads us to the climax.  The hero and his allies have reached the point of no return and must either prevail or perish, and this is where some of them do perish.  Key allies are lost at this point.  Then the story winds down in what’s known as the denouement.  This is where the life of the hero returns to normal. 

How big should each act be?

Typically, the first act takes about the first quarter of the story.  The second act takes about half and the third act takes the final quarter or so of the story.  Most novels have 10-12 chapters, but you can have as many as you like.  For the sake of easy math, I’ll say we are writing a book with 10 chapters.  That means that 2 or 3 chapters will be in act 1.  6 or 7 chapters will be in the second act and 2 or 3 chapters will be in the third act. 

Yes, I know those fudgy numbers don’t add up to exactly ten, but art isn’t an exact science.  Or science at all, for that matter.  It’s more of a spitball in the right direction.  My advice is to just roll with it.

We can also break each act down by scenes, if that might be more helpful.  There’s no hard and fast rule as to how long a scene should be.  But a good rule is to make a scene about 1500 words.  There are also no concrete rules for how many scenes you should have in a chapter or act.  You can have as many or as few as your story demands.

Standard convention says that the first act should have approximately 14 scenes.  At 1500 words per scene, that’s about 20, 000 words for the first act.  The second act typically has 28 scenes, for a total of 40, 000 words.  The third scene tends to have another 14 scenes for another 20, 000 words.

In this article I’ll spend most of our time discussing this approach to storytelling, since it’s the most common in western TV, film, literature, and other media.  In the last part of the article, I’ll discuss some alternatives to the three-act style.  I’ll elaborate on some of these in later articles, since they are interesting approaches to storytelling.

The benefits of structure

The benefit of the three-act structure, or any structure for that matter, is that they will help you remain focused and give each scene a clear purpose and direction.  Structure and form aren’t some cure all for a bad story, but it’s a good place to start. 

Before we get into the weeds on this …

I think we need to acknowledge something.  I won’t be giving you any hard and fast rules here.  Only guidelines.  If you stick to dogmatically to a rigid plot structure, your work will seem less like an organic story and more like a collection of scenes checked off a list.  And I’m saying that as a plotting nerd myself.  If you don’t think any of the points of the three-act structure, or any others I mention, apply to your story, ditch them.  You know your story better than I do.  Only you can decide how much plotting your story needs and don’t let anyone tell you different.  You can also check out my article on plotting vs. pantsing [LINK] to get a feel for what kind of writer you are.

Remember, real story structure has less to do with how things happen and more to do with why they happen.  When in doubt, bring it back to the characters.

Act one might be small, only 25% of the story, but it’s arguably the most important.  This is where you hook the reader.  It’s where you make the reader give a rip about the world you’ve created and, most importantly, the characters.  Never forget that stories are about characters and not the fantastic world you’ve created.  The world exists for the characters benefit, not the other way around.

If you want to hook your reader, your first act needs to be tight.  If it isn’t then your readers will go elsewhere.  In his book, “The First Five Pages,” author and editor, Noah Lukeman claimed that most editors and agents can tell if a book will sell within the first five pages.  The great ones, he asserts, can tell within the first five sentences.  That’s how long you have to make an impression.  If traditional publication is your goal, let alone entertaining readers, your first act needs to be immaculate.  Understanding good form can help.


The first act deals with a lot of exposition.  There isn’t much character development here, just description.  Who is the main character?  Where is he?  Not just geographically, but culturally.  What are the times in which he lives?  What are his strengths and weaknesses?  Most importantly, what is he after and why does he want it? 

Your character always needs to want something.  That “something” can be an idea or abstraction, but it needs to be concretized in a tangible goal.  In his book, “Stein on Writing,” author and publisher, Sol Stein, says that your character needs to want something right from the start.  It doesn’t even need to be related to the story.  They only need to crave it immediately.  Even a glass of water will do if they desire it urgently. 

If you have any special magic or technology in your work, this is also where you introduce it.  Let the reader know who possesses it.  How do they acquire it?  How does it work?  Why does it exist in the first place? 

A good example of exposition is the beginning of Star Wars.  The opening crawl tells us much of the “where” and “when” the story takes place in only a few seconds.  But this is just an abstraction.  This abstraction is concretized when Vader attacks Leia’s ship and takes her hostage.  All before we’ve even seen the protagonist. 

Inciting Incident

After setting the stage, what follows is the inciting incident.  This is also known as the “Call to Action,” and it’s where the quest is presented to our hero.  By this point, we should have established whatever deeply felt needs the character has that aren’t being met by their Ordinary World.  Completion of the quest, in some capacity, should satisfy that need. 

That’s not to say the hero is always eager to embark on the quest.  Sometimes they need a kick in the pants to get going.  In “The Lord of the Rings,” Frodo, longed for adventures like his uncle, Bilbo.  This is lost in the movies, but in the book it took him 17 years to get out the door.  And he wasn’t a young man, either; he was 50!  Luke Skywalker also craved adventure and an escape from his life as a moisture farmer on Tatooine.  But it wasn’t until the Empire destroyed the last remnant of his family that he accompanied Obi Wan. 

Immediate Reaction

Following the Inciting Incident is the Immediate Reaction, where characters react to the Inciting Incident.

This is where the characters make an active choice to undertake the quest.  In Star Wars, this where Luke, after seeing the remains of his aunt and uncle, realizes that he has nowhere left to go and joins the Rebellion.  In stories with a willing protagonist, this is where the hero follows the mentor figure down the road of trials.  In the Harry Potter series, this is where Harry follows Hagrid out of the tiny shack and leaves the Dursleys behind for Hogwarts. 

We must ask what our characters want.  What’s lacking in their lives?  What are their greatest fears and desires?  What are their flaws as people?  If they’re reluctant to the call, what illusions can we strip away to light a proper fire under their backsides?  If they’re willing, what carrot can we dangle before their greedy eyes to steer them where we want them to go? 

In some stories the Inciting Incident and immediate reaction can  happen at the same time.  For Luke, it happens when he sees the charred remains of Own and Beru.  For Harry it’s when Hagrid gives him his invitation and takes him to Hogwarts.  They don’t need to happen at the same time, but they often do.

The second act is by far the longest with about half of the page count.  This section is also where many authors fail.  Even after a strong start, the second act is where the story can seem to drag if the author isn’t careful. 

Here we see the story consist of a rising action to the midpoint on the way to the Crisis and the Pre-Climax at the end of the act. 

In the first act there was little, if any, character development.  We were just setting the stage.  Now we focus heavily on character development.  When the hero starts down the road of trials, he is ill equipped for the journey.  The second act is all about the hero equipping himself for the eventual confrontation with the antagonist in the Pre-Climax and Climax.

 Rising Action

In a real sense, this is what the story is all about.  The hero has accepted the call, or been press-ganged into service, and his allies join him on the adventure.  This is what I like to call the “Movie Poster Moment.”  Imagine that your story was made into a movie.  What would the poster look like?  For most movies, the poster is a snapshot of this moment.

Take a moment and Google the poster for “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” and follow along with this.  What do you see?  The first thing you see is Frodo with a forlorn look on his face.  Why?  Because he’s been press-ganged into service as the ring bearer and set upon a perilous journey he wasn’t prepared for.  You see Gandalf looking morosely over his shoulder because he knows he’s just thrust someone who’s like a son to him into the greatest peril.  Stryder is over his other shoulder, sword in hand, preparing to protect Frodo from the armies of darkness that pursue him.   You see the supporting cast, who will be introduced later in the act, in the background.  And in the foreground, shrouded by mist, you see the nine Ringwraiths charging forth from Minas Morgul. 

This is a perfect snapshot of the beginning of the second act.  The hero is ill equipped and on the run.  Everything has turned from tranquility to chaos and the hero starts encountering obstacles.  They’ve crossed the threshold into the new world and the reality of their situation is beginning to sink in.  It’s do or die time and the heroes are learning how to navigate the new world.

This is also where you can introduce new characters and develop the ones you already have.  Throw friend and foe alike into the crucible and show what they’re made of.  Do your heroes have hidden potential?  Show it.  How villainously determined are those shadowed specters on horseback?  There’s nothing like a game of cat and mouse in a darkened, mist filled wood to find out. 

This is also a good place to flesh out the conflict a little more.  Really show what the stakes are for the heroes. 


This is a place of relative safety for the heroes.  In some cases, this is known as the “Meeting with the Goddess,” although the “Goddess” doesn’t need to be female at all.  It could be female, male, a child, a place, gift, tool, knowledge or anything else to help the hero on their journey. 

It’s also where you introduce your plot twist.  In a way, this place is a mirror of the ordinary world of the hero.  This is where questions asked by the hero in act one are answered and, in a sense, where the hero gets what he’s been searching for.  But it turns out that what he expected from the quest is different from the reality he achieved. 

The midpoint is where your story turns on your hero.  They thought they were doing well until this point, but new revelations show that they still have far to go.  Until this point your hero has been a passenger on the journey.  But now, understanding the gravity of the situation, they take an active role and begin guiding their own destiny in the story.

If your story has romance, this is where you start it.  Until now your characters have been running for their lives, at least metaphorically.  They’ve had more important things to focus on to this point, but now they feel like they can let their hair down a bit.  Develop those characters and explore those relationships to their fullest.  They’ll be going into the climax soon and won’t have time for much else when they do.

In The Fellowship of the Ring, Rivendell is the midpoint of the story.  That would make the Council of Elrond their “Meeting with the Goddess” and Elrond as the goddess.  Here, under the umbrella of the Elves protection, Frodo reconnects with Bilbo and learns more of his history with the Ring.  He learns what kept Gandalf from meeting him at the Prancing Pony.  And he also learns the history of the ring and how it must be destroyed.

But, remembering that what he expects from the quest is different from what he achieves, his journey isn’t over yet.  He was expecting to deliver the ring to the Elves, let it be their problem and be done with it.  His worldview changes during the Council when he sees how the ring corrupts the hearts of the council members.  He realizes that, if the ring is to be taken to Mordor, he is the one to do it since he knows the hearts of the others will be too easily corrupted. 

The ”B” Story

This is also known as your subplots.  Your hero isn’t the only one with aspirations.  Your side characters have wants of their own.  Aragorn wants to reforge the blade that was broken.  Boromir wants to see glory return to Gondor.  Gandalf wants to see Sauron destroyed for good.  Your story will seem very one dimensional if you focus on only one story arc. 

The second act is when you develop all your characters, even your secondary characters, and give them smaller arcs of their own.  And you don’t need to focus on just one.  You could have a “B” story, and a “C” story, and a “D” story, and so on.   You don’t want to overcrowd your story, but I wouldn’t worry about it too much.  Remember, stories aren’t written, they’re edited.  If a side story arc doesn’t work, just trim it in the edits. 

The Pre-Climax

This is the final push before the hero confronts the main antagonist in the act three climax.  The interesting thing about the pre-climax is that it’s often several scenes longer than the climax itself.  It’s the pre-climax that builds in crescendo, preparing for the release of tensions in the climax of the third act.  The actual climax may only be a single scene.

This is also where the hero may lose key allies in an event known as the “Dark Night of the Soul.”  This is where the hero loses someone that he, and the reader, thought was untouchable.  Before you can close the act, your character must suffer the worst loss possible.

In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the pre-climax is the battle of Hogwarts.  You might think this is the climax, but it isn’t.  Over the next collection of scenes, the tension builds as Harry, Ron and Hermione scour the castle for the last Horcrux as the chaos of battle deepens around them.  This increases the pressure of the situation and allows the tension to build for the climax to come.

“The Dark Night of the Soul” moment comes in the aftermath of the battle, before Harry confronts Voldemort, where we see the dead of the battle laid out in the Great Hall.  These include Remus and Tonks Lupin, Fred Weasley and several other students and faculty.  This is where the cost of the battle is counted, and the antagonism shows his true power.

In Star Wars: A New Hope, Luke rescues Leia but Obi Wan is killed in the process. 

The third act begins where the second act leaves off with the aftermath of the pre-climax, and comprises the final quarter of the story.  This is where the hero overcomes his final obstacles, challenges the antagonism in the climax, and returns to his normal world changed.  It’s also where we see the consequences of the choices the heroes have been making through the story come home to roost. 


Before the climax, we have a brief reprieve where the heroes regroup themselves.  They’ve just taken a serious beating and they need to gather their strength for the final push. 

The climax proper is where the hero demonstrates his own power, and everything he’s learned through the journey, to defeat the antagonism.  All their choices, good and bad, have led to this moment and it’s time for the payoff. 

This is where Harry squares off against Voldemort face to face.  It’s also where Luke joins the assault on the Death Star and uses his new affinity with the Force to hit the exhaust vent. 


This is where the story winds down after the defeat of the antagonism.  By this point, all loose ends should be neatly tied up and the protagonists goals should be either achieved or changed to suit their new worldview. 

Don’t leave your reader in tension after the climax.  Your reader’s been on a journey, too.  You need to break that tension if you want them to enjoy the ending.  The exception might be if you are leaving them in suspense in preparation for a sequel.

In Harry Potter, this is where we see Harry, Ron, and Hermione talking over the fate of the Elder Wand. 


This is where the heroes return to their old world.  They may be returning to where they’ve started, but that doesn’t mean they’re the same.  They have all been fundamentally changed by the experience. 

Again, in Harry Potter, this is where we see an older Harry seeing his son off to Hogwarts on Platform 9 ¾. 

Alternatives to the Three Act story structure

The three act structure is the most prevalent in western media, but it’s not the only one.  I’ve compiled a short list of alternatives below.  It’s by no means comprehensive, but it should give you enough to think about when deciding what style is right for you. I’ll flesh them all out more in later articles, but for now here’s a primer. 

The Heroes Journey

The premise of the heroes journey is that all stories, or at least the ones that endure, are part of a cultural monomyth that spans western culture.  We are all essentially telling the same story over and over using the same themes and archetypes.  Only the outward expression of those themes and archetypes change in such minor expressions as locale and character.  The same themes can be found, they claim, in ancient works, such as Homers Iliad and the Bible to modern blockbusters like Star Wars and Die Hard. 

The idea was popularized first in the book, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” by Joseph Campbell.  It was further expanded on in another book, “The Writers Journey,” by Christopher Vogler.  Campbells work contains a total of 17 stages and Voglers’ book has 12, but they’re both based on essentially the same premise.

The advantage of the system is that it’s incredibly exhaustive and robust.  There are plenty of details and ideas for the writer to gain inspiration from.  And, if the premise of the method holds true, it’s based on a formula that’s proven itself over millennia. 

The disadvantage of the system is also that it’s incredibly exhaustive and robust.  There may only be 17 or 12 steps, depending on which author you prefer, but each of those steps are incredibly detailed.  It can be hard for a new writer to wrap his mind around.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t try, only that it’s an issue that will require significant study.  Neither work will be a quick afternoon read.

Seven Point Structure

The point of this structure is to focus the story around seven key plot points that build contrast and powerful changes within the plot. 

With this method, you begin at the end.  Start with your conclusion and work backward from there.  Next, you want to define the beginning of the story.  This should be in stark contrast to how the story will end. 

After that you want to focus on the midpoint of the story.  It’s analogous to the midpoint of the second act of our three-act structure.  Our character stops being a passenger and starts driving the story with his own decisions. 

Next you want to add a couple critical moments to the plot, called turns.  The first turn should come between the beginning and the midpoint of your story.  This one is analogous to the inciting incident of the first act of a three-act story. 

The second turn comes between the midpoint and the end, when the hero has found the ability within himself to challenge the main antagonism of the story.  This seems roughly analogous to the pre-climax/climax of a three-act structure story. 

Finish off by adding a couple moments between the midpoint and each turn in the story.  The second moment should be roughly analogous to the “Dark Night of the Soul” moment we’ve discussed previously. 

15 Beats Method (Save the Cat)

The 15 Beats method is based on the work of Blake Snyder in the “Save the Cat” series.  There are more books than I care to mention here, but the two most important (in my opinion) are “Save the Cat,” by Blake Snyder and “Save the Cat Writes a Novel,” by Jessica Brody.

In this method, the story is broken into 15 plot points that act as targets for you to hit.  Each plot point is assigned a certain percentage of the total word count of your story.  For example, the setup is given 10%, the “B” story is given 22%, and so on. 

This method can be used as a stand-alone plotting device, or combined with others, such as three-act structure for further form or to add richness and depth.  Since this article is focused on the three-act structure, I won’t go into any more depth on this, but I will in a future article.  If you want to read more now, check out the resources section of this article.

Japanese Four Act Structure (Kishōtenketsu)

At first the structure seems analogous to western three act structure.  You start with a character minding his business in his ordinary world.  This is the first act.  The second act begins as you would expect with the character experiencing an inciting incident and call to adventure. 

The difference comes in the third act where a twist in the plot changes our entire perception of what came before.  Our expectations are entirely turned on their head.  Western media might have the character take charge of their destiny and drive the plot from here.  But in this style, the purpose of the fourth act is to allow our characters to come to terms with the twist and deal with it’s consequences. 

Dan Harmons Story Circle

The Story Circle was designed by Dan Harmon, creator of shows such as Community and Rick and Morty.  It’s robust enough to frame a well contemplated story, but simple enough for a neophyte author to grab onto.  I think its real strength comes when you pair it with one or more methods like the three-act structure or the 15 Beats methods. 

This method contains eight steps arranged in a circle.  The circle is divided into sections, much like a freshly sliced pie, with each section visualizing one point of the plot.  This is an important visual, as it allows you to see important information at a glance.  Since the circle is divided into eight equal pieces, each piece has a corresponding piece on the opposite side of the circle.  These pieces mirror each other and can give you clues to how the story could proceed. 

For instance, stage one, the normal world of the hero, corresponds to stage five, being squarely in the center of the second act.  At this point the hero should be in the “Meeting With the Goddess” stage, which is a place of security where secrets are revealed.  So the characters have gone from a place of comfort and safety, where they have questions but no answers, to another place of safety where their questions have been answered.  But this isn’t necessarily good news, as the answers they get aren’t the answers they want to hear.

It’s also worth noting that the eight sections of the circle can be broken into quadrants.  The result could be seen as a four-act story in stead of a three act story, something like a westernized Kishōtenketsu.

I won’t go into more detail here, as I have another article planned on the Story Circle soon in the series.  But I find it quite fascinating.

The String of Pearls Method

                This strategy wasn’t called the “String of Pearls method “when I found it in my research.  The writer of the original article likened a screenplay (or any story, presumably) to a collection of memorable moments strung together like pearls on a string.  He never named the process, but “The String of Pearls Method” seemed apropos to me, thus the name. 

You can check out the method in greater detail by clicking on the link I provide in the resources section of this article.  But, essentially, the String of Pearls method isn’t a “structure” or a “method” in the typical sense.  Rather it’s an eight-step process of discovery where you identify key moments, like snapshots, in your story and string them together like pearls on a string.  Then you write scenes both leading up to each moment and scenes as a result of each moment.  The result, according to the author of the article, is a story full of memorable scenes for the audience to relate to.

Full disclosure, I’ve never tried it.  But it sounds interesting and perfect for a budding pantser to experiment with.


I hope you’ve enjoyed this exploration of structure, the Three Act Structure and its alternatives.  In the next article in the series I’ll go into more detail on Dan Harmons Story Circle.  I’ll see you then.

Good writing and Calamus Gladio Fortior!




“Save the Cat,” by Blake Snyder

“Save the Cat Writes a Novel,” by Jessica Brody

“The Hero With a Thousand Faces,” by Joseph Campbell

“The Writers Journey,” by Christopher Vogler (Expanded on concept)