Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Three-Act Structure: Part 1

The three-act structure is a fundamental part of storytelling. Without it, your story won’t have all the necessary elements to make it as great as possible. Let’s look at the first act in this structure.

Act one usually consists of the first quarter of the story. This act has a lot to accomplish. It must hook your readers, introduce the characters and their world, and start the external conflict. That’s when the inciting incident comes into play. This event or situation threatens the protagonist’s safe, every day world, and sets the story in motion.

Where do you go from there?

-The story problem/conflict is established.
-The stakes are revealed. (What does the protagonist have to win or lose?)
-Subplots may be introduced once the main plot is obvious. (This is very important. Otherwise, the reader gets lost trying to figure out where the story is going and who to root for.)
-The glue-stick factor is created. This is a place or situation that glues the characters together as the conflict break everything else apart.

How does act one end?

Before moving on to act two, a crisis must occur and the protagonist usually accepts the challenge.

The problem many writers encounter is they try to put too much into act one or they believe they should save “the important parts” for the middle of the story in an effort to prevent a saggy middle. In reality, you need a balance of both. Too much information could confuse or bore the reader. Not enough could frustrate him/her.

The two other difficulties writers have with this act is not establishing the story conflict soon enough (or at all), and not revealing the stakes. For example, it won’t mean a thing to the reader that the diner’s closing forever, unless they realize it was passed down to the protagonist from her parents. Not only does she feel an obligation to keep it afloat, but financially, she can’t afford not to.

Understanding the necessary elements in each act will help you avoid these types of mistakes.

Friday is Fun Friday, so I’ll continue this post and discuss act two on Monday.


  1. Yikes. Balancing. Scary stuff.

  2. Great post. I'm a big believer in the three act structure. I don't even write a word until I know a rough basis of each act. Can't wait to read the rest of your posts about it.

  3. Good analysis. Everything is a balancing act, isn't it?