Understanding the Three Act Structure

Okay… there have been times before that I’ve expressed my distaste for the three act structure, as I previously understood it. Basically, I didn’t understand what differentiated Act II and Act III… I got the crossing of the point-of-no-return from Act I to Act II, but I was under the impression that Act III was just the “wrapping up” of the story. 

A couple of nights ago, I listened to the Writing Excuses podcast, which I’ve newly discovered, and absolutely love, and specifically, Season 2, Episode 8, which is on the three act structure. One of them (I haven’t been listening long enough to tell them all apart easily, and since I was listening before falling asleep, I’m a bit hazy on the details anyway) said that if he defined Act II as “try and fail, try and fail, try and fail,” he defined the crossing point from Act II as “try, fail, and learn” in that the characters have still failed what they were trying to do, but that they learned some critical piece of information that prepared them to go into the final battle and win.

I highly recommend you go listen to the podcast now, because there’s a lot of good information, it’s only 15 minutes long, and it’s free and easily accessible. 

The other source of information that I’ve found on Three Act structure is one of the writing books I checked out of the library last week, Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure, by James Scott Bell. I’ve only read the first few chapters so far… he definitely has a knack for naming and defining elements of writing. 

His chapter on the three-act structure is a great example of that… he describes it as “A Disturbance and Two Doors.” The idea is that the disturbance happens in Act I. Up until the Disturbance, your protagonist (or what he calls the Lead) has just been living his or her life. Then the disturbance happens, and at that point, a door presents itself. If the protagonist doesn’t go through that door (basically, chooses to walk away from the conflict) then the rest of the story doesn’t happen. But if he or she does go through that door, then you’re in Act II. (And later, the second door takes you into Act III.) 

What I like about this view of it, is that walking through the door is something that the protagonist deliberately has to do… she has to make a choice.

One of the things I realized in writing my first draft of Dexter Moon is that far too often, Dexter and Marie seem to be just along for the ride… This bit of explanation cements that in my mind, and one of the things I’ll be focusing on in my revision is finding a way for Dexter to literally make that choice to walk through that doorway early on in the story.


4 thoughts on “Understanding the Three Act Structure

  1. I have that James Scott Bell book on my wish list, hopefully for Christmas.

    Thanks for this post, it’s packed with great writing info. I love the door analogy.


  2. Interesting way of looking at it. I’ve never really looked at any of my stories in terms of acts as such, but it’s an interesting perspective, to be sure.

    Hope you don’t mind but “You’ve been tagged!!”
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    You link back to the person that tagged you.

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  3. Em– I’m enjoying the book, but I think what it does best is come up with new names and ways of describing things. As with the two doors analogy, sometimes that can be very helpful. Other times that’s seemed less useful. I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on it, if you do get the book.

    VirginiaLady– I’m glad you found the analogy useful as well.

    Jinx– You know, I sort of felt the same way about using a three act structure before, too. But I like the thought of using it now as a way to describe (rather than determine) what my story will look like as I reach certain moments in the plot. Its magic is in the sheer flexibility of it.

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