Three Act Structure: A Pair of Spanx for Your Novel

March Dystropia MadnessBy Sheryl Scarborough

If the writer’s closet of useful tools could be likened to Carrie Bradshaw’s fabu walk-in,  masterful accessories such as simile and metaphor would equate to exquisite Louboutin’s and Jimmy Choo’s footwear… exotic word choices would sparkle like Tiffany’s finest… and you would most likely find three-act structure in the drawer labeled: Spanx!

This is my way of saying Three-Act Structure may not be sexy, but once you try it, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it. What exactly can Three-act structure do for you? I’m glad you asked.

  • Simply organizing the main points of your manuscript into a structured beginning, middle and end will give you a comfortably shaped body of character, narrative and pace.  (Spanx, baby!)
  • Three-act structure streamlines the creative process, allowing you to focus on great dialog and important story points, not the organization of them.  (When you’re busy being brilliant who wants to organize?)
  • Which part of your story belongs in each act can be defined in enough detail that, once you learn it, you will never forget it.  (Can you just give me the crib version? Yes. Read on!)

There are plenty of whole books, which define Three-Act structure and demonstrate how it works. For the purpose of this blog I’m just going to give you the basics. Three-Act structure is a specific way to balance and pace your story. The breakdown is simple:

Three Act Structure

Each Act encompasses a certain number of pages. This is the pacing part. Each act also plays a specific role in telling your story. This is the structure part.

In Act 1 the purpose is to introduce your characters and orient your reader to the setting and world you imagine.

Act 2 is where your story develops; this explains why it’s twice as long as Act 1 and Act 3.

Act 3 should be reserved for the exciting climax and conclusion of your story.

Act 1: Think of a Knight on a Quest… 

Act 1

Act 1 should answer WHO, WHAT, WHEN and WHERE… but not why. It should install your character in his world in a way that quickly orients your reader. Use Act 1 to identify your main character’s problems and introduce us to his friends and foes. Establish his goals and make us care about him.

If you’ve done your job, Act 1 is when your reader develops empathy with your main character. You need for this to happen… don’t blow it. The transition at the end of Act 1 is the point where your character commits to a course of action and your reader settles into her chair and thinks, “okay, here we go.”

Act 2: Facing the Two-Headed Dragon… 

Act 2

If Act 1 is a Quest, then Act 2 is a series of challenges… sort of like facing a two-headed dragon!  In Act 1 your reader has learned WHO, WHAT, WHEN and WHERE. By the time she reaches Act 2 she wants to know WHY.

In Act-1 your job was to establish your character’s goal.

In Act 2.1, your job is to play keep away with that goal.

Just like in real life, adversity creates character.  The goal of the first half of Act 2 is to throw a series of try/fail obstacles into your character’s path. With each test your character’s commitment becomes apparant. Each time he fails, you deepen his character and reveal more about him… this is how readers find out what he wants and needs and especially how invested he is in his goal.

Not only will your character come alive through these challenges, but as you raise the stakes your reader will become more involved, intrigued and invested in your story.

Act 2

The length of the trial and error portion of your story is dictated by Three-Act structure. In the first half of Act 2 you are writing toward the mid-point, which is a mere 25% of your total story.

The Mid-point: It Changes Everything…

The Mid-point can be a down moment – the catastrophic end of your character’s goal. Or, it can be an up moment – a moment of shaky success that’s so tenuous and delicate your reader will be worried that this is just one more thing for the main character to lose.

Just remember, the purpose of the Mid-point is that it changes everything.

The Second Half of Act 2: Rebuild the Character’s Goal… 

Depending on your Mid-point you have either destroyed your main character’s goal or you have pushed it to such a pinnacle that it is in jeopardy. In either case, the second half of Act 2 asks “now what” or “what now.” This is where you begin to rebuild your main character’s goal. To keep the reader intrigued you must keep the pressure on your main character. Achieving his goals should be hard and take real grit and determination. This is what keeps a reader in their seat.

Act 2

You also want to begin to bring your storylines together in the last half of Act 2 so that you won’t crowd the climax and conclusion of your story with loose ends.

The End of Act 2: Your Character’s Darkest Moment

Pull out all the stops and really make this moment count. This is the low point your reader has been worried about for your entire novel. And now you must give it to them. Slam your story down on your main character with all the brutality you can muster and I guarantee your reader won’t be able to stop reading.

If you have built your story to this moment, the hopes and dreams that your reader has for your main character will carry them over the end of Act 2 and straight into the climax and conclusion.  They won’t be able to put down your book.

Act 3: The Unexpected and Long-Anticipated…

“Act 3 begins with the unexpected and ends with the long-anticipated.“ 

                                                            Author, Ridley Pearson

What this means, is as you conclude your story, you want to make the ending as exciting and unexpected as possible… and yet you want to fulfill your promise to the reader and wrap up the story they expected you would tell. In most cases, your main character will achieve a satisfying goal – maybe not the goal he started out with, but one the reader will accept as a good conclusion to your story.

Example: staying with my Knight on a Quest theme, the end of my story should involve rescuing the Princess – or in my case – The Prince.

Act 3

But don’t forget to keep an element of surprise… your reader will be working with you to create a successful conclusion to your story.


My surprise that my Knight was really my Princess will be all the more delicious to my reader.

Three-Act structure is writing with purpose!

For more information, check out some of these books that do a good job explaining Three-Act structure:
King, Vicki. How to Write a Movie in 21 Days. HarperCollins Publishers, 1993. Print.
McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. New York: ReganBooks, 1997. Print.
Schmidt, Victoria. Story Structure Architect. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest;, 2005. Kindle Edition.
Snyder, Blake. Save the Cat!: the Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. Studio City, CA: M. Wiese Productions, 2005. Kindle edition.
Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. 3rd ed. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 2007. Print.
Or, you can write to me at

Sheryl Scarborough - Photo by Russell Gearhart PhotographySheryl Scarborough learned Three-Act structure during her 20 year stint as an Award-winning writer for children’s television. Now, a recent graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in writing for children and young adults, Sheryl has turned her creative attention on writing young adult mystery/thrillers.

Follow Sheryl on Twitter: @scarabs

Read more by Sheryl on her blog: Sheryl Scarborough Blog

The blog post was brought to you as part of the March Dystropian Madness Series.

Story Structure Diagrams

Yes, it’s true, I’ve had story structure on the brain. I’ve also recently joined pinterest (of which I immediately became addicted). But there’s a happy side effect of these two obsessions… this post! I love visual representations of novels and narrative structure, and pinterest gave me a place to collect all these fascinating, beautiful, funny, and brilliant story diagrams.

Feast your eyes!

Three Act Plot Structure:


Four Act Structure:


Freytag’s Pyramid:


Swooping Character Arcs:


The Hero’s Journey:


Branching Structure:


And Just For Fun:

Check out more charts on my Pinterest Page!

Happy structure dreams everyone.

TO PLOT OR NOT TO PLOT: Part 8 – Defining Narrative Structure and Conclusion

Be sure to read the first seven parts of this essay:

Defining Narrative Structure:

We’ve determined that plot structure is a type of story structure.  Similarly, story structure is a type of narrative structure. However, narrative structure does not have to include either a plot or a story. In essence it’s a kind of umbrella term for any structure related to narrative (which is something pertaining to the semblance of a story).

The work of structuralist Roland Barthes is an example of someone who’s developed narrative structures. The structuralism movement was very interested in creating “a model of a universal narrative structure, or a system of recurrent patterns and motifs” (Wikipedia). M.T. Anderson describes their pursuits as follows:

They sought to uncover the unspoken submerged rules of the way we live. In particular, they studied the way smaller units of meaning congregate and form larger units. They tried to break units down and find the smallest particles of meaning. Then attempted to come up with unified theories of how those units related to one another. How they were substituted or exchanged. They tried to define not just the rules of linguistic grammar, but essential grammar, and narrative grammar. (Anderson)

In his work, Barthes developed five Lexia or narrative codes for narrative. These included: the code of action, the code of connotation, the symbolic code, the cultural code, and the code of enigmas. Each of these codes is used to analyze and break down the grammar of a narrative. These codes, however, are used both on the grand “big picture” stage as well as on the smaller word by word, sentence by sentence arena (Anderson). Therefore structuring narrative is not based solely on plot or even story. A structure can be based upon the grammar of imagery (code of connotation) or a pattern of delayed answers (code of enigmas), and could be applied to the small units (without events and thus story) or the larger units of the whole.

As such, we can now see the key differences between narrative, story, and plot structures. Noting that plot does fall under the umbrella of story, and story under the umbrella of narrative, but the terms are not reversible to say all narrative includes stories and all stories include plots.

In Conclusion

It’s important for an author to know the differences between narrative, story, plot, and structure in order to make the best choices for his or her writing. The prevalent myth within film, literature, and storytelling circles that there is one type of structure and one type of plot, and though the details may change the underlying structures are the same. This is not true, and if it was narratives would become as static, cliché, and lifeless as a paint-by-number image of a kitten. The ability to distinguish terminology empowers the writer to make informed choices on what type of narrative they wish to present and what options are available to them. An Na warns that “when a story and a structure are not synced for a very purposeful and necessary reason then you are violating a very fundamental notion of story. You’re forcing the story to become something it doesn’t want to be.” The prevailing plot and structure myth gives authors the impression that there is only one way to tell a story and they may often find themselves trying to force their round-shaped story into a square-shaped plot structure. By understanding the differences, writers are empowered to make the best choices for their work so that they may keep the trust and faith of their readers.


Thanks for sticking through this long blog series to the end! A full bibliography of this series will be posted shortly and can be found HERE!

TO PLOT OR NOT TO PLOT: Part 5 – Structure and Looking at the Whole

Be sure to read the first four parts of this essay:

Structure – Looking at the Whole:

When it comes to talking about structure we need to be careful of our wording. The terms narrative structure, story structure, and plot structure seem to be intertwined and often used interchangeably, but they aren’t the same (as we’ve learned with our previous exploration of terms). First, let’s look at the idea of structure alone. The Random House Dictionary defines structure as: “a mode of building, construction, or organization; arrangement of parts, or elements.” In addition, it says “structure is a complex system considered from the point of view of the whole rather than of any single part.” Here we have the two key elements of structure. First, it’s a mode of arrangement and organization, and second, it takes into consideration the whole. Chea explains that “in examining structure, we look for patterns, for the shape that the story as a whole possesses. Plot directs us to the story in motion, structure to the story at rest”(2).  Meanwhile, film teacher Judy Lewis adds “structure is the term used to describe the organization of the story, including the order in which a story is told.”

When questions of linear vs. non-linear storytelling arise, it’s important to realize that plot is always linear. But non-linear storytelling can still have a plot, but the non-linear organization is a choice of structure. Ultimately, in a non-linear story the reader will piece together the plot to create the chronological relationships, as Lisa Cowgill states in her essay on non-linear narratives:

The unconventional structure doesn’t mean audiences understand film in a new way. Viewers understand by making cause-and-effect connections between the scenes. Each beat of information must relate to what comes before and after, even if a scene transcends the chronological order of time. In nonlinear films, relationships created between the various time segments form a specific meaning when taken all together.

Additionally, choices of organization and structure also have to do with authorial intent. “Structure is important for another reason: It provides a clue to a story’s meaning… paying attention to repeated elements and recurrent details … repetition signals important connections and relationships in the story” (Chea). After all, why would someone choose to tell a story out of sequence if not to lead the reader to make a connection between the scenes?  Therefore structure is form (choices of organization, patterns) with specific intent (meaning) that can be observed as part of the whole.

Structure as authorial intent can also be taken a step further to reveal audience manipulation.  Structural choices, as editor Cheryl Klein points out, is “the author orchestrating the emotion.” Author An Na refers to this emotional base as the root-line in her lecture on structuring stories. She elaborates:

It’s all that darker deeper stuff that works emotionally and unconsciously on the reader … I’m really talking about emotions. When I think about my root-line, it’s about what emotions I want to elicit from the reader. What is the story about at the heart? The root-line really comes from this other place, from the choices that we make in terms of structure and it should heighten the story to another level in an unconscious way.

As such, structures related to narrative should not be arbitrary, instead they should be created with audience emotion in mind, and that emotion should inform the choice of structure.

Now that we have an overview of structure,  let’s break it down to be more specific.

Up Next: Part 6 – Defining Story Structure

** Full Bibliography will be provided at end of blog-post series.