The 3 act story structure is the one that I feel has the most overlaps with other formulas. Nonetheless it is worth mentioning. First, because it is highly scalable. Second, because you should know and feel and breath the stories pace, that is defined by this structure.
There are YouTube series, writing courses, and blog articles explaining the 3 act story structure step by step and in detail. I have consumed many of them but can’t decide on my favorites to present here.
Mostly, the structure is introduced with it’s three parts and a subdivision of each. That’s exactly what I will do.
How to use it?
A 3 act structure story is divided into four parts (hence the name). The second act takes up the two middle parts and keeping an eye on this division will dictate the right pacing.
Act 1: The beginning hook: The protagonists, premise and problem are introduced and the action gets rolling.
- Introduce the status quo, show the protagonist in her everyday environment. But remember to show the hook as soon as possible – the detail, premise or combination that makes the story special.
- Inciting Incident, that thing that happens and irreversible changes the protagonists live. This might be an event or the appearing of a person or item.
- Decision to act, triggered by the inciting incident, the protagonist is forced to take action, throwing her into the adventure.
Act 2: The middle buildup: The actions happens and things get worse, leading to a nearly failure.
- Obstacles, sub plots, and complications along the way to the protagonists goal. One casually determines the next, the stakes and problems rise until it seems to end.
- Midpoint (false climax). This really should be in the middle of the book. The protagonists thinks that she has reached the climax, but it turns out that things just got worse afterward. This is a false victory or false failure, and the story goes on.
- Obstacles, sub plots, and complications, just as before, but growing more intense. The protagonist experience more and more failures and setbacks.
- Disaster and crisis, marking the deepest point of the protagonist. There seems no way to end this in a desirable way, sometimes the protagonists live seems to end.
Act 3: The ending payoff: The actions consequences.
- Rebirth, leading out of the crisis. A helping hand, a conclusion or the development of a needed skill – there is new hope.
- Climax. Armed with the realization that led from the crisis, the climax is fought.
- Payoff, following the climax. May it be a final battle, the solving of a puzzle or what ever. The victory (or loss) has to be processed.
- New status quo, following the payoff. This should differ from the status quo in the beginning, even if it is just the protagonist, that has changed.
When to use it?
This can be used for every story. But with a look at the plot points, this structure features an introduction, inciting incident, obstacles leading to a false and later a real climax, followed by a release.
Therefore if you start your story late – with or after the inciting incident – or end with the climax, the pacing might be off. And even if you don’t want the midpoint from which your story changes direction, you might be better off with another formula.
Why use it?
The 3 act structure is close to one-size-fits-all, so you can’t do wrong with using it. When creating a novel with this structure, the obstacles part might be enhanced with a second plot, but that’s for another post.
The giving pacing is a great help for those, who tend to overwrite or underwrite. You will find percentage specifications on where to place the plot points like the inciting incident – thus preventing you from boring your reader with endless introduction and infodumping your worldbuilding.
I would also say, that this structure gives more of a novel feeling, when you do not jump into action right away. But keep in mind that one of the important parts is to hook your reader as soon as possible.
I won’t run out of strawberry story ideas, so…
We have an artist that specializes on strawberry paintings. All day long she sits in the fields with her sketchbook or canvas and paints.
One day, a wealthy looking stranger comes along, watching her and offers her to buy one of her paintings. He want’s a huge canvas for his living room.
Despite never having worked on this size, the offering is too tempting and she agrees.
She can’t bring this canvas to the fields, so her creativity is somewhat low, and she has to work from reference material. The work slows down, as the huge canvas feels quite intimidating and she looses the lightness of her art.
Her contractor takes a call, setting a tighter deadline. She can’t pull back, as the colors and canvas were a large investment but her motivation crumbles, as a hot summer brings an end to the strawberry season.
The night before the deadline, she decides to take a route into abstract painting, finishing the work at sunrise.
Believing that she has fulfilled the contract, she delivers her painting, only to see the disgust in her customers eyes. This was not, what he intended. Unsatisfied he takes the painting, to hang it into his living room.
A week later, he calls her, that he can’t stand the dark and undefined brushstrokes and she should take it back. Disgusted by her own work, she experiences artists block and fails to get anything done.
When her money runs out, she considers changing career.
The painter visits a job interview and her would be boss is her former customer, that started her downward spiral. She stumbles through her job interview and he refuses her.
But when she is close to crying, he renews his wish for a strawberry painting, but taking the pressure from her, he neither want it that big, nor gives her a deadline. As long as it shows her creativity as he experienced it that day in the strawberry fields.
Happy as could be she is back outside, in a thick coat and paints summer strawberries while the first snowflakes fall.
This could even feature a romantic subplot between the painter and the rich admirer. We’ll see how much space this will take.