The Three Act Structure

The listener or reader waits excitedly for the story. Unconsciously, although they maybe couldn’t put words to it, they know something of what to expect, and that raises their expectations. There will be a beginning, middle, and end. There will be an arc with a high point of tension in the middle. Alongside the known, they feel in their guts that they will meet characters for the first time. And there will be unexpected developments. Having an instinctual feel for the form of story, a known base, enables them let go fully into experiencing the unpleasant as well as the pleasant emotions that arrive unexpectedly. 

The Wild Writer

As you may have heard me say before, the majority of stories can been analysed in terms of the below three-act structure.

Act 1: Approximately the first fifth of the story. Set up the hero’s world. At the end of act one something happens to the hero that sets them off on the journey that carries them (and the reader) through the rest of the story. This event clarifies what they wants. In many stories the opponent is also introduced at the end of act one.

Act 2: Approximately the middle three-fifths of the story. The hero sets out on their journey. They meet ever-increasing obstacles placed by the opponent. Somewhere in the middle of Act Two, there’s often a BIG HIGH when the hero thinks they're going to achieve their goal. (For your interest, in mainstream films you can often spot this by the party or wedding scene.) This is nearly always followed, at the end of act two, by a BIG LOW, when everything falls to pieces and they thinks the ‘disaster’ will befall them.

Act 3:  Approximately the last fifth of the story. The LOW at the end of Act Two is a catalyst. Here the hero realises that they need to try a new way to get what they want. Their goal does not change, but how they go about getting it does. Then you, the storyteller, have to decide…how and where will I end the story?

Take particular note of the ratio 1:5:1. You can apply this to any narrative driven story, be that a short film of ten pages, a novel, an oral tale, your autobiography or a short story.

The beauty and importance of the three acts and narrative arc is that you will see them repeated time and time again on different levels of the story. The complete arc will be seen in a novel, but the same arc will be present in the microcosm of each chapter. We can also observe that within each action that the hero takes, it will be seen again. Within the hero’s body, and reflected in their behaviour, tension increases to a high point. That climax is followed by a release of tension in the body of the hero. It’s the same arc. It’s the pattern of healthy functioning for any wild animal.

Below are act breakdowns for the films ‘The Full Monty’ and ‘American Beauty’. They are my interpretations. I worked for a time in the editing room of ‘The Full Monty’. I know very well the evolving process that starts with the story in the head of a writer, continues with the putting of that story on to paper, and results in a finished film. I also know that what enables the evolution of that animal, is the underlying narrative arc.

Warning: spoilers! If you haven’t seen the films, but would like to, consider skipping over the breakdowns until you have.

The Full Monty:

Act One:    Sets up unemployment/ family situation/ existence of male strip acts.

End of Act One (p17): In danger of losing his son, Gaz decides to do the  act.  

Beginning of Act Two aim:  To get the act together.     

Big High Act Two:     Dancing in job centre queue.

Big low/End of Act Two:     Gaz is not allowed to see his child.     

Act Three:  They’ve sold tickets. They decide to do the show. They are successful.


Moulin Rouge:

Act One:   Sets up poet involved in theatre.

End of Act One (p17)  He sees Satine.

Beginning of Act Two Aim:   To be with Satine.

Big High of Act Two:    He is with her, they are in love.

Big Low/ End of Act Two:     She tells him she doesn’t love him.

Act Three:  He won’t believe it and sets out to hear it with his own ears. They are re-united. She dies.

The Fears

There is great beauty in structure. Do you find that reassuring, or are you resistant to the guidelines, perceiving them as ‘rules’ that limit and cage you? There’s no right or wrong way to feel about the storytelling process. We’re always just information gathering, trying to be unequivocally unashamed in relating our personal experience in symbolic guise.  

It’s worth remembering, that I’m presenting the skeleton of story. Having laid out this three-act structure and then written the first draft of the book, autobiography, poem or screenplay, you have still to layer it up with unique characters, events and a host of other details.

Later, you might also alter basic structure by chopping off the beginnings and ends of scenes, or using techniques to emphasise some parts of the story over others. Its pattern will continue to evolve. But that’s something to put right to the back of your mind for now. At the moment our focus is on getting the basic structure down, as a support to writing the first draft from an instinctual place.

Fear On The Page

When, as storytellers we fear using structure, we see those fears writ large on the page. Sometimes we can’t start writing at all. If we do write, there is no distinction between the form and the content. As storytellers we do not get to the heart of the emotions, or write with breadth, and depth. The words do not live.

Becoming The Wild Writer

My experience is that storytellers are of two types. The first type loves to lose themselves in the creative, imaginative space of writing. These people excel at entering into the emotions of their characters, and in writing vivid prose and poetry. They are also the group who struggle to complete projects, to pin those wild words on the page. The other type exhibit opposite qualities. They are naturally attracted to structure, work well with timelines and finish projects. However, they struggle to give themselves completely to the process, and find it more difficult to access emotion. Which type are you? Each group has a great deal to learn from the other. 

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Photograph courtesy of Peter Reid.