Three Act Story Structure


At the OWFI Conference, I attended an impromptu workshop by our keynote speaker Steve Berry. Even though he gave the presentation at 7:30 a.m. his enthusiasm for the craft was both obvious and contagious. I found his explanation of story structure clear and hope I can do it justice in this blog.

ACT IThe inciting incident which throws your character’s world into chaos. No sub-plotting at this point.
ACT IIMajor events which change everything.
ACT IIIIncident resolved in climax. Don’t carry the subplot past the mark on the “main plot” line.

Character – the people in your story.
Okay, I admit, I missed the first few minutes of Steve’s presentation, so I’m winging it on this one. Hey, no one’s perfect, but it provides a great transitions into the part of the workshop I walked in on…  Flaws make characters more interesting, complex. Physical, mental, emotional it doesn’t matter, give your characters something to deal with. I’ll write more on character when I get to my notes from Charles Sasser’s “Building Life Into Your Characters” and William Bernhardt’s “Character Driven Novel”.

Conflict – the struggle between two forces.
Whether conflict is internal, external or even a mixture of the two, a good story starts with a strong, interesting action which draws a reader in and hooks them. If you begin with something that complicates your main characters life, and then complicate it even more, it’s a great way to accomplish this. It’s taking a simple idea and exaggerating it to the extreme. Just think of the car rental episode of Seinfeld. Classic case of a simple idea, complicated and exaggerated to the extreme.

“The human heart being in conflict with itself is a conflict everyone can relate to” –  Steve Berry

Cruciblethe thing which would make your character do something they usually wouldn’t do.
In other words, the thing which makes them leave safety, and head toward danger.

Complicationthe thing(s) which stand in the way of the main character achieving goal.
This is where you complicate your main character’s complicated situation.

Subplotthe supporting side story for the main plot.
Avoid dull linear writing and try to keep subplots to one or two. Subplots must emanate from the main plot and help resolve it.

Crisis the place where all complications meet.
I think of this as the story climax. This is the turning point in the plot after which nothing will be the same for your main character.

Conclusionthe denouement.
This is what happens after the conflict resolution, or in other words the conclusion of the story. All loose ends should be resolved by this point.

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After I returned home, I put one of my stories to the test with this diagram and discovered a way to improve it. I hope this information will be just as helpful to you.

Are you already familiar with the three act structure? How do your stories fit within this template?

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12 comments on “Three Act Story Structure

  1. Nicole Mc says:

    I like this! Glad you shared it.

  2. Kerri says:

    Thanks for sharing. Fantastic post!

  3. lbdiamond says:

    NICE post! I totally dig the three act story stucture…In fact, I rewrote the YA dystopian using this format for the outline. In the end, I ended up with a plot–something that had been missing before. (Curse my pansting ways, LOL!)

  4. I’m highly wedded to the 3 act structure now, which is different than with my past books. I’m not sure I agree with the 5/90/5 part, but I think it depends on what exactly you mean by those breaks between acts. Either way, having structure can only help your stories (IMHO).

    Thanks for sharing!

  5. Dawn says:

    I loved this session. Even though I was familiar with three act structure, no one has ever done as good a job of explaining it to me as Steve did. Thanks for sharing those notes with other writers.

  6. RosieC says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I’ll have to apply it to my writing and see if the story conforms to its structure.

    PS–I tagged you in a meme this morning.

  7. amyshojai says:

    That was a GREAT session–thanks for sharing on the blog, my notes weren’t nearly as clear.

  8. @Nicole & Kerri, hope it helps.

    @Dawn, he made it very easy to understand.

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