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You ideated a great idea for a story, and now marks your time to put pen to paper. Not so fast! Before you write a single word, mapping out your plot is an essential first step that you don’t want to miss. Not sure where to begin? The three act structure is the most simple place to start. In this guide, walk through what this is, some three act structure examples, and how to create a novel outline template that you can use for all of your projects.

What Is the Three Act Structure?

Perhaps the most commonly used writing technique in the English language, the three act structure is used by just about anyone who wants to tell a compelling story. 

Think back to your earliest classes in school. How do you build a great story? Well, it needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. When it comes down to it, that’s exactly what a three act structure outline looks like.

You might be wondering “what is an act?” These are the different scenes that divide up your story. Each act usually incorporates a single overarching element that drives the story forward and is different from the other acts. These are broken down into the setup, the confrontation, and the resolution. 

You can get a good idea of how all of these fit together throughout a story using Freytag’s Triangle or Pyramid, plotting your story’s dramatic structure using each of the sections it outlines.

plot triangle
Source: Holly Landis
Freytag’s Triangle, a commonly used graphic to illustrate three act dramatic structures.

Examples of Stories and Movies That Use the Three Act Structure

Star Wars

Arguably the most famous movie franchise of all time, Star Wars also marks one of the best three act structure film examples out there. Take a deeper look at A New Hope. The first act sets the stage for the drama, where Luke Skywalker is introduced to the audience and is forced to take action that’s different from his normal life. 

We meet new characters heading into the second act and tension continues to rise ahead of the midpoint as the Millennium Falcon is captured by the Death Star. 

Moving into the third and final act of the movie structure is where we answer the question “what is the climax of a story?” This is where the action reaches its peak and Luke, Han, and Leia escape the Death Star with plans to defeat Darth Vader. The final battle, or resolution, sees the Rebels ultimately prevail.

The Hunger Games

Similar to Star Wars, The Hunger Games starts with a scene-setting first act that introduces us to the world and sees Katniss volunteer at the Reaping to take part in the Hunger Games in place of her sister. 

The majority of the plot then comes in act two, where Katniss and the other tributes prepare for and begin the games. By the midpoint, Katniss has made alliances and plots to bring down the Career tributes in order to avenge Rue’s death.

In the final act of the story, Katniss faces unprecedented challenges as we move toward the story’s climax. If you’re still struggling to grasp what is the resolution of a story, The Hunger Games is a great example of how to wrap everything up, with Katniss and Peeta being declared the winners and returning home.

History of the Three Act Structure

Although narrative structures appears like a modern invention, the history of the three act structure dates all the way back to Aristotle! His analysis of tragedies in Poetics ended in the conclusion that a well-formed plot must have a beginning, middle, and end to unify the story—and writers have been working with this formula ever since. But it’s screenwriter Syd Field who is credited with developing this idea and building the current three act dramatic structure that’s most commonly used today.

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How to Write Using the Three Act Structure

Step 1: Set the Scene

Act one should be all about showing your readers or viewers exactly what is happening. It’s the time to introduce us to your protagonist and any key supporting characters, give us any necessary background information about their everyday life and personality, and also set up the action for later in the story. Make use of an inciting incident to force your main character into changing their behavior and start their new journey.

Step 2: Build Tension and Suspense

The majority of your plot is going to be found in act two. This is where you’ll want to increase the tension for your audience with rising action as the protagonist embarks on their mission. You’ll also want to bring in some more appearances of the antagonist too, setting the stage for the final confrontation in the third act.

Step 3: Wrap Everything Up

The final part of your three act structure outline is where the real action happens. Your protagonist and antagonist finally meet and face off for the last time (otherwise known as the story climax). The climax usually ends in a single scene, with the rest of the third act showing the main character returning to their normal life, their ultimate goal achieved.

Now that you understand the basics of the three act structure, it’s time to start writing your own stories. 

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