Basic Three Act Structure

It was Aristotle who first elucidated the basic structure of drama – beginning, turning point, the ‘unraveling’ or the end – and this elemental structure still works today. The story, or play, can be separated into three parts, with the activity ascending through the first and second act until you achieve a peak at some point in the third act. Toward the end of the third act you come to what’s called ‘a catharsis’, and this is the point at which you begin to wrap up your story. The three act structure is a great way to introduce a character, put her through turmoil by throwing problems at her, and then reach that great payoff at the end.

A very basic three act structure might go something like this:

In the first act, we build up sympathy for the principle character. The writer presents the snare and inspires curiosity in the reader about the unique set of circumstances in which the protagonist finds herself. In this act, you can backpedal a bit to show how your character came to be in the position she is in. A trigger point is where something occurs to catapult your character into the heart of her dilemma. Here is where you introduce an emergency in your character’s life

The second act is where things start going horribly wrong, one thing after the next. Here in the second act you raise the stakes as your character’s circumstances continue deteriorating. But you ought not to assault her with a series of non-stop terrible events – rachet up the tension, but every so often give her a little reprieve.

The long midsection of your novel then is where your protagonist’s troubles achieve maximum tension. Toward the end of this second act she has an epiphany and finally acknowledges where she has been going wrong. Before the second act is over, she knows that there is no turning back. Once this realisation sets in, she can figure out how to tackle her main problem.

Changed by the course of events, in the third act she at last finds the courage to deal with the critical flaw in her personality; overcome her obstacles; or confront her arch rival. The story achieves its peak, so that by the end of the this act, we are wrapping things up. Here is where she has rolled out her resolve, defied those evil spirits or defeated the obstructions that have plagued her journey. Ultimately, your hero triumphs.

If your story is a tragedy however, your protagonist might never overcome her fatal flaw, she might never remove the obstacle standing in her way and any encounter with her rival is bound to be a fiasco. Unless there are compelling reasons for that tragedy, your readers may feel unfulfilled. If they’ve spent the whole book rooting for your protagonist, they may resent her for not pulling her weight. They may then question why they’ve invested so much time and energy in her story.

Tragedy or not, a compelling story and well-constructed plot will always satisfy your reader. As Aristotle says ‘he who hears the tale told, will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place’.


About Alice F Wickham

Chief bottle washer of New London Writers; would be ruler of the entire planet. (There would be far more trees, I promise you that!) Modest megalomaniac; thinker, dreamer, and milk chocolate eater. Co-creator of a brave new universe where poetry comes before profit, and you ALWAYS get a seat on the train.

3 Responses to “Basic Three Act Structure”

  1. If I remember correctly from schooldays, classic Greek dramas also took place in a single one-day time period? Didn’t Corneille and Racine adopt this principle in ‘classic’ French drama too? Still a popular device in stage and onscreen: great for tension!

    1. Yes, and Aristotle pointed out that, “Tragedy endeavours, as far as possible to confine itself to a single revolution of the sun, or but to slightly exceed this limit, whereas the Epic action has no limits of time”.

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