Focusing on the three-act structure and your nine plot points can help you construct a vibrant and meaningful narrative structure and bring your story to life.

If you ask book editors what’s most often missing from the manuscripts they review, a likely answer is, “great structure.” Structure is not dry, boring stuff — it’s the substance of your story. It’s the meaning and the purpose. The detail you add brings it to life.

Narrative structure is only difficult because writing books is a complex process. If you have a great story, you’ll have great structure from the get-go. Structure is substance.

Examining structure can help when it comes time to diagnose problems with a manuscript, but it can also help immensely when brainstorming it in the first place. Or when deciding what should happen next and when the “big moments” should occur. In the end, everything needs to be in place.

Readers are more knowledgeable about narrative structure than we realize. Books and movies have the beat of a three-act structure, and when it’s not there, audiences know. They feel it, or more correctly, they sense when it’s lacking. Without it, things seem odd or off, perhaps too slow, too fast, jarring, or unchanging. With a three-act structure in place, the story flows as expected.

Three-act structure

If you read widely and have a good feel for the way stories unfold, you’ll be using three-act structure naturally: a clear beginning, middle, and end, with big moments that push the story through the acts.

Stanford researchers studied New York Time’s best sellers and confirm, among other things, the the centrality of three-act structure. Here is a quote from a Publishers Weekly article about the book, The Bestseller Code: “Among the features the algorithm touted as being most essential to the success of a novel is that its three-to-four central themes occupy about 30% of its entirety. The authors also found that a significant number of the biggest bestsellers in the last 30 years ‘share a plot shape with a regular beating rhythm.’ They said that their data shows popular books have ‘symmetry in [their] plotline, and a clear three-act structure.'”

Movies stick to three-act structure even more diligently than books. Almost down to the minute, certain events occur, and this is for good purpose. It maximizes the amount of change that occurs, but in a logical way that works for the story.

Some might disparage three-act structure as formulaic, but it exists to maximize the interesting things that happen in a story. It’s about turning points and key decisions and huge changes.

In fact, it’s not formula, it’s derived from the analysis of the shared features of many books going right back to the Greek plays analyzed by Aristotle. So, it can better be thought of as the highlights of successful stories.

You don’t need to think about it when you write, but you’d best produce it by the time you are finished.

Getting around the wheel of the acts takes some big pushes – huge things that propel the story forward.

The biggest stretch to get through is Act Two. It’s double the length of the first and third acts – it’s half of your story. This means a lot has to transpire to keep audiences hooked. The midpoint is what gets us through Act Two – imagine it’s the moment the curtains fall in a play and you sit on the edge of your seat wondering how the story will continue.

Because the midpoint and other major plot points come at key places and are spaced rhythmically, their presence ensures something big has just happened or is around the corner. Plot points ensure no boring stretches mar an otherwise riveting story.

The nine plot points

A plot needs to be a series of causally related happenings that keep a reader continually asking “and then?” Not all happenings are equal. The climax is the whole purpose of the story, so it could be considered the single most important plot point. It is the obligatory scene, paired with the inciting event scene that launches the action of the story.

The inciting incident should happen early in Act One and the climax is the purpose of Act Three. What about all the other happenings? Gustav Freytag originally recognized the inciting incident and the climax and added the dénouement in his famous pyramid theory of storytelling.

Many talk today of five major plot points, plus the midpoint (where the curtain falls and intermission starts). Also included are the “point of no return,” at which the lead character must enter the adventure, or new world of Act Two, and the “black moment,” when the hero is at the lowest point right before the climax. This video offers a great rundown of the five major plot points, along with examples from many major movies.

Here’s where confusion starts: the five plot points excludes Freytag’s dénouement. Other analyses include other plot points and even use different names to describe them. Even the experts can’t agree! Some of you may feel like giving up on structure at this point, but these differences are only surface level.

In his article, “The Magnificent 7 Plot Points,” David Trottier adds a back story. Veronica Sicoe adds “pinch points” in the middle of each half of Act Two. Yes, variations in names and plot point combinations don’t help, but it all adds up in the end.

In this amalgam, we’ve reached our own plateau of nine plot points:

  1. Back Story
  2. Inciting Incident
  3. Point of No Return
  4. Pinch Point #1
  5. Midpoint
  6. Pinch Point #2
  7. Black Moment
  8. Climax
  9. Dénouement

If you want to explore plot-point breakdowns for various popular books and movies, browse the Story Structure Database (which recognizes eight plot points, omitting “back story”). While you’ll have to interpolate the back story yourself, it’s a great resource to examine three-act structures in works you’re familiar with.

 

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Narrative Structure: What It Is and How To Use It
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The simple shapes of stories

 

Dawn Field

About Dawn Field

Dawn Field has written 62 posts in this blog.

Dr. Dawn Field is a book lover interested in what makes great writing. After a 20 year career as a research scientist, her first book, Biocode, was published by Oxford University Press. Now a columnist of The Double Helix, Dr. Field is exploring new writing venues and writing a second book. Based in Virginia, Dr. Field is looking to collaborate with a range of fiction writers as a writing coach, editor, and consultant on the publishing process: fiedawn@gmail.com.

2 thoughts on “The Three-act Structure: Formulaic or Foundational?

  1. Dawn, you could not be more right! I teach, preach, and use the 3-Act structure. There’s a great diagram of this online. I believe the search words are Modified 3-Act Structure of the Modern Genre Novel. Sometimes a picture, or a diagram are worth a thousand words. Yet, you described it perfectly well.

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