3 Act Structure: How Building a Framework Helps Organize a Story

Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

I received an email from a blog reader, Anna, asking for help with figuring out the framework of her story. She was struggling with how to handle diary entries (whether to use flashbacks or make them chronological), who to make the protagonist (mother, daughter, or both), which POV's to use (1st person for one and 3rd for another or something different), and a host of other questions.

Essentially I got the feeling from her that her story resembles a big 1000 piece puzzle dumped out on the table. And she doesn't really know how to piece it all together in the most meaningful way possible. Sure there are lots of different ways to go about organizing all the pieces–but what is the right way? Is there even a right way?

As I thought about Anna's struggle, I realized that one of the most helpful tools for organizing any story is the 3 Act Structure which has been used in classic writing and has also been adapted by modern screenwriters. Here's my summary of what the Acts contain:

I. Act 1: Big Set Up

• The character lives in her ordinary world, in the status quo, with limited awareness.

• The character has a call to adventure, the inciting incident, which is a situation that forces the character to see the world in a different way.

• The character has inner debates and reluctance but ultimately commits to the new goal.

II. Act 2: Middle Confrontation

• As the character begins her quest, obstacles arise that impede her progress.

• Further complications and higher stakes prevent the character from reaching her goal.

• Although the character fights back, challenges continue to push her toward a disaster or crisis.

III. Act 3: Resolution

• When the character reaches a climax or the black moment, she must make her final push to change, to defeat the inner and outer antagonists.

• During the "dark night of the soul" the character has her epiphany and inner transformation.

• The aftermath or the wrap-up of loose ends allows the character to lead to a new life with a new status quo.

I'm a firm believer in the 3 Act Story Structure. All of my books follow this. And most writing gurus preach it. There will be some variation in how each Act is structured, how long each one lasts, etc. But overall, most stories and films can be broken down into these elemental parts.

Essentailly, the 3 Acts form the outer boundary or the framework that hold everything else in the story together. Although pantsers and plotters each have different story-building methods, I suggest (especially for newer writers) putting together the framework first, just like putting the outer edge on a puzzle first.

Make a simple outline using the above steps. Such an outline helps us see the bigger scope of our story which then enables us to make smaller decisions about where to place items, what to include or not include, and what we might be missing to keep the plot moving forward.

Recently I've read a couple of books that weren't quite as traditional as what I'm accustomed to reading.

The first book was Code Name Verity, a YA book about two friends during World War II. One of the friends was a double agent captured by the Nazis and the second was a pilot for the RAF. The entire book was comprised of journal entries. The first half of the book was written as journal entries by one of the young woman and the second half by the other. There was a 3 Act Structure for both halves of the book, but interestingly also an overarching 3 Act Structure which tied both perspectives together.

Mr. Knightly by Katherine Reay is another book I read recently that was written more uniquely. It was told from the perspective of letters that the heroine wrote to an off-stage benefactor, Mr. Knightly. But again, even though the story was told through letters, the author still had a framework in place following the 3 Act Structure.

Two other books I've read that had non-traditional formats are: Orphan Train by Christina Kline and The Girl Who Came Home by Hazel Gaynor. Both books alternate between a present story and past happenings. For those who are attempting different ways of piecing stories together, I suggest reading a variety of books like the ones I've mentioned in order to see how other authors handle the interior pieces while still maintaining an overall plot structure.

Whether we write traditional stories or whether we embrace something more unique by using flashbacks, letters, diaries, or any other creative method, an overarching story structure keeps us on track with the most essential elements, but then also helps us figure out how to organize all of those other little details.

What about YOU? Have you considered using the 3 Act Structure? Do you think such structure is helpful, or does it impede your creativity?


  1. Hi Jody,
    I'm also a big believer in the Three Act Structure, and used it as the framework for both my novels. However, while editing my first novel for pacing, I realized that the publishing market no longer has much patience for a fully developed Act I. Here's a blog post I wrote about that:
    Enjoyed your post!

  2. Jody, you're right--the three-act structure (or what Vogler calls "The Writer's Journey") is a great framework for writing novels. But, like you, I've seen a few books recently that don't fully follow this outline. Nonetheless, it's a good starting point, and I highly recommend it.

  3. Jody,

    I've been a fan of the three act structure since first learning about it several years ago. The analogy that convinced me it was a worthwhile framework for fiction is life itself. Everybody who has ever lived or who will ever live lives in life in a three act structure: beginning, middle, and end.

    What I found especially helpful about your comments is the bullet point list (also in threes) highlighting the contents of each act. That's the most concise commentary I've found yet.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the subject and for sharing the titles that don't appear to use the three act structure. Incorporating a character's journal or letters into the story has long fascinated me. I just haven't found the story that requires it.

    Best wishes,


  4. Thank you Jody for this simple outline of the Three-Act Structure. I confess I haven't sorted it all out yet, but I've copied this and will refer to it when I need it. :-)


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