What is the Three-Act Structure?
Most creators start out with a premise – a single spark of an idea that is exciting and calls to them so much they just must pursue it. It’s that wonderful, new car smell of creating something that gets you through the first few episodes easily. But once that feeling dissipates, what do you do next? How do you know that the shiny idea that you’ve had will stretch over the length of an entire series?
One of the ways to combat this is to plan a structure to your work so that even as working on the project becomes harder, you have an easy roadmap to success. This tutorial is going to talk about one of those ‘roadmaps’, the creation of a three-act structure for your work. With it, you’ll be able to build an exciting story from start to finish and jump over hurdles in your project with more ease.
What is the Three-Act Structure?
The three-act structure is simple. It’s the beginning, middle and end of your work. Sounds easy right? That’s because it is! Most western stories follow this structure because it fits with how humans like their stories to be told and it subscribes to our expectations as an audience. It supplies adequate introductions, a consistent pathway towards goals while still allowing tangents for curiosity into the characters’ worlds through the middle, and then gives us that all important climactic ending.
Act One: Introductions, the Inciting Incident, and the Ultimatum
Act One is the act that most people have the most experience with, simply because we all have more projects that we’ve started and lost interest in halfway through than we have completed ones. It’s the beginning, where the premise or idea is set up.
Things that you should introduce in your first act are the following:
I. Your setting
This can be through establishing shots in the first few panels of your comic, or through description in a novel (though these days it’s considered old-fashioned to start with a setting description in your first paragraph!) In novels, it’s best to cover your setting descriptions through engaging the senses but don’t get too carried away! I tend to drop a detail here and there throughout until a picture is built, and never include more than a handful of details in a setting unless it’s vitally important to the plot.
II. Your main character
The audience should have a good idea of who your characters are by the end of this act so that they’re geared up to see how they face future challenges!
III. Your antagonist
This may be a person like a villain, or it could be the love interest in a romance, or it may be a bigger general problem such as war. In Romance, the love interest often takes the place an antagonist does because they are the character that usually will provide the emotional growth for your character and present the obstacles. While both are working for the same end goal - to end up together - the tension comes between these two characters so it’s important to construct them with an underlying tension that must be resolved similar to how another genre author may construct a villain!
IV. Your theme
A good work has a theme in it, a stance on the topic that the creator is going to explore throughout the series. Note, this doesn’t mean moralising, or choosing one thing over another. It is simply about setting up one unifying idea your work is aiming to explore. (And it can be as simple or as big as you like!). For example Star Trek has held to themes of exploration, optimism, pacifism and collectivism throughout its story structures and explored them through different aliens coming into contact with Starfleet’s rules. This has led to exciting conflicts with species like the Klingons or Borg whose values directly contradict those themes or take those ideas to extremes.
V. The inciting incident
This is the event that sets the plot in motion for the main character. In Star Wars, this is Luke seeing Leia’s message in R2D2. For Lord of the Rings, this is Frodo receiving the One Ring from Bilbo.
By the end of Act One, the main character must decide or face an ultimatum – usually this is the one that leads them towards adventure, romance, or tragedy. Make sure that your character has a good reason for doing what they do, and that it’s established in this act why they choose to abandon what would be the ‘normal’ life they lead to embark on their quest for gold, fame, love or revenge.
Act Two: How to Avoid a Squiggly Middle
The middle is by far the toughest part to plot. While Act One and Act Three are quite easy to construct, the middle can be far more meandering. If you’re writing a webcomic, you may not even know how long the middle will last for and construct multiple arcs in this section. I’m going to help you construct a basic central arc, which keeps the tension of the story throughout.
Act Two is where your subplots come into play, where your characters grow and relationships develop, and where your main character is tested and becomes the hero that is needed for the end of the work. The beginning of Act Two is more light-hearted, and it grows gradually more serious and tense from the midpoint.
Depending on genre, this is also where you explore all the cornerstones of your tropes: collecting the Infinity Stones, developing your Jedi powers or creating your ‘mean girl’ persona to trick the Plastics. In the first half of this act, the heroes will be moderately successful in achieving their goals, with minor hurdles and frustrations put in their way. Character building is important here, and the chance for your characters that were introduced in Act One to riff off each other is paramount so that the readers will care about them enough for what’s to come.
Then comes the midpoint, a turning point in the plot where the stakes are raised even further. In The Avengers, Thanos’ finger snap is one such moment happening right in the midpoint of the expanded Infinity War storyline. As a mini climax, it reminds the reader about the power of the villain. In a romantic comedy, this could also be a reveal such as the love interest being interested in another character, an outside force intervening to tear the couple apart or revealing a dark secret.
From there onwards, the act takes a darker turn, with the antagonist’s forces gaining strength against the heroes. The main character should be tested almost to breaking point, both with external plot devices happening to them, and internal plot devices that affect their thinking and worldview. It is during this time that a main character may consider giving up, their initial enthusiasm for the cause lost, or they may be physically unable to continue until a new pathway is revealed. Think of all those scenes you’ve seen of the hero drinking in a bar, only to receive a pep talk from an unlikely character that spurs them into action again. That’s the point you want to get to, the point where a character sees no way forward, but eventually through strength of their own will decides to try again.
Act Three: A Plan Comes Together