How to Plan Your Novel Using the Three-Act Story Structure

Minna-san, konnichi wa! 

In this post, I want to discuss with you the importance of a three-act story structure and how best to break it down so as to not overwhelm you when writing your novel.

So, let’s move on to today’s post. Ikou!

How to Plan Your Novel Using the Three-Act Story Structure
Image: Canva/Graphic: Canva

What is a Three-Act Story Structure?

So, what is a three-act story structure?

The three-act story structure is basically a formulaic method — yes, even story-telling has formulas — that strips a story down to its essential core. These elements that make up the bulk of your story will help to form the basis of compelling story-telling, can help you avoid falling into plot holes, and can guide your story towards the direction that you want it to go.

The three-act story structure breaks the story down into — you guessed it — three parts, most notably known as Act I, Act II, and Act III. From there, we can further break the act down into smaller more manageable chunks to help us better understand the stories we write and the stories we read, which we’ll discuss in the next section below.

Also, be sure to check out Freytag’s Pyramid, which breaks down the three-act story structure in diagram form.

Act I — The First Act

Act I, otherwise known as the first act, is the first major part of a story. It is broken down into four main parts.

  1. The Hook
  2. The Exposition
  3. The Inciting Incident
  4. The First Plot Point

The Hook

The hook is, as the name states, the bait that reels readers in, pulling them further into the story and into the world that you’ve created. It is an important element to include in your novel as this can mark the moment as to whether your readers continue reading on or put the book down.

I once attended a writing workshop where a professor/mystery author had once said “If you’re writing mystery, then there better be a body by the first page.” He paused while everyone chortled. Then he said “Okay, maybe not the first page. But somewhere within the first chapter.”

And I agree, you don’t necessarily need to hook the writers right from the first page. Don’t put that kind of pressure on yourself. It just needs to be done within the first chapter, preferably near the beginning or early middle portion of your chapter. The hook needs to grab the readers’ attention and provide an incentive to continue to read on.

The Exposition

The exposition is the set-up for the book where you should provide a handful of basic details to help the readers get to know your characters and establish a setting. The keyword is a “handful,” not a whole bag full of information that you’re readers may not be interested in or that may bog the story down.

Some basic information to consider:

  • Who is your protagonist?
  • What do they do?
  • Where do they live?
  • What do they look like? (Don’t be overly excessive).
  • What is the main conflict? (If you’re writing a mystery, then that dead body right at the start of the book is a pretty big conflict to consider).
  • You can even sprinkle in some backstory about your MC if it ties into the plot, and if you think it will help to move the plot along.

The Inciting Incident

The inciting incident is a moment in your story that gets the ball rolling and will prepare us for the first plot point and bring us headfirst into the second act. Without the inciting incident, then there would no incentive, nothing to thrust the character, and by default, the reader into the heart of the problem and chaos. The inciting incident will inevitably lead your MC to make a decision — one that is irreversible. The inciting incident will ultimately lead us to…

The First Plot Point

The first plot point, otherwise known as the key event, is a major event that occurs early on in a novel and will thrust your MC into a world of inevitable change.

Your character will make a decision based on the inciting incident. To me, the incident within Foreshadowed by Darkness is when my MC decides to pursue the investigation as her own despite the disapproval of others, which will make her quest undeniably harder, but she will come out stronger because of it.

Act II — The Second Act

Act II, or the second act, is the second major part of a story. The second act is considered to be the lengthiest part of a story, and it will call attention to the trials and tribulations that your character will go through, which will thrust your MC into the third act and in their inevitable evolution. It is broken down into three main parts.

  1. The Rising Action, Part I
  2. The Second Plot Point
  3. The Rising Action, Part II

The rising action, part I make up the first half of the second act. From what I understand, the first half of the second act shows the character reacting to the effects of the inciting incident and key event, while reacting to the actions of the antagonistic force.

For example, the elements of a good murder mystery can be that the detective, or whoever the MC is, will find clues that could lead them to the serial killer. They are reacting to the serial killer’s actions until the serial killer strikes again, and the MC reacts again.

The series of reactions against actions will then lead the character to the second plot point.

The Second Plot Point

The second plot point, or the midpoint, is another major event that occurs halfway through the second act at the mid-point. It is a turning event and may be even more intense, and slightly more personal than the first plot point.

For example, going back to our earlier murder mystery hypothetical story with the detective. Say the detective finds clues that could lead them to the identity of the killer, but the antagonist doesn’t like that, so to make things infinitely harder for the MC, they frame the detective for the crimes, or perhaps the killer changes his MO to throw the detective off his trail, or the killer goes after someone in the MC’s inner circle. Just a thought. In my WIP, something does happen that makes things infinitely harder for my MC to achieve her goal.

The midpoint then sets the stage for the second half of the rising action.

The Rising Action, Part II

The rising action, part II makes up the rest of the second act as the character stops reacting to the situation and starts acting as a result of the midpoint. The MC is now more determined than ever to fight back against the antagonist but will continue to react to the antagonist’s threats in the process.

For example, my MC makes bolder decisions — riskier decisions — because everything she ever knows depends on it. If she doesn’t pursue these decisions, then she would most likely fail in her goal. Also, keep in mind that the direction of her goal may be slightly altered by this point and should not be the exact goal that she sets out to accomplish at the beginning of the story.

With that being said, things will inevitably get harder and more exhausting for the protagonist, which will ultimately lead the MC into the third and final act.

Act III — The Third Act

Act III, or the third act, is the final major part of a story. It is broken down into four main parts.

  1. The Third Plot Point
  2. The Climax
  3. The Falling Action
  4. The Resolution

The Third Plot Point

The third plot point, otherwise known as the breaking point, is a final major event that occurs before the climax. It is the moment where your protagonist is at their lowest point in the novel and it is a moment that is deeply personal to them.

So far up until this point, your MC has reacted and acted out against the antagonist. They have fought and they survived. But the breaking point is a moment that hits your protagonist hard and it brings them to their knees. It has to hurt so much that they stumble to get up. They stagger backward into a moment of temporary regression and gain perspective on the bigger picture.

And this image of self-reflection and picture clarity will focus on the bigger picture. And it will extend out its hand, help your MC up, brush the dust off their pants, and they will be ready to come back harder against the antagonist. This “Oh, sh!t,” moment should turn into a “Hell, yeah. I’m ready for this!” moment for your protagonist. And this will be the ammo needed to fire off the climax.

The Climax

The climax is the most intense part of the novel. It is the peak at which sits on top of the Freytag’s Pyramid, and it is an element that will either make or break your novel. It will leave readers feeling either “Wow! That was intense,” or the much more negative counterpart, “Seriously? That’s it?” You never want the reader to leave your novel feeling the ladder.

This is the moment where everything comes to a head, everything comes together, and all the pieces can now fit, which means that you should be able to wrap the story up with a nice, little bow with no questions left unanswered (unless you want to leave some air of mystery to set up a series, but the plot for that particular story needs to be wrapped up, not the overarching plot), and no plot hole should be left unfilled.

Once the climax takes place, your story should slow down into the falling action.

The Falling Action

The falling action should be the low that offsets the high of the climax. This is where you get ready to bring your story to a close or to address either a new or existing problem that could lead to the next book if you are writing a series.

The falling action, along with the resolution, happens fairly soon after the climax, and in the case of my WIP, I meshed the two together as the story ends so soon after the climax, but I do open the door for book two.

Speaking of resolution…

The Resolution

The resolution, or denouement, is the final part of the three-act story structure. You basically need to wrap everything up. You need to answer all the questions, piece the puzzle pieces together — there should be no missing pieces — and address a new or existing problem if you are writing a series. The readers should leave the story feeling satisfied or, at the very least, finding some sort of resolution within the storyline.

Additional Resources

Here is an article that I found helpful, and is part of a series. This particular article will link to other articles in the series if you are interested and it goes into much more details and examples into what goes into a three-act story structure and how other authors and filmmakers implement this method within their storylines. Enjoy!

👇

The Secrets of Story Structure (Complete Series) (helpingwritersbecomeauthors)

The 5 Elements of Dramatic Structure: Understanding Freytag’s Period (Writers)

So there you have it, the step-by-step breakdown to the three-act story structure that may help you to structure your own novels or to analyze the structure of other novels.

I hope that this post helps you think about what to consider when writing a novel, or if nothing else, I hope it was entertaining.

If you want to stay up-to-date on new posts, including when I update on my WIPs, then be sure to follow me or any of my social media links below.

I will be back with another post next Friday at 10:30 AM PST. So stay tuned!!!

Do you rely on the three-act story structure when writing your novels? Was the three-act structure something you knew about or was it something instinctive and ingrained due to growing up around the art of story-telling?

I feel like when I was younger, I wasn’t well-versed in the technical breakdown of the three-act story structure, but decades of growing up around literature and the cultural arts (for me), and even centuries (for society as a whole) has taught us the natural flow of story-telling and enables us to determine the elements of a good story.

What do you guys think? Let me know in the comments below!

(❁´◡`❁)

Until next time, ja mata ne,

Blog Signature
How to Plan Your Novel Using the Three-Act Story Structure

3 thoughts on “How to Plan Your Novel Using the Three-Act Story Structure

    • Thanks for taking the time to read my post on story structure. Writing about it helps me to better understand the structure in my own outline and I hope that it helps others as well. Glad you liked it. ^^

      Liked by 1 person

      • No matter how long we have been writing, it is great to read up on articles like this – I for one have changed my structuring process a few times. It’s nice to try different methods no matter how many years we have been writing, 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s