Three-Act Structure

My writing class is mostly about how to structure your story, and it is built around the idea of the three-act structure.  This structure looks like this:

Act 1

Act 1 is made up of three checkpoints: the hook, the backstory, and the trigger.

The hook is an event that opens the story. This event uses at least one element of the main character’s history, and this will stimulate a new chapter in his or her life. This new chapter is the story you intend to tell.

The backstory is, in some ways, what used to be called exposition in the old drama books. Here all the important characters are brought into place, and enough of their histories has been explained to know who they essentially are. This section of Act 1 is active, moving us from the initial hook to the next checkpoint, the trigger.

The trigger is an event that occurs at the very last moment of Act 1 and will propel your main character into crisis at the first moment of Act 2.

Act 2

Act 2 also has three checkpoints: the crisis, the struggle, and the epiphany.

The crisis begins the second act with the protagonist suddenly in a state of emotional crisis. This was brought on by his or her expectations being somehow reversed or upset by Act 1’s trigger. The crisis is an internal moment; there is no plot.

The struggle is the process in which the protagonist works out the dilemma the crisis has created. This checkpoint is full of obstacles for the protagonist to overcome.

The epiphany comes in the wake of the struggle. In an emotional moment of self-discovery, the protagonist realizes his or her flaw and how that has caused the dilemma. Like the crisis, the epiphany is also an internal moment without any plot.

Act 3

Finally, Act 3 also has three checkpoints: the plan, the climax, and the ending.

The plan hinges on the epiphany. During the epiphany, the protagonist suddenly saw the character flaw he or she had been stumbling over. In the plan, the protagonist figures out what he or she should do next. The protagonist could not have conceived the plan before the epiphany.

The climax builds when the protagonist uses the plan to seek out the antagonist for a final confrontation. During the climax, the protagonist brings about the conditions that cause the antagonist to be defeated by his or her own flaw.

Last, the ending comes after the battle is won, which resolves both the inner and outer conflicts. While the emotional story pretty much ended in the epiphany, the ending gives us the opportunity to see the benefits of the protagonist’s self-discovery.


Kind of cool, right?  This outline is helping me out a lot so far with understanding the movement of my story, and the purpose for every scene.  After all, every scene should play on my protagonist and his/her flaw, and if it doesn’t, then it probably isn’t necessary.

This three act structure is first being used to outline smaller, emotional details.  My teacher refers to it as the skeleton of my story, to which we will later add the meat (plot details).

We are also splitting the writing of this outline into three lessons, so one act per lesson.  Therefore, I will not be posting the entire outline for each of my stories altogether (yet), but one act at a time.  Then, once all three acts have been written out, I will combine them into complete outlines for you.


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