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Breaking Down the Three-Act Structure.


by Maren MacPhail



Before starting a fresh project, or even as you’re drafting or revising, understanding essential story beats is the best weapon you can have. Humans intrinsically crave a pattern in storytelling. Something we can rely on. Enter the “three-act structure.”


So, what is the three-act structure? It’s a narrative model that divides the story into, you guessed it, three parts. It’s commonly used as the foundation for books, but it’s also the basis for movies. Featuring a series of plot points, it creates rising and falling action—and drives your character arcs. Approximately 25% of your story will fall into Act 1, 50% into Act 2, and 25% into Act 3.


Below, I’m going to give a relatively brief overview of each of these acts. I’ll be using The Hunger Games as an example. It’s one of my favorites because so many of us are familiar with the book and movie. Please note that “HG” will be used as an abbreviation when I make references. Let’s get started.

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Act One

The Set-Up: This is the exposition. Here, you reveal your character’s day-to-day life and the world of the story. This is the perfect time to immerse your reader in the book’s tone, so take advantage of description and determine what to reveal about your characters. In HG’s set-up, we see Katniss hunting to support her mother and sister in District 12. We learn a few things about her character: she’s skilled with a weapon, and she has a deep love for her younger sister.

Inciting Incident: This is the big “change” that puts the story in motion and should disrupt your protagonist’s life. Without this, the action of the rest of your book cannot happen. In HG, Katniss volunteers as tribute for her sister.


Debate: At this point, your character should likely debate what lies ahead of them. They should have second thoughts about how their life might change as a result of the inciting incident. In HG, Katniss says goodbye to her family and realizes the impact her potential death might have on them, as they aren’t able to hunt on their own.


Turning Point: Also known as the “break into two,” this is when your character makes the decision to dive head-first into upcoming challenges or to go on the adventure. This is the perfect place to show your character’s agency. While the inciting incident is something that happens to your protagonist, the turning point should be their decision. In HG, Katniss boards the Capitol train.


Act Two


Introduce the Subplot: Here, a major subplot is introduced, whether it’s a love interest or a secondary storyline. In HG, Katniss (and the audience) meet Peeta, and the initial tension between them hints at further conflict as they prep for the Games.


Promise on the Premise: This is when you deliver the premise presented in your book’s overall concept. The main adventure occurs, or if your book is a romance, the conventional romantic beats might happen. In HG, Katniss actually enters the arena.


False Win/Low Point: At this juncture, your protagonist should be struggling to succeed. They should either encounter a false victory before more challenges come their way, or they should experience some sort of defeat before the story turns around for them. In HG, Katniss gets attacked by tracker jackers.


Midpoint Turn: The plot should shift, and in doing so, the stakes should rise. Hint at the potential drama that awaits your protagonist and show their capabilities as the plot revs up. In HG, Katniss teams up with Rue and unfortunately watches her death.


Calm Before the Storm: At this point, make your protagonist a little successful, but don’t let it last long. This is a time to prep them internally for the impending climax. In HG, Katniss and Peeta team up, and the Head Gamemaker announces that two tributes from the same district can win.


All is Lost: Your protagonist should feel like there’s no hope left, pushing them into a “dark night of the soul.” In HG, Peeta is injured, and Katniss is worried she’ll have to fight Cato alone. Getting out alive seems unlikely.


New Plan: The protagonist finds the strength to continue. Make sure your characters’ motivations are clear here as the overall story tension grows stronger. In HG, Katniss and Peeta make a plan to defeat Cato.


Act Three

Note that most of the following points will make up the bulk of your climax.


Execute Plan: Your protagonist and other characters should gather together and enact their “new plan.” In HG, Katniss and Peeta kill Cato.


Three-Quarter Turn: Unfortunately, executing the plan should not be so simple. You’ll want to throw in a twist to keep your characters (and readers) on their toes. In HG, the Head Gamemaker announces there can only be one winner.


Final Battle: Tension and stakes should be the highest they’ve ever been. It’s the “do-or-die” moment. In HG, Katniss and Peeta decide to eat the poisonous berries.


Denouement: Finally, your protagonist has achieved their goal. This is the “falling action” where they enter a new normal. In HG, Katniss talks to Haymitch, and Katniss and Peeta do a final interview with Caesar.


Final Image: This provides extra closure to the resolution. The threads have all been tied up, and it will likely be your last chapter. Katniss and Peeta return to District 12 while President Snow watches from the Capitol.

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There you have it! If you’re interested in learning more about the three-act structure, I recommend checking out Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder (more screenwriting-focused) or Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody. MasterClass also has several courses you might want to explore. Happy fall and happy writing, everyone!




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@maren.macphail