The phrase “three-act structure” often puts a bad taste in storytellers’ mouths.
Through the years, whether because of general overuse or the insistence of English teachers everywhere to lesson-plan it to death, three-act structure has garnered a bad rap among some writers. The term evokes notions of formulaic storytelling and curved graphs of rising and falling action, not the original, fresh storytelling that writers tend to pride themselves on.
But I’m here to act as a new champion of three-act structure.
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See the very idea at the core of three-act structure is something every writer can — and should — use, no matter if their screenplay is three acts, seven, or none at all.
Three-act structure traditionally breaks stories into three parts, or acts, often referring to those acts as the setup, confrontation, and resolution. It’s a simple concept, but storytellers would do better to think about three-act structure in an even more abbreviated way.
Every story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end.
It is those three essential elements that comprise three-act structure.
All stories — whether they adhere to three-act structure’s setup, confrontation, and resolution — have a beginning, middle, and end. Something happens to start the story, the characters muddle through by doing things and talking to people, and there’s an ending of some kind whether happily ever after or not.
Story implies a closed bracket. Whether the time frame seven years or seventy, seven days or seven minutes, a story is a finite thing. The very nature of telling it means it must come to an end. (Even if you’re writing a TV show! Especially if you’re writing a TV show!)
Regardless of structure, writers must consider the essential elements of their story.
- What happens at the beginning?
- What happens in the middle?
- And what happens at the end?
Writers must remember that these elements are connected. The beginning leads to the middle, which leads to the end. They are also divisible in and of themselves.
By that I mean, the Beginning of your story has a beginning, middle, and end, as does the Middle and the End. In this way, every story has at least nine units of story.
Each section of story must feel complete. Every act, every scene, should have some kind of arc. And arc means a beginning, middle, and end.
An arc — any arc — is three-act structure in a nutshell.
Three act structure might be outdated, but it’s a tried and true way of looking at and understanding story.
That, and it’s incredibly simple. Beginning. Middle. End. That’s it. Easy to remember, easy to put into use when writing.
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Britton Perelman is a writer and storyteller based in Los Angeles, California. When not buried in a book or failing spectacularly at cooking herself a meal, she’s probably talking someone’s ear off about the last thing she watched. She loves vintage typewriters, the Cincinnati Reds, and her dog, Indy. Find more of her work on her website, or follow her on Instagram.