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How To Write A Novel With The Three Act Structure

Updated on February 17, 2015

But First, Tell Me This:

Do you use an outline when writing a novel?

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Three-Act Structure
Three-Act Structure

The Outline

The following points are the important parts of the Three-Act Structure. As you can see, they all relate to plot.

Act 1. (In a 90,000 word novel, this act would be about 20,000 words long.)

  • The Inciting Incident. This is the event that makes the story happen.
  • Plot Point 1. A surprising moment that changes things for the protagonist, and effectively launches the story into Act 2.

Act 2. (In a 90,000 word novel, this act would be about 50,000 words long.)

  • Pinch 1. This is a reminder scene of the main plot. In a full-length novel, it is all too easy to get lost in all the subplots and characters.
  • Midpoint. The literal middle of your story, this is when everything--characters, storylines, etc--should come together in one aha! moment.
  • Pinch 2. A second reminder of the main obstacle your protagonist is facing.
  • Plot point 2. A surprising moment in which the stakes get heightened for the protagonist just before the end.

Act 3. (In a 90,000 word novel, this act would be about 20,000 words long.)

  • Climax. Midway through Act 3, the stakes that got heightened in Act 2 will lead to a moment of conflict.
  • Resolution. There often won't be much time between the climax and resolution. Don't allow your story to linger--the end of that final battle scene (figuratively or not) is the end of your novel.

Three-Act Structure in books
Three-Act Structure in books

How Successful Novels Use the Three-Act Structure

As you read the above outline, you're probably thinking that no novel could use such a formulaic structure and get away with it. After all, every step of the novel is literally outlined for us. There is practically no breathing room.

But that's where you're wrong.

In fact, most bestselling novels use this outline. Why? Because it's a surefire way to hook readers in, and to keep us reading. However, good novelists know how to use the structure subtly.

An example of a novelist who uses the three-act structure effectively is J.K Rowling, and I'll show you how.

(Note: I often use Harry Potter as an example, but the reason is because I grew up in the Harry Potter generation, and I think it's one of those novels many of us have read. My other novel references aren't as contemporary or as widely-read.)

Harry Potter and the Three-Act Structure

Act 1.

  • The Inciting Incident. Harry Potter, the orphan boy living under his aunt's stairs, learns he's a wizard and a new world is opened to his eyes.
  • Plot Point 1. This is related, but isn't quite the same thing. Harry decides to go to Hogwarts. Plot Point 1 is often an action taken by the protagonist, rather than passive.

Act 2.

  • Pinch 1. A troll incident at Halloween reminds us that Harry Potter's world is not entirely safe.
  • Midpoint. Harry Potter understands that there is a mysterious connection between Gringotts and a three-headed dog guarding a stone.
  • Pinch 2. Harry nearly sees Voldemort in the woods.
  • Plot point 2. Harry learns the identity of the person trying to steal the Sorceror's Stone.

Act 3.

  • Climax. Harry and Voldemort face off.
  • Resolution. There are not many pages after the end of the fight, in which Harry recovers, is provided explanations by Dumbledore, and leaves school with his friend.

The Three-Act Structure in Film

People often think of the three-act structure as being a formula reserved for film, but this couldn't be farther from the truth.

In fact, it's a formula that is just as important in novels--and short stories--as it is in films. So why do we think of it as belonging to film?

  • The three-act structure comes from the idea of the three acts in classic plays. Since film is a historical extension of theatre, it makes sense that its most widely-used formula is also a distortion of the Three Acts.
  • There is such a thing as the blockbuster film, and it transcends all genres. Whether you're watching a romantic film, an action film, or a fantasy film, if it's a blockbuster (made with a lot of money, and probably making a lot of money, too), it uses the three-act structure.
  • We notice this formula in films more easily for two reasons. 1) First, because films are made by a lot of people: writers, directors, producers, and cast and crew. These people have worked all their lives in the industry, getting formed, and since they only contribute to a small part of the end product, that end product will seem a lot more... manufactured. Like a factory. Contrary to a novel, written by one person. 2) The other reason we notice the formula in films is because films cost money. If you're going to make a blockbuster, you want to ensure it will bring in money. A lot. And a tried-and-true formula is the easiest way to ensure it.

However, just because we don't notice it as much, that doesn't mean many novels don't use the three-act structure--they're just more subtle about it.

How about you? Have you thought of using the three-act structure? Or are you planning to?

Now Tell Me This

Will you use the three-act structure?

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    • BessieBooks profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago

      Thanks Kristen!

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 

      3 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Great article, Bessie, on how to write that way. I would keep it in mind for when I write my next novel, when I have a new idea.

    • BessieBooks profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago

      Thank you Carolyn! I'm glad it could be of use to you. Good luck on your novella!

    • CarolynEmerick profile image

      Carolyn Emerick 

      3 years ago

      Thank you for writing this! I am working on my first novella but always feel a little lost, as I have very little experience with fiction. Your advice is very helpful!

    • BessieBooks profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago

      Thanks for your feedback Gene!

      Very true, the three act structure is most often known for its application in cinema but it's also very useful for planning out novels.

    • gposchman profile image

      Gene Poschman 

      3 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area

      I was introduced to the three act structure when I studied script writing. In face I recommend anyone learning to write study the structure of script writing. If you do not hook your viewer in the first few minutes of a film, it is more difficult to reel them in. What is nice about script writing is you can estimate time with pages. One page, one minute. There are a number of additional elements in script writing that can be applied to novel writing.

      Syd Field's "The Foundations of Screenwriting" is an excellent read for anyone wanting to learn how to write.

      Nice article upped, useful and interesting.

      Gene Poschman


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