The 3 Act Story Structure - And Writing Stories: Part I

If you've ever looked up anything about writing a story or a book, you might have come across numerous different methods on how to structure the stories and how to write them. One of the more popular story structures is called the "Three Act" story structure and typically applies to screenplays and movies but books can also be broken down to "acts" though they might not necessarily have three of them.

If you've grown up in the US, you might have been taught the "5 paragraph essay" format for writing essays in middle school and high school and then promptly been told to abandon it in college. The five paragraph essay format served to create a structure -- a kind of architecture behind your narrative. Whether you wrote about politics or a convincing paper on why your school should test its water fountains for bacteria, the format remained and enforced a solid quality paper that a teacher could decipher. The Three Act story structure is much of the same except that no one will tell you to abandon it. In fact, it's so common that most blockbuster movies follow the Three Act structure to the T (or the dot?). It's a reliable method of story-telling and it can be easily modified by emphasizing some points or skipping others. This lends it to solid story-telling and a great way to come to understanding the flow of story-telling.

It's also my secret conspiracy theory that the Three Act story structure is why movies based on books are the way they are. The movie format doesn't lend itself well for a 10-act epic adventure so the 10-act epic has to be whittled down into the structure of a 3-act epic. Whether that means skipping sections of the book, or merging them together, or inventing new movie-only storyline.

The Examples - Star Trek & Harry Potter

Since I'm a huge Harry Potter fan, I decided to use Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone movie for examples. I started with Star Trek and then found a really neat breakdown into the 6-act structure. As far as I can see, if you follow the Dramatic Phase headings, it's basically a 3-act breakdown but a little more detailed.

3 Act Structure crash course

Let's talk about the 3 act structure. The first act is the intro, the second is the middle, and the third is the climax and end. The structure tries to create a good story flow where you get introduced to the characters, you get to know them, find out about them enough to care, all as they progress through a story line. When you care enough, we see the first battles, and the first losses which slingshots us into a buildup and a climax. Afterward, we ease into the resolution where all of our questions are hopefully answered.

Let's go through it Act I in this article:

Act I - The Setup

Act I is the setup of the story. We get to know characters, we find out the basics of the plot, and then we're hit with an Act I climax which propels us into the journey.

Hook (optional)

This is optional but any stories start with a solid hook to pull the viewer in. Something really shocking, or intriguing. In a murder mystery, it might be the murder itself.

Harry Potter we see this in the first movie where we're introduced to a bunch of magical stuff all at once -- McGonagall turns from a cat into a human, Dumbledor snuffs out the lights, and Hagrid comes flying on a motorcycle. And then, you're introduced to a famous orphan with a scar.


Exposition is basically the "intro of the intro". We set the stage for the rest of the story, we learn about the protagonist, and we see the "ordinary world" for the character and what's important to them. It's the "Status Quo" -- how things are today.

To tell a good story, exposition gives us a glimpse into who everyone is before the mayhem of the storyline happens.

Harry Potter We learn that Harry lives with his aunt, uncle, and his cousin. They're all very mean to him and in general, not very nice people, but Harry bears it because he has to.

Inciting Incident -- The Call To Adventure

The inciting incident is where things suddenly ramp up! We go from 0 to 100%. In many movies, this is the point where your hero gets into major trouble, someone dies, and generally, the status quo gets shaken up.

Maybe an alien lands in your backyard, or Star Fleet gets attacked by a new unforeseen threat. Or maybe the hero fell into a vat of superhero juice that makes them superhuman.

Essentially, the story would not exist without this point, the protagonist would continue on in their usual existence.

Harry Potter This one should be pretty obvious -- Harry gets a letter from Hogwarts! The entire sequence where Uncle Vernon hides the letters, Harry wonders about the mystery and fights to get the letter. ALL the way until Harry meets Hagrid and Hagrid delivers the meme-worthy famous line: "You're a wizard, Harry!". We then get a bit of exposition before we move to the next stage.

Refusal to call (OR!) preparation

While the inciting incident set the stage for the story, the refusal to call/preparation section is the protagonist's response to the incident. In many stories, this is where the hero refuses to acknowledge that the status quo has changed. In others, this is where the hero prepares for the story.

The refusal to call is often followed by the Act I climax changing the hero's mind. Like when Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars movie (a perfect example of a Hero's Journey in a 3 act structure) refuses to help Princess Leia and goes back to his farm.

It's an interesting section of the first Act I because we see the protagonist under stress.

Harry Potter Harry readily accepted the inciting incident and we spend the rest of Act I preparing for Harry to attend Hogwarts. We're thrown head-first into the magical world.

Plot point 1 / Act I Climax

We fully confront the inciting incident in this section and we find ourselves seeing the hero come in terms with their decision and face the initial consequences of that decision. Not only that, but it puts our protagonist in a place to face whatever comes in Act II and Act III. It's a mover so to speak.

The Act I climax is also often referred to as the first plot point - or basically the first big milestone on the journey to the resolution.

I want to mention several examples so we can explore how different stories handle the Act I climax:

Star Wars

In Star Wars, Luke's farm is burned down. There's no going back. The refusal to act on Leia message is moot. Luke takes up the adventure and leaves his home planet with Ben Kenobi. This means that Luke will be ready for Act II to rescue Princess Leia.

Harry Potter

Harry did not need any more convincing so instead of having to change his mind, Harry confronts the magical world in its totality -- he arrives at Hogwarts and gets sorted to the Gryffindor house. At this point in the story, Harry has new friends that will help him in Act II, he's in Hogwarts where the rest of the book takes place, and he's fully accepted that he's a wizard.

Pokémon the Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back

A little bit of a twist in my line up, Pokemon is actually a frequent user of the 3-act story structure, employing it in basically every single episode of the anime. There's an awesome breakdown of Pokemon into the 3 acts that is worth a read.

In the movie, the hero accepted the call to action and overcame the first big obstacle -- the fight against the sea. I think the Act I climax would be winning the fight against the storm which MewTwo produced.

And then what?

Then we're thrown into Act II which I will cover in a future article. There are a few things to keep in mind with this entire structure:

The idea of exposition -> call to action and consequences -> climax flow tends to apply to all 3 acts. Writing this 3 section story tends to encompass the entire story (Act I-III), each Act (Act I has 3 main sections like that), and even each scene -- each giving a subsection a different amount of time on the screen and words in a book.

What I mean by that is that even in the Act I climax of Harry Potter -- we have the 3 main sections:

  1. exposition - Harry gets introduced to the magical world via Diagon Alley
  2. call to action / consequences - Harry figures out how to get on the Hogwarts Express, he meets people, learns about the magical world
  3. climax - train arrives, Harry crosses the lake, enters the castle, and gets sorted as a Gryffindor

And if we further dissect the climax of the Act I climax, we'll see the pattern repeating again:

  1. exposition - Harry is in the train and arriving at Hogwarts. He sees the castle for the first time. He also learns about the sorting!
  2. call to action / consequences - not as strong of a feature but we have Harry display his ability to be a good wizard by standing up for whom he'll pick as friends. This plays into the sorting theme in this part of the book. Will Harry be a good wizard or an evil one? Will he abuse his power? Or stay good-hearted?
  3. climax - Harry battles with the sorting hat to be sorted to Gryffindor, secretly fearing he'll be a Slytherin and become an evil wizard. He prevails and gets sorted with his friends.

You could keep going deeper. I think that's the beauty of it.

Outlining Act I

When I lay out the basic structure, I usually have an easier time reasoning about the flow of my story. So I usually write this out (org-mode, markdown, wherever):

# Act I
## (optional) hook
## exposition
## inciting incident
## refusal to call / preparation
## plot point 1

And then I answer questions about each section to help me form the story:

# Act I
## (optional) hook

- Am I using a hook?
- What does the hook add?

## exposition

- What does the regular day for the protagonist look like?
- Who is the protagonist?
- What's important to the protagonist?

## inciting incident

- How will the inciting incident affect protagonist's life?
- What's the change in status quo?
- What makes this into a "can't go back" moment?
- What are the protagonist's character flaws and fears? How are they exposed by this incident?

## refusal to call / preparation

- Will the protagonist accept/reject the call?
- What drives them to accept/reject?
- What is the consequence of accepting/rejecting?

## plot point 1

I hope to make this questionnaire better over time. The questions don't always require answers but they should spur thinking in the character's mindset.

Using the 3 act structure to test ideas

Hopefully at the end of this series, I will be able to serve up some example outlines. I try to outline movies, books, and tv shows I like (at least in my head) and outline random story ideas.

The fun thing with outlining random story ideas is that it tests the validity of your story idea as a book. Even though many books don't do just 3 acts, it's easy to section off a book into those 3 general acts anyways. Fleshing out a story into the 3-act outline can show you if an idea is really good or if it was just an excerpt of a bigger idea.

There have been quite a few times when I've said, "Oh, you know what would make a cool story? If a group of kids found an abandoned cave and when they got in, it would transport them across time and space!". Nice idea, but then what?

I'll break it down:

  1. Exposition - a group of kids. I guess they're friends at school and they're bored one afternoon so they go to a forbidden part of the island where they live (valid idea!)
  2. Call to action - the kids are transported across time and space and then....wait, then what?
  3. refusal/preparation - what am I preparing for? What are they refusing?
  4. Act I plot point - ....

I see the holes in the story immediately and it helps me fill them. Maybe they're transported into a post-apocalyptic planet and the teleporter is destroyed by one of the factions while the kids are rescued by the other.

Hmm...and it looks like the rebels are wanting to infiltrate some high-security facility. And...

See? Now I'm thinking and asking questions. Why are the factions fighting? What could make these kids uniquely prepared to help with the infiltration? Maybe the high-security facility has another teleporter -- but what does it have that the rebels want?

And so on.

Until next time!