What is a Three Act Structure? Is it something that only applies to Shakespearean plays? Actually Shakespearean plays are divided into 5 Acts, but who’s counting? It all sounds intimidating and confusing. But in fact most stories can be divided into three distinct sections. You can see it in picture books, novels, and even films.
Once you know what to look for, you will be able to pick out the three acts of everything you read and watch on TV or in the theaters. Even documentaries will follow this simple structure to help guide viewers and help them to stay engaged.
To put it simply, the Three Act Structure refers to the three major parts of a story, i.e. the beginning, middle, and end. Thinking about your tale in this way, from the start, will help you to build a story arc that leads the reader through a journey along with the protagonist. It will help you set up the Major Dramatic Question, your character’s inner conflict, and the major conflict which will lead to the climax of your story.
The First Act sets the scene and the tone for your story. In this Act, you will introduce your characters and establish what normal life is like, including the setting and the tone. For example, in Goodnight Moon, the author sets the scene in the first few pages by describing everything in the room, including the characters, i.e.., “a comb and a brush… and a quiet old lady who was whispering hush.” The author uses lyrical language that is rhythmical and soothing.
If we use a movie as an example, Finding Nemo, it’s where Nemo’s mother is killed, leaving his father to be overprotective as Nemo tests his boundaries by swimming out into deep water. The tone is more urgent, tense, and fearful.
Towards the end of Act 1, a defining incident takes place which will serve as a catalyst for the protagonist to make a decision, i.e., the Major Dramatic Question, and will direct him or her on a journey that leads to a climax in the Third Act.
In Finding Nemo, the defining incident is when Nemo is captured and taken by a scuba diver. Everything changes and Nemo’s father begins his journey to find his son. The Major Dramatic Question being, will Marlin, Nemo’s father, find Nemo (the external conflict), and will he learn to let Nemo be independent (internal conflict).
The defining incident in Goodnight Moon is more subtle. It is where the narrator switches from naming everything in the room to saying “goodnight” to everything in the room. The Major Dramatic Question is: Will the bunny go to sleep?
The Second Act of your story is where the protagonist’s journey takes place. It is the meat of your story and will be the longest part, including hurdles and Red Herrings that give the protagonist challenges and leads him in the wrong direction from achieving his goals.
In Goodnight Moon, Act 2 is where the narrator says “goodnight” to every object in the room. The rising tension comes from the reader wondering if the bunny will finally fall asleep.
In Finding Nemo, Act 2 is where Nemo finds himself in a dentist’s office and must figure out a way to escape as his father embarks on a dangerous journey across the ocean to find him.
The Second Act culminates in a climactic scene that will decide the fate of the protagonist. It is where Nemo and his friends set off their plan to escape the fish tank and when his father finally makes it to the dentist’s office and mistakenly believes he is too late. This leads to the final push in Act 3 where the protagonist’s inner conflict comes to a head and the resolution takes place.
The Third Act of your story is where the climactic scene comes to a head and the Major Dramatic Question is answered. In Goodnight Moon, Act III is very short. On the last page the narrator says “goodnight noises everywhere,” and the reader understands that the bunny has finally fallen asleep. This is not unusual for picture books where word count is minimal at about 1000 words or less and the story tends to end abruptly. Once the Major Dramatic Question is answered in a picture book, the story is over. In chapter books and middle-grade novels, the resolution is longer and will be in the final chapter or the final two chapters.
In Finding Nemo the Third Act begins when Nemo’s father finds him. Marlin thinks Nemo is dead and that he is too late. However, the story isn’t over. Nemo is not dead and makes it back to the ocean. Nemo and Marlin reunite, and the viewer is finally rewarded. But there’s one more defining incident that helps to resolve Marlin’s inner conflict, which is to let go and allow Nemo to have the freedom to take risks. Dory is trapped in a net and Marlin makes the decision to let Nemo try to save her. This leads to the climax where everything is at stake as Nemo risks his life to save Dory and Marlin must watch from the sidelines. Finally, the resolution is where Marlin and Nemo have a new understanding for each other in their new and forever changed life at home. Both inner and outer conflicts are resolved.
Here is an overview:
Act 1: Introductions, Set the scene and the tone, Inciting incident, Everything changes
Act 2: Change of scenery, Journey with hurdles and red herrings, Culminates with a cliff hanger that leads to the final push
Act 3: Leadup to the climax, Climax, Resolution with all questions answered
The best way to learn how to add elements to your story is to learn from others. Go through the children’s books in your collection, or watch your favorite children’s classic film. Look for the Three Act Structure, including the setup, defining incident, the journey, the climax, the character’s inner conflict coming to a head, and finally the resolution. Then go back to your own notes and begin to fit your ideas into a clear beginning, middle, and end and watch your story take shape.
Check back again for more writing tips.
Happy writing, Elaine
Books and films mentioned in this Writing Tip:
Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown
Finding Nemo, Pixar Studios
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