Structure for Gardeners - Part II



On Monday we looked at an overview to the idea of plot structure ... you have an idea and, hopefully, some sense of where the book is going and how it will end. How do you get from here to there?


There are several ways to move forward, all of them similar in many ways to the two plot formats we looked at in October - the Hero's Journey and the Plot Skeleton.


There is nothing new under the sun, right? But we can’t dismiss our discussion of plot without reviewing what may be the most common of all plot frameworks: the Three-Act Structure.


Simply put, three-act structure divides a story into three distinct sections, beginning, a middle, and an end – the beginning about 25% of the story, the middle about 50% and the final act about 25%.


Act one should establish the ordinary world of the story’s main character. Before the act is over there is an inciting incident that pulls the protagonist out of their ordinary world and into a new, alien world and the main action of the story. The act concludes with some sort of turning point that launches the action into act two.


Act two consists of rising action that leads to a midpoint, then devolves into a crisis. Act two will raise the stakes of the protagonist’s journey, revealing the depth of danger facing the protagonist. The second act typically ends with turning point that makes it seem as if the protagonist will fail. This is sometimes called the “dark night of the soul” or “the bleakest moment.”


The third act consists of events leading up to a climactic confrontation in which the hero faces a point of no return: they must either prevail or perish. The story de-escalates to where the events wind back down into the ordinary world. Of course, the hero’s life will never be the same again.


An Example of Three Act Structure:


A well-known example of the three-act structure is the original Star Wars film, released in 1977. George Lucas, responsible for both the screenwriting and the direction of the film, opted for a classic narrative arc known as “the hero’s journey,” which I outlined for you over three blog posts in October.


Act one: George Lucas establishes the world of the story in an opening text crawl that explains some of the backstory. We launch into the plot when Darth Vader kidnaps Princess Leia, but the film’s true inciting incident comes when Luke Skywalker buys a runaway droid that leads him to Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi. Obi-Wan tries to recruit Luke to embrace the life of the Jedi, but Luke ultimately rejects this call to action.


Act two: Luke discovers his aunt and uncle murdered by Darth Vader’s stormtroopers. This marks a turning point for Luke; he realizes the stakes are too high for him to deny his duty. He embraces his destiny as a Jedi knight and leaves his comfort zone. But his decision culminates in tragedy, as Darth Vader kills Obi-Wan, Luke’s mentor. Act two ends with Luke’s “dark night of the soul.”


Act three: Luke and his comrades take on Darth Vader in an action that’s sometimes called “storming the castle.” In the film’s climax, Luke and company destroy Vader’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star, resulting in a triumphant victory.

How to Use Three Act Structure in Your Writing:


The best way to incorporate three act structure into your own writing is to map out the key plot elements that should populate each act.

  • Act one: exposition, inciting action, turning point into act two

  • Act two: rising action, midpoint, turning point into act three (often a “dark night of the soul”)

  • Act three: pre-climax, climax, denouement

If you’re a gardener, like me, you may brainstorm your plot in a more open-ended way and later consider specific plot points, often called the snowflake method. Don’t disrupt your process at the beginning by thinking about act breaks and a specific plot structure.


If you’re an architect, hyper-organized in your writing process, it may make sense to keep the three-act story structure in mind from the very beginning. It can be a useful planning tool to think of the story in terms of exposition, inciting action, rising action, and beyond.


Just remember that good stories don’t start with templates for act breaks; they start with memorable characters, vivid world-building, and a protagonist whose journey is worth following. Once you have those in place, a three-act structure will likely naturally reveal itself.


On Friday we will consider ways to determine if you are a plot-driven or character-driven writer.


How are you at plot-building? Are you an architect or a gardener? Is any of this helping? Drop a comment and let me know.