Three-Act Narrative Structure

three-act structure

shark theory

Act I


We create a problem for a character and/or the audience.

Who's the protagonist? What's his problem? How does it become his mission in the story?
Who's the antagonist?

  • First ¼ of story
  • What is the locale
  • Who are the major players
  • What is (are) the major conflict(s)/problem(s)
  • What is the narrative enigma— Will the boy get the girl? Will planet earth be destroyed?
  • Major themes (a conspicuous element which repeats)
  • A mood is established
  • Conventions are established such as voice over, moving camera

three-act structure

Plot Point I: "the plot thickens"

  • The "inciting incident"
  • Turn the story in a new direction
  • Sets up what Act Two is going to be
  • Raises the stakes
  • Reminder of the narrative enigma; presents the possibility of a different outcome

Act II

Middle section of the story

  • At least ½ the entire story
  • Struggle to achieve the solution to the problem
  • Further complications to finding the solution
  • The cycle of struggles and complications are called reversals

three-act structure

Plot Point II: "the longest mile"

  • The "Climactic Turning Point"
  • Protagonist's quest reaches critical mass
  • Possible solution is presented
  • Biggest cliffhanger: will the protagonist win or lose?

Act III: The End

The Protagonist achieves his mission

  • No more than ¼ of the story, usually less
  • The conflict or problem is resolved
  • Final crisis (or "rising action") plays out to climax; then to resolution
  • Narrative closure
  • Narrative aperture

three-act structure