The Three-Act Structure: Obsolete or Essential?

Sophie Playle

The three-act structure has a distinguished history. It was first described in Aristotle’s Poetics well over 2,000 years ago, and the idea has since been refined by playwrights and screenwriters of the last couple of centuries. More recently it’s become a popular tool in the novelist’s creative kitbag. But is it all it’s cracked up to be?

Do you really need to worry about the three-act structure? Let’s take a look.

What exactly is the three-act structure?

Some writing teachers describe the three-act structure as a way of making sure that a story has a beginning, a middle and an end. While this is sort of true, there’s a whole lot more to it than that.

Used skilfully, the three-act structure is a powerful method for giving your novel traction, that sought-after quality that keeps your readers wanting more.

To work with the three-act structure, you need to think of your story as having (surprise!) three parts. In part one, your task is to introduce your main character and their situation. In part two, you’ll need to show them grappling with an opposing force to reach their goals. Finally, in part three you have the satisfying job of tying up loose ends and crafting a suitably happy, sad or tragic ending.

If I’ve made the three-act structure sound pretty simple, that’s because I’m only aiming to give you the barest of bones here. In reality, writing according to this approach gets results.

To see how well it can work, I’d recommend reading Daniel Keyes’ classic sci-fi novella Flowers for Algernon – a straightforward, skilful example of the three-act story.

Who Should Use It?

Pretty much any author who wants to write a novel for a wide readership should consider using the three-act structure. It’s true that some great novelists don’t, and write in full-on experimental mode, but not every reader is turned on by this kind of writing.

If you’re going to depart from the three-act structure, you need to know what to offer your readers instead. Otherwise they won’t keep reading.

The three-act structure can be your best helpmate. It provides a framework within which your imagination can run riot without losing the plot. The constrained imagination is the wildest of beasts, so you’ll probably find yourself having bigger and better ideas this way.

And don’t forget, too, that once your novel has been published, this kind of well-thought-out structure will make it so much easier to market.

What the three-act structure isn’t

The clue’s in the name – it’s a structure, not a rigid formula.

Or rather, as Robert McKee points out in his book Story, the three-act structure is part of a set of principles that have emerged over time. It’s true that screenwriting books tend to lay down the law about exactly when to make plot points happen, but as a novelist you have much more latitude.

The three-act structure isn’t just for simple tales, either. George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones series contains many interwoven stories that play out in three parts. This proves that once you’ve mastered the basic structure, you’re free to riff as much as you want.

Criticisms of the three-act structure

Not every writer or editor is a fan of the three-act structure. Critics say that it’s an outdated, artificial device imposed from the outside that will make your story seem contrived and your characters puppet-like.

I beg to differ: a story is believable when it’s crafted with artistry, regardless of the approach its writer prefers.

Plus, it’s believed that this may even be a storytelling structure our brains are naturally wired to adopt.

Essential, not obsolete

Although the three-act structure is an ancient approach, it’s one that works.

It can stop you getting lost in a runaway plot, and it can help you with the difficult matter of pacing your novel. Importantly, and despite criticism from some quarters, it’s a structure with tried-and-tested reader appeal.

Sounds pretty essential to me.

Sophie Playleis a professional fiction editor. She specialises in developmental editing, critiquing and copy-editing, and loves working with authors and publishers who are passionate about high-quality storytelling. Speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction and literary fiction are her genres of choice. She's an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and has a Creative Writing MA from Royal Holloway, University of London. Find out more:

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