When to Discard the Three-Act Story Structure

by Liz Bureman | 9 comments

There are times to follow the rules of story, and there are times to break the rules. When should you use the three-act story structure, and when should you discard it entirely?

When to Discard the Three-Act Story Structure

Story Structure in Ken Follett's Century Trilogy

I've finally gotten around to finishing Ken Follett's Century Trilogy with Edge of Eternity, and hoo boy, there is a lot that happens in that book.

One could argue that there's a lot that happens in all three books, given that they cover a one-hundred-year timespan, but the final installment felt much fuller than the other two. For some reason, it felt like the third book had more climactic peaks than the previous two, even though history has always been a series of events happening simultaneously in multiple locations.

While each of the first two seemed to revolve around a World War, the third picked up multiple events between 1960 and 1990: the American civil rights movement, the Cuban missile crisis, the Kennedy assassination, the British Invasion, the Vietnam War, Watergate, the fall of communism in eastern Europe, and finally, the fall of the Berlin Wall.

What made the book feel so different might have had something to do with its rejection of the classic literary structure, the three-act story structure.

Can You Really Discard the Three-Act Structure?

In Edge of Eternity, there was no inciting incident; there was no one definable climax.

So much of crafting a story has its roots in those five pieces of story (e.g. the inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement) that it sort of throws you off balance when a story presents itself and isn't in that format.

Obviously, in a work of historical fiction as ambitious as Follett's, you can't reasonably be expected to have one single climactic moment.

But are there other instances when the classic story structure should be rejected?

Sure, why not? We're all about rejecting rules here.

When You Can Get Rid of the Three-Act Story Structure

Classic three-act structure is a good foundation for writing, and it can guide you when you're feeling stuck or uninspired, but it's not by any stretch the be-all-end-all authority on how to write a story well.

It can get old writing in the same inciting incident-rising action-climax-falling action-denouement format.

And besides, a lot of modern act breaks are imposed because of the need for intermissions (or commercial breaks, in the case of television or TV movies), not because the story is better for them.

Maybe you're working in seven acts, and each act is its own contained story, like Follett's Edge of Eternity.

Or maybe you tell the same story four times from a different character's perspective, as in Rashomon-inspired tales.

Or maybe you really screw with convention and pull something like Christopher Nolan's Memento where time is fluid and structure is thrown out the window.

Maybe in the middle of the falling action, something of major significance happens that needs to be resolved quickly before the main plot can be wrapped up, or maybe it happens after the main plot has already been brought to its conclusion, as in The Incredibles.

Don't let rules about structure weigh you down. Other writers have broken the pattern many times before you. Drop it yourself and see what happens.

Would you ever write a story without the three-act story structure? Share in the comments.

PRACTICE

Brainstorm the outline of a story that uses any other structure by the three-act story structure. Share a bullet-point list version of your story outline in the comments section when you're finished.

Have fun!

How to Write Like Louise PennyWant to write like Louise Penny? Join our new class and learn how. Learn more and sign up here.

Join Class

Next LIVE lesson is coming up soon!

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

9 Comments

  1. Joanna Aislinn

    This is very refreshing information. I knew in my gut a current WIP had more than the traditional amounts of rises and falls, and that it didn’t fit typical story structure patterns. Guess the seven-act (?) is where my WIP falls. I might bullet-point it out and list here later. Thnx!

    Reply
  2. Beth

    I’ve given up the three-act structure in favor of Larry Brooks’s four-part structure, which he explains in his book “Story Engineering.” I find the four-part structure has given me the ability to narrow my focus and tighten both my plots and my characters’ goals in a way the three-act structure never was able to. That said, I definitely think there comes a time—or a particular story—where authors should abandon all structure in favor of experimentation. The piece might never be published (or publishable), but sometimes we need to let creativity take first priority. It can be a great way to shake off writer’s block.

    Reply
  3. M.FlynnFollen

    I have to be honest here. I was a pretty big slacker in high school and day dreamed through a year and a half of college before I dropped out. I have never even heard of the three-act-story structure.

    Now, this is where I am at after learning about this structure. Do I research this way of writing and practice it? Or do I just approach stories how I see them? After all, in the spirit of this blog we should be stepping out of the conventional box. Although, What is unconventional when you have never learned the conventional?

    Reply
    • Thomas Furmato

      I’m with you Flynn. I’d say go with just telling the story, and let it find it’s own path.

    • PJ Reece

      MFlynn… another option — study the stories you love and see how the authors did it. See how they started, then developed the story, then resolved it. Maybe you’ll discover some aspects of story that no one has ever noticed before. By your own guru. And good luck!

  4. PJ Reece

    Must be something in the spring air about ditching the rules. Over at Writer’s Village they’re talking about the same thing. Hey, I wrote the piece! I wonder, though, if it’s even possible to have a story without a beginning, middle, end. Never mind what order they’re in, would it even be a story if it didn’t have a trajectory? A character in motion. Lots of non-fiction survives without drama, but it ain’t a story. BTW, if Joe will allow this, here’s a link to Writers’ Village, a UK website. http://www.writers-village.org/writing-award-blog/ditch-your-writer%E2%80%99s-toolkit-and-have-fun-

    Reply
  5. Louis

    Unless you are as good a master of the craft as Follett, discard the three act structure at your peril.

    Reply
    • PJ Reece

      Methinks you’re right, Louis.

  6. Kiki Stamatiou

    Aldine 11: Taking The Advice Of A Friend
    By Kiki Stamatiou a. k. a. Joanna Maharis

    The mission was concrete. Aldine new she had to take matters into her own hands no matter what her mentors told her to do, because her own way was the only one to work out in the end.

    She broke away from her assigned quarters and searched the vessel she was in with her mind to find Eyotina, so they both could get the heck out of there.

    Something didn’t feel right to her. So she closed her eyes to contact Andrika with her mind to see if she could guide her on her journey even though the two of them were in separate realms.

    “Aldine, you needn’t fear. From what I saw of Luca Jurus and his people, they are who they claim to be. There really isn’t any need to fear them. They only want to help. I want you to trust me like you’ve never trusted anyone before. I told you my name is Andrika, because to tell you who I really am and where I am would have made you emotionally and psychologically uneasy at the time. I’m you. I’m 100 light years away. You are my past. I’m your future. I want you to go back to your quarters by going back the way you came. Lay down on your bunk, and I’ll continue to communicate with you from there. Please believe me. I’m trying to help you through this. It’s very crucial you stay in the vessel you are in. Go back before they discover you missing. Resin goes by his first choice. That choice is to keep you and your team safe the best way he knows how through the best means possible.”

    Aldine was unsure and uneasy about trusting Andrika. However, she went back to her
    quarters, returned to her bunk, and lay down as she was instructed. Andrika told her about things yet to come her way. “I can’t tell you to much, because there are some things you have to find out about on your own. I will guide you through your journey.”

    E came into Aldine’s quarters with a tray of food. “I hope you slept well, young lady. I’m here to take you to the Center for your training exercises. When we were debriefing you, we were also examining you to see what was going on in your mind. As you were already told, we wanted to make sure there was no internal damage from the blast of the bombs you and your team blew up using your powers. We’ve made some discoveries about you which you may or may not be aware of. You’ve developed some new abilities, based on some alternations in your DNA. We want to make sure you’re strong enough to continue on in the battles of this war, before we send you, and Eyotina out there with your team into battle in the air.”

    Aldine sat up on her bunk, accepted the tray of food from E. and ate the meal of vegetables, tofu, rice, and her protein shake. She also drank her cup of hot green tea.

    E. pulled up a chair beside her bunk to further explain to her details of the training exercises she would be enduring. “Amongst other things, you will be put to a stress test, also tests for strength, stamina and endurance. It’s something we are confident you can handle. It will all be okay. Don’t worry about anything,” he said, while he collected her tray of empty dishes, “I want you to rest up. Sethra Jurus will be here momentarily to take you to the Center, our training facility,” and exited the room.

    © Copyright, Kiki Stamatiou, 2015

    Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Say Yes to Practice

Join over 450,000 readers who are saying YES to practice. You’ll also get a free copy of our eBook 14 Prompts:

Popular Resources

Books By Our Writers

Surviving Death
- Sarah Gribble
A Shadow Stained in Blood
- Ichabod Ebenezer
The Girl Who Broke the Dark
- Evelyn Puerto
116
Share to...