If you’re struggling to write stories your readers will love, you’re not alone. Thankfully, there’s a tool you can use to write stories that actually work: three-act structure.
Every story begins as an idea. The work of a writer is to take that idea, in all its complexity, and translate it into a story.
Therein lies the delight and agony of writing.
Ideas always feel fully formed in our minds. But when we sit down to put them into words, the struggle begins. Ideas don’t just morph into narrative form. They resist our efforts, and soon the process of storytelling becomes torture.
Thankfully there are strategies you can use to overcome the stubborn nature of an idea and successfully rise to the challenge of writing a great story.
And one of the best strategies you can use is the Three-Act Structure.
Why Structure Matters
The idea of a Three Act Structure is so common that it may seem cliché, and therefore undesireable.
But such structure is as integral to a great story as wheels are to an automobile, and no one considers tires cliché.
Sound structural design is at the heart of many things we appreciate without acknowledging it. Have you ever ridden to the top of a skyscraper and felt the gentle way of the tower? Does your vehicle hold together after hitting a violent bump? The subtle beauty of structure has kept you safe while enjoying these grand experiences.
In the same way, structure is perhaps the most powerful — and most subtle — means of telling a story that your readers can’t put down.
The main reason you’re struggling to get your stubborn story idea has to do with structure. Yet we often don’t see it that way. Instead, we complain that the words won’t come. The characters aren’t appearing to us. We see our problems as having to do with our inability to create personalities or conjure the right verbiage.
Yet this is putting the cart before the horse. There is no reason for words without characters and goals. And there are no characters and goals if there isn’t a journey requiring structure.
If you’re hoping to translate your stubborn story idea into a novel that works, pay attention to what matters. Study structure and use it to plan, draft, and revise your story.
An Editor’s View of Three Act Structure
In his eye-opening book The Story Grid, book editor Shawn Coyne shares examples of stories that worked and stories that didn’t. And each one that works follows a clear, familiar structure.
Every story can be broken into three parts, or Acts.
The First Act is the BEGINNING HOOK.
When I outline with this, I prefer to simply write “Hook.” Why? Because the term “Beginning” invites me to write lots of exposition and backstory, stuff that isn’t very interesting to my reader.
Rather, the label “Hook” forces me to think in terms of what the readers wants. Her time is valuable and there are many forces competing for her attention. Therefore, the first portion of my story must be entirely dedicated to HOOKING her attention and refusing to let it go.
The Second Act is the MIDDLE BUILD.
Again, the label “Build” is vastly superior to “Middle.”
Another way to think of “Build” is to “Raise the Stakes” — to ramp up the risk and reward of the story so that the reader is still unable to put the book down.
Finally, the Third Act is the ENDING PAYOFF.
Once again, Coyne delivers a perfect term to describe how a story should conclude: Payoff.
During the messy work of excavating a story from our imagination, it can be easy to generalize key moments. This is especially true for the ending. There’s nothing wrong with having an ending in mind when you are writing, but it can go wrong if the ending you’ve planned doesn’t involve a payoff.
What, then, is a “payoff?” It is the fulfillment of consequences — specifically the consequences of the protagonist’s choices to pursue his or her goal.
Only then, when your ending includes an honest payoff, will it be satisfying.
Breaking Down Each Act
You may feel yourself resisting this structural process when you try to break your story idea into three parts, or Acts. This is because each Act won’t be equal in length.
Also, each Act will include its own mini-arc, usually following the five elements of Plot:
- Inciting Incident
- Progressive Complication
- Moment of Crisis
- Climactic Choice
- Resolution of the Crisis
These parts of your story will also be unequal. Thankfully, Coyne is a student of thousands of years of storytelling, and distills the ratios down like this:
“The Beginning is about one quarter of the Story. The Middle is about one half of the Story. The End is the last quarter of the Story. Are there stories that do not break down 25/50/25? Absolutely. But if you were to average every Story ever told, 25/50/25 would be the result.”
So there you go. Your BEGINNING HOOK should be about 25 percent of your story, or 20,000 words of an 80,000-word novel (standard for new authors).
Your MIDDLE BUILD, naturally involving more movement and choice and escalation, should be about 40,000 words, or 50 percent.
And your ENDING PAYOFF, like the beginning, is 25 percent or 20,000 words.
Of course these numbers vary based on your chosen genre, audience, and even if you have an established track record as an author who can sell thousands of books. If George R.R. Martin approaches his editor with a 200,000-word manuscript, the editor will grin like a kid on Christmas. But if I did that, I’d be laughed out of the room, or worse, ignored.
But Coyne isn’t done there. Using this arithmetic, you can estimate the number of chapters you should be writing. How can you guess such a thing?
Easy: By writing “potato chip” chapters.
Write “Potato Chip” Chapters
According to Coyne, a “potato chip chapter” is about 2,000 words long — an easy length to consume in 10–15 minutes.
“If you are about to go to bed and you’re reading a terrific novel and the scenes/chapters come in around 2,000-word bites, you’ll tell yourself that you’ll read just one more chapter. But if the narrative is really moving after you finish one of these bites, you won’t be able to help yourself reading another. If the Story is extremely well told, you’ll just keep eating the potato chip scenes all through the night.”
If you aim to write a novel that is 80,000 words long, and your target chapter-length is 2,000 words, then you should aim to write 40 chapters. Broken down even further, your Three Acts will be portioned out roughly like this:
- BEGINNING HOOK: 10 Chapters
- MIDDLE BUILD: 20 Chapters
- ENDING PAYOFF: 10 Chapters
These are not hard and fast rules, of course. Your chapter numbers can and should vary based on your story details and genre. There’s nothing sacred about the number 40, or even 2,000 words. I’ve read chapters 2,000 words in length that were an absolute bore, and I’ve read chapters 5,000 words in length that thrilled me to the core. It all depends on your pacing, style, and the drama of your story.
But as a general guide, a roadmap to writing a story that will thrill readers nearly every time, these figures are a great place to start planning a book.
Use Three-Act Structure to Supercharge Your Writing!
Don’t forget the point of this: To create a wildly readable story for your reader.
It isn’t about impressing anyone, or following any “rules.” It’s about tapping into the DNA that human beings and great stories share. It’s about giving yourself a useful tool to plan, draft, revise, and re-plan when things go wrong. It’s about transforming your story from “vague idea” to a methodical and intentional piece of art.
So wherever you are in your work-in-progress, consider pausing to examine your structure. Does it fit neatly into three identifiable “Acts?” Do those Acts follow a five-step plot structure that will raise the tension and keep the reader interested?
And are your chapters written with the reader’s love of story in mind, down in the 1,500–2,500 word range?
These are great questions to consider as you take your story idea and begin to work it and shape it into a tangible story.
Try Three-Act Structure today!
What structure do you use to craft your stories? Let us know in the comments.
Take fifteen minutes to think through your work in progress in terms of three-act structure.
Write one sentence to describe each act: What happens in the beginning hook? What happens in the middle build? And what happens in the ending payoff?
Don’t have a work in progress? Think through what the three acts of a story might be based on this prompt: They both danced around the elephant in the room.
When you’re done, share your three sentences in the comments below, and be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers!