Monday, November 14

Story Structure: The Act Three Plan

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

We’ve covered the first two acts of the major turning points in the Three Act Structure, and now we’re getting into the final act. So far, we’ve discussed how the opening scene leads to the inciting event, which leads to the act one problem, and presents the protagonist with the act two choice, how that choice throws the story into the middle of the novel on to the midpoint reversal, and how act two ends with the act two disaster that triggers the beginning of the climax; which of course leads to the end of the book.

Act two typically ends on a downbeat or dark moment when the protagonist is at his lowest point. After digging deep down and finding the emotional strength to continue, the protagonist puts a new plan into action, using everything he’s learned over the course of the novel. He finally knows who he is and what’s he supposed to do, and he sets off to accomplish that. This is what act three is all about, and it mirrors the first half of act two in that way—protagonist chooses to act and then works toward a goal.

The act three plan is usually ambitious, clever, and unexpected, even though it also feels inevitable (the story was heading here all along). The plan may or may not be revealed to readers at this point, and often the details are kept secret from readers, even though the general idea is mentioned to help drive the plot forward.

It’s also possible for the act three plan to be decided in the heat of the moment with little to no time to think. Events are spinning out of control and the protagonist has to act or all will be lost.

Regardless of how it happens, it’s important to remember that the plan doesn’t have to be something that will actually work if you want to surprise the protagonist in the climax and force him to think on the run. What matters is that the protagonist thinks it’ll work. Once the climax starts, plans can fail and the protagonist can revise in a hurry to win.

In essence, it’s when the protagonist decides, “I’ve had enough, let’s do this,” and fights back.

Let's break down the basics:

What it is:
The plan to resolve the final big problem (the core conflict) and show what act three will deal with. It leads the story, plot, and characters into the climax.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel Jackson and the others decide to fight Ra and get the stargate back so they can go home.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss is presented with an opportunity to save both her and Peeta,and she takes it.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie Hart decides to stay, protect the pageant and its contestants, and stop the bomber.

When does it happen: At the beginning of act three, around the 75% mark.

This plan is the result of the events of the dark moment and the all is lost moments. Everything that happened in the middle has led to this, and the plan will be a result of what the protagonist experienced up to this point.

What's it's function: To launch act three and state the goal for the last quarter of the novel. This is what the entire story has been building toward, where the protagonist will use everything he’s learned and find a way to beat the antagonist and win. All the cards are on the table now (mostly), and everyone knows what they’re fighting for and why it’s so important.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel Jackson and O’Neil escape with the locals’ help, and decide to help them fight Ra and gain their freedom. At this point, the team thinks there is no way home, because Daniel could not find the final symbol for the stargate. So staying has greater impact for them.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when the Gamemakers changes the rules so if both tributes survive they both win the Games. Katniss wants Peeta to survive as well, and plays up the “star-crossed lovers” angle to create sympathy and support from the viewers. However, there’s a small snag to her plan, as Katniss realizes she may truly have feels for him.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie Hart uses everything she’s learned over the course of the movie to compete in a woman’s world” with the same dedication she did in the “man’s world.” The other contestants flock in and she regains her support system in a new way.

Why the act three plan is important: This sets the protagonist on the path to face the antagonist and resolve the core conflict of the novel. It’s when he uses his experiences in the book to achieve his goal. It’s also when the stakes are often raised again, making the resolution matter on a much bigger level.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel Jackson finds out the “gift” of Sha’uri was actually a marriage ceremony and she’s his wife. They share their first kiss, giving Daniel multiple reasons to want to save these people and stop Ra. O’Neil’s plan to bomb the stargate and sacrifice himself also comes out, and he becomes another person Daniel must save. But saving the villagers will also help O’Neil get over his son’s death.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss eventually chooses to protect someone besides herself and it’s no longer just about survival. She doesn’t want to just beat the game, she wants to beat the Gamemakers.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie Hart participates for real and fully embraces the feminine side of her and trusts her own instincts and find her own strength. Without the FBI’s help, she has to make it into the top five on her own to keep protecting the contestants, so she must embrace the feminine side of her (and the women around her) to do that.

Key Elements of the Act Three Plan


1. Merging old ideas and beliefs with new ideas and beliefs learned in the novel.

All the things the protagonist has experienced in the story can come into play here. Old lies are swept away, new truths are embraced, a new way of thinking might be possible. It might be small or large, but something about this new plan will show how the protagonist has grown.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel is making a life for himself, even though that life is in great peril. His old views (studying Egypt as history) has now become living the culture. He’s figured out how to get them home, and he realizes he is home.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss risks her own life to save another person’s (Peeta) and sticks her neck out for others. It’s no longer about her and her family’s survival, but all of them.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie Hart proves she has what it takes and makes the top five. She can do this. Her plan is working and she’s one step close to finding the bomber and finding her own inner strength.

2. Gathering allies to help defeat the antagonist.

In most cases, the protagonist doesn’t go into the climax alone, he has friends and allies. Once he realizes what has to be done and creates the plan, he gathers all the pieces and people needed to accomplish that plan.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel reveals to the locals that Ra’s men are not gods, but human in armor. This sways them to fight for freedom and defeat Ra.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss uses all she learned about the Games (and how the media manipulates it), to bring public support to her side against the Gamemakers.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie Hart accepts the help of the fellow contestants and embraces her role in the pageant.

3. Overcoming past fears and embracing the protagonist’s new self.

It’s the final steps of the protagonist’s character arc—shedding the old self that was holding him back and embracing the new person he’s become. This is what will allow the protagonist to win.
  • In Stargate, it's when O’Neil decides not to complete the suicide mission and instead save the people of Abydos. Meeting the locals and caring for the “kids” who are willing to die to help him and their people, changes him. He finds a reason to keep living and keep fighting to get himself and his men home. For Daniel, he finally has his theories proven right, and he finds a home he never knew he was looking for.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss looks beyond her selfish nature to save others—both in protecting Peeta, and in a mercy killing of another contestant. She doesn’t have to have a “me and mine only” attitude to survive.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie Hart realizes her feminine side isn’t holding her back, but offers her strengths she never knew she had. When some contestants drink her water glasses for her talent portion, her old FBI partner returns to help, allowing her to use both sides of her skill set—woman and FBI agent.

4. A “do or die” mentality.

Failure is not an option in a good climax, and the stakes are at their highest as the story races to a close. As the protagonist and his allies march toward that final confrontation, they know there’s no turning back. It’s all or nothing.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel realizes he can actually get them all home—they just need to survive to do it.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss decides to do whatever she has to to save both her and Peeta—even if that means lying to the viewers and playing up her romance act.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie Hart risks her life and career on what she knows is right.

The act three plan is the moment when everything falls into place for the protagonist. He finally knows who he is and what he’s supposed to do, and he sets off to accomplish that. There can still be plenty of uncertainty and even fear on the protagonist’s part, but most of that personal self doubt is typically gone by now. The remaining fear is for the antagonist and the ability to win, not the fear of not being good enough to even try.

Do you have any questions about the Act Three Plan?

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).


A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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1 comment:

  1. I'm so happy you're doing this series. I started a side project, and this is the first time I'm outlining the whole story (hopefully it saves me from gaping plot holes and characters wandering in and out of the novel). I have my beat sheet filled out, but was a little perplexed as to how to grow those beats into pages and chapters. This is helping me figure out what I need to focus on. Thanks!

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