Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Plotting Made Easy: Do You Need the Three-Act Structure?

By Alex Limberg, @RidethePen

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Not every writer writes the same way, and not every story follows the same path. Please help me welcome Alex Limberg to the lecture hall today to share some thoughts on why and when you might want to ignore the three act structure.

Alex is blogging on ‘Ride the Pen’ to help you boost your fiction writing. His blog dissects famous authors (works, not bodies). Create an intriguing story structure with his checklist 44 Key Questions” to test your story (free download) or check out his fun and detailed creative writing prompts. Shakespeare is jealous. Alex has worked as a copywriter and lived in Vienna, Los Angeles, Madrid and Hamburg.

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Take it away Alex...

Alex Limberg
Many writing tutorials tell you that you have to use the three-act structure, or else your story is doomed for all eternity.

Is this true?

Here is my take on the three-act structure, and whether it’s friend or foe.

Let me answer the above question right away: It’s both (there, now you can close this post…)!

It’s a friend because it provides you with a solid framework that always works. Human psychology will always stay the same, and therefore the three-act structure will never become ineffective.

The first plot point will always grab your readers at just the right time: Not too soon, so you can build up your story for a while; but not too late either, so your readers won’t get bored.

The midpoint will always inject some additional drama into your plot to avoid a middle section in which nothing happens.

And the climax will always give you that “peak tension” feeling that comes almost at the end of stories (hopefully).

All of this makes sense. There is a reason why big Hollywood studios would never throw the three-act structure overboard while producing the next blockbuster: For them, too much money is at stake. They need a reliable formula to bring in reliable revenue.

If you tell them you have “something unusual that has never been done before,” they don’t get enthusiastic with dreamy eyes. No, they get nervous.

In short, you can build on the three-act structure as on a proven foundation that works. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Remember, reinventing the wheel is arduous and risky!

That’s especially good news for newbie writers who are looking for orientation. With the three-act structure, they have a solid game plan, right out of the gate.

On the other hand, if you stick to a precise game plan, you will naturally have less leeway for creativity. I’m sure the three-act structure has mercilessly killed off a lot of helpless newbie ideas in their infant stages.

Who is to say that you can’t start your main plot arc 50% into your story? Maybe you have other fascinating events to show before that.

And who is to say you can’t kill off your main character 60% into your story? Occasionally and when executed skillfully, books and movies have gotten the most intense reactions by surprising their audience that way.

The three-act structure gives you a solid base, but it also restricts your possibilities and holds you back.

(Here's more on Is Story Structure Strangling Your Writing?)

Think about it: Like most writers, you have probably read a lot of books in your life (and watched a lot of movies). And you might even have a couple of years of writing experience under your belt. So I’m sure you have ingrained the three-act structure deep into your subconscious.

Would you put the most action-packed and toe-curling moment right into the middle of your story?

Probably not.

There we go. Much of the three-act structure you are already implementing subconsciously. This is why, especially for more experienced writers, the three-act structure can be more of a prison than a support system.

So which conclusions can we take from this?

1. Don’t sweat it

Don’t panic if your first plot point comes only 5% in, instead of 25%. It’s all good. Step back from your story for a while, and when you take it out of the drawer again, you can look at it with more objective eyes: You will see what works and what doesn’t. If you have no writing experience, ask other writers or readers for feedback. Even better, look at your outline to see what works and what doesn’t: You will save yourself a lot of rewriting with a solid outline.

2. If you are new to writing or feel like a solid framework will help you, then go for it

Use the three-act structure to your heart’s content! Enjoy the familiarity and trustworthiness that radiates from that second plot point. Also, feel free to modify your structure if you think the story calls for it.

(Here's more on 6 Ways to Structure (and Plot) Your Novel)

3. Don’t become a slave to other writers’ structures

Ultimately, we writers define our own rules. Any rule is there to be broken at some point, by someone – but it has to be done skillfully. The more experience you get, the more you can feel in your gut what works and what doesn’t. And it’s a good thing to trust your instincts. After all, instincts are rational decisions too: They are just subconscious ones (the sum of all of our past experiences).

I hope this post lets you see the pros and cons of the three-act structure more clearly.

(Here's more on Form Fitting: Using Story Structure to Your Advantage)

After all, whether or not something in our lives helps us, always depends on how we are using it. Even the vacuum cleaner would do great damage if you cleaned the fish bowl with it.

Or it could give you a perfectly clean carpet.


  1. If a first plot point comes 5% in, is it even a first plot point? The lesson of the structure is that there's a lot of power in how readers expect timing to go. In a case like that, it's not that the first plot point is early, it's that the story starts very fast, and then around the 20-30% point might elevate something else to be a first plot point. Or if there's nothing suitable there, there is no first plot point... and maybe that works.

    1. The first plot point is when the story arc that spans over the biggest part of the story kicks off. The way I see it, if it doesn't span over the biggest part of the story, then it's not the first plot point. Which means we are slowly but surely leaving the 3-act structure behind...

  2. Many speak against starting a novel with a prologue, saying that it will lose most readers. They say it is much better inserting the information in the prologue into the story at various places along the way. Reading your entry here, am I correct in assuming that you feel it's okay to start with a prologue, even a lengthy one. The prologue doesn't include a philosophyical discussion. It's a dire warning, in story form, that you could die confront one of these as soon as you open the door to your car. What do you think?

    1. Hi Jim, first of all, you can do anything you want (as I'm sure you know), the question is just: How commercial do you want your story to be? The reason you mention against the prologue is certainly one that will count for agents and publishers, and going that way is the safe commercial route.

      With that being said, your prologue sounds intriguing (if executed well and not overly long). Tension is foreshadowed action and confrontation and can be even more exciting than the actual action or confrontation itself (just like looking forward to receiving your birthday present is often more fun than actually receiving it). I say go for it!