The 3 Act Plot Structure by Jerry Dunne

The plot isn’t a series of events that move forward in a random way. The events are connected by cause and effect and have a very definite structure to them. The plot for the short story can be structured like a 3 act play and like in a play the acts are divided into scenes. Within each scene the structure is like the play itself with a beginning, middle and end, culminating in a high point.

Let’s take a closer look at this 3 act structure.

Act 1

Start with a set-up or situation. A set-up can be viewed in a very simple way: introduce a protagonist and put him in a problematic situation. Let’s suppose that your short story idea has given rise to two strong opposing characters and you can see the conflict that will nicely rise out of the confrontation between them. But here you must start thinking of the individual situations in which you will pit your protagonist against your antagonist.

What triggers the conflict’s story and kicks the plot into gear is known as the inciting incident. This will be something dramatic and disturbing for the protagonist. It comes as close to the beginning of the story as possible. Once character and setting are introduced, it should happen. The inciting incident signals the end of the first act.

In my story The Hair Snatching Witch the inciting incident comes in the second scene. The first scene sets up character and situation. In this second scene, Gracie Glass is hair snatched by the witch. This horrible incident means that Gracie soon plans to end the witch’s hair-snatching days.

Act 2

This is the main body of the story. I personally believe it is the trickiest part to write because it is where you are placing scenes that develop character, plot and conflict in a smooth and logical manner and the tension must always be rising, even in quiet periods of reflection. It must be clear that the stakes are rising for the protagonist, and that everything is heading toward an inevitable clash with the antagonist.

Many stories have a lively beginning and then a rambling middle. You cannot afford to ramble in a short story at any point. Rambling means the tension is fast draining away, leaving the reader growing bored. Alternatively, the middle part may be short, but empty of conflict. Or it might have lots of conflict but none of it really relevant to the plot. In a six thousand word short, the middle bit may take up four thousand words or even more. Ironically, this short word length might end up seeming like a vast desert in which you are trying to construct a sharp, well-written middle part.

So what can you do to prevent these bad things happening? Well, assuming that your original idea really does have short story potential then you can plan this middle act carefully. Once you have planned it, you can then play with it in your own head for a while. Question yourself over it! Look for weaknesses and if you see any, strengthen them! Remember, throughout the act you must have rising tension.

This is just a rough guide to how I suggest you plan it, though some of it is essential to cause the greatest amount of tension and excitement in the story. (You’ll see why later on).

Have 3 clashes between the protagonist and antagonist.

In the first clash, the hero can be thwarted. Bear in mind this might already have happened in the inciting incident. You may or may not want your hero to receive an even greater drubbing.

The second clash might end in a messy draw or the hero might be done down even more. Or the hero might win and think it is game, set and match. Then the third clash will be quite unexpected.

The third clash will have a high point and the darkest moment. The whole point of this third clash is to ratchet the tension up even higher. Remember that! It will look like our hero has got one over on the opposition, this is the high point, but then, suddenly, the darkest moment arrives, where it looks like all he has tried to achieve is now undone. It looks like he has completely failed in his quest to sort out the problem of the story. This is an essential moment because it makes the tension rise even higher. It is the moment in the horror story when it looks like the monster is dead but then rises up sneakily behind our hero. It is the most nail-biting moment of the film where it looks like our unsuspecting hero is about to be devoured.

In The Hair-Snatching Witch, the first meeting (inciting incident) with the witch is where she mugs Gracie for her hair. On Eagle point, Gracie has come with the hopes of catching her. This is the first clash in the middle section of the story. The witch gets the better of her here and Gracie is left humiliated. Soon Gracie finds out that witches are very vain. With this piece of information she arranges a hair beauty contest with the intention of trapping the witch. At the hair beauty contest, the second clash between them, Gracie finds success and catches the witch. The third clash takes part in the cells of the police station. Gracie is compelled to visit her there. The witch lures here over to the cage promising her the secret of hair restoration. But it’s a trap. The witch grabs hold of Gracie and with her powerful hands begins to strangle the girl. Here is the darkest moment.

Let’s see if we can simplify Act 2.

3 clashes between protagonist/s and antagonist/s, each scene helping to raise the tension and on the high point of the third clash the protagonist/s suddenly has her darkest moment where it looks like she will lose everything she hoped to gain.

And that is the end of act 2.

Act 3

We have the highest climatic point in this scene where everything that our hero is fighting for might still be lost. This is where he turns and faces the monster that had not died and has the last set-to with him. In your story it might be something completely different. It might even be an argument done with dialogue only. This is an all or nothing moment where everything the hero has striven for will turn to dust if he loses at this point. In The Hair-Snatching Witch it is where Gracie must fight off the witch or be strangled to death.

I personally think this is the easiest part of the story if Act 1 and 2 are done properly.

After this, in a short story, the tale might end on a satisfying twist. In a novel all the loose ends are tied up concerning the plot strands and characters involved in those strands.

A story can be structured like a three act play.

3 Act Play

This covers the set-up to the final outcome and the overall objective/problem to be tackled.

Act 1

Set-up

inciting event

Act 2.

Conflict (must have cause and effect and rising tension)

High point

Darkest moment

Act 3

Highest climactic point

Final outcome

As I said, the above is just a rough guide. You can play around with this formula for structure in different ways. This formula works for film and novel really well, so for your short story you may well need to play around with it. The point is that you must know what you are doing; you must understand the underpinning psychology of why this formula creates rising tension and holds us spellbound to a high degree and leaves us feeling emotionally spent but without over-milking our emotion and attention.  Once you understand this, then whatever you do with the formula you are at least not working blind.

To understand this underpinning psychology let’s use a sporting analogy for reference. We can use the tug of war one to fully explain why the 3 Act structure works so well.

Act 1 is the set-up and the challenge. One team might scream out a challenge to the other (antagonist does the challenging). The contest begins. The team making the challenge looks tough and formidable and pulls the other team (protagonist) quickly forward toward the line. That is the end of act 1. It is aggressive and confrontational but exciting for the spectators (reader, in your case).

In Act 2 you have the teams pulling back and forward. The challenged team (protagonist) might manage somehow to pull the other side a few feet back, but then the challengers (antagonist) digs deep and pulls the challenged team forward again. This exciting to-ing and fro-ing is constantly forcing up the tension. This might happen three times in all, so it’s like three little matches within the overall match.

The challenged team might be looking very tired by the end of the act. You can see it in their gritted teeth and their trembling muscles. The challengers look tired but not nearly as tired. After an exciting Act 2, it really looks like the challenged (protagonist) are going to lose it. They are dragged right to the line and the other side are sucking in their breaths and digging in their heels, ready to make that one last effort to drag the opposition forward over the line and seal the deal (here is the darkest moment for the protagonist).

In Act 3 things don’t quite turn out as you might think. The losing team (protagonist) suddenly finds its second strength. It pulls back hard and regains a step. Then the other side pulls back hard. Another fierce struggle ensues, but this time the team that looked like it was going to lose, now pulls its opponents over the line in a nail-biting finish.

This is a simple sporting analogy. You can make more complicated sporting analogies using soccer, rugby, wrestling, boxing or whatever, as examples. I use the tug-of-war analogy because everyone can grasp what I am saying: you don’t have to be a tug of war fan to see it. It is a simple and expressive example and gets the basic points across clearly. If you were just to have a match, where within the opening seconds one team pulled the other over the line, or a match that lasted minutes but one team looked like it would win right from the start with no real balance between the contestants, it would not be anywhere near as exciting. Of course, you can’t plan the most exciting outcome for a sport, but you can for a story.

See how the psychology behind the 3 act structure works!

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Jerry Dunne is a self-published children’s novelist whose work is found on Amazon and Smashwords. This post is an edited extract from his book How To Write Children’s Short Stores (for the middle reader). His blog is www.jerrydunne.com.

One Comment

  1. I’ve structured my novel along those lines. Definite darkest moment in Act Two.

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