The Three Act Novel – How to Structure your Book

Posted on October 18, 2012 by Noorosha0 Comments

I’ve spent a long time sketching out common structures in the novels that I’ve read – mostly in the thriller / mystery genre, although most genres follow a similar path. It’s classic story telling. It’s been around for as long as we’ve had the ability to communicate and if you stick with the classic structure, you’ll find writing your story into a cohesive whole a hell of a lot easier.

That being said, there is some debate over how many “Acts” a story should have. I have seen detailed arguments outlining the six act structure, and even the nine act structure. But, for me, all of these are just developments from the classic three act structure that has been around for thousands of years. In a nutshell, the three act structure can be outlined as:

  • Act One: The characters and setting are established. Then something big happens.
  • Act Two: The characters decide they want to overcome the issues introduced at the end of Act One and work towards that goal. At the end of this Act, they work out exactly what they need to do to achieve their goals.
  • Act Three: The characters carry out the actions required to achieve the goals explained in Act Two. It either works or it doesn’t.

Think about this structure in relation to pretty much any famous story. For example, Romeo and Juliet:

  • Act One: The rivalry between the Montagues and Capulets is established. Romeo meets Juliet and falls in love. Then they realise that their love is forbidden and it’s all very dramatic.
  • Act Two: R and J decide to carry on behind their parents’ back. They get married. Then Mercucio gets killed and Romeo seeks revenge. R and J realise they must do something really crazy if they want to be together.
  • Act Three: R and J carry out their crazy plan. It doesn’t work.


The Dark Knight Rises
The Dark Knight Rises (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Okay. So that’s a pretty old story, so what about something a little more modern? How about Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Rises movie:


Act One: Batman has been gone for nearly ten years. Then shit kicks off when Bane comes to town.

  • Act Two: Batman comes out of retirement and faces his new enemies. He gets beaten and thrown in jail. The citizens in Gotham carry on without him and everything goes to hell. Batman decides he wants to go save them so he (eventually) climbs out of prison with a plan to save the day.
  • Act Three: Batman carries out his plan to save the day. It works.

You can apply this structure to almost any story. Characters are introduced, then something happens, then they try to fix it. The six and nine act structures are really just an expansion of this – incredibly useful for plotting out a novel, but if you like things simple, keep the three act structure in the back of your mind.


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