How to Write a Story with a 3 Act Structure

How to write a story….was a common lesson plan as a child in school. If you think back to your elementary years and learning about stories, one of the first things most people learn is that a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. You were learning the 3 act structure! It stems back to ancient times when the philosopher, Aristotle, identified the parts he saw over and over again in Greek tragic plays.

This is the basic 3 part structure that most movies are based on as well because it works really well!


While this is NOT the ONLY way to tell a story, today I’m going to break down the parts of the 3 Act Structure. It can help guide your mind as you think about the part of your story to include.

I’ll bet you include most of them naturally, without really thinking about it. The more you understand how the elements of a story are used to create tension and peak interest,….the better you will be at taking your listener on the emotional journey you had as you tell your own story!

I’ve created a 1 page visual summary of the 3 Act Structure that you can print out and stick on your wall to reference as you craft your many stories when they are ready to come out! Enter your name and email below the green button to grab your copy!

Let’s dive in! This is the 3 Act Story Structure Graphic! Ta-da! Each icon is numbered. The numbers correlate to each part of the lesson below. 

ACT 1: Set Up

1. Establish the ROUTINE of WHO the story is about. (Hint: If you’re preparing one of your stories, this would be you.) Who were you when the story started? Identify supporting characters in your life…making sure to clarify your relationship.

2.WHERE – Where are you? When are you? Time of year? Culture? Depending on the story’s purpose, this may need more detail…or it could be a done in one sentence.

3. EMOTIONAL STATE– What is on your mind? What are your goals at the beginning of the story?  This sets the mood for the story. It will help the listener to know the character and relate. Then as the story takes off…the emotional state should rise and build until you reach the climax of the story.

4. REVEAL- This is also called the INCITING INCIDENT. This is the thing that makes the story take off. It’s an introduction of a problem to the main character’s (you) normal routine & world. The bigger this is, the higher the stakes to resolve them. Even if it’s mundane to other people, it needs to be a significant issue to the main character in order to create a good story.

5. PROPOSED SOLUTION– This is where the character makes a tentative plan on how to fix or adjust to the REVEAL/ Inciting Incident that occurred. (It shouldn’t go as planned…or else it’s more like a Dora the Explorer episode….unless you want it super simplified for your audience of toddlers.)

ACT 2- Confrontation

This is usually the longest act. It’s were the main character (you) confronts their problem.

6. FIRST PLOT TWIST– The main character isn’t going to have it easy. Meaning, something they didn’t plan on happening occurs. It could be a physical thing, feeling, or person (antagonist).

7. PUSH– The character pushes through this challenge pretty well and it seems like they’re going to reach their goal.

8. SET BACK– Then…usually about half way through this act, they have a MAJOR SET BACK.

9. CRISIS (despair)– The main character is really upset about the set back. They may think about giving up. Things are getting much worse.

ACT 3 -Resolution

10. BREAKING POINT & ASK– The main character is stuck and know they need to rethink their approach…and ask or find help.

11. RENEWED ENERGY– The character gets the help they need and is back to take on the problem no matter what.

12. CLIMAX– This is the emotional & physical peak for the whole story. Depending on your story, either the main character wins or fails at this point. This is the resolution to the big REVEAL from the beginning of the story. Does the character fix the problem? Are they defeated and have to live with it? What is the resolution? YOU MUST HAVE ONE.

13. FALLING ACTION– Things start to wrap up and return to the normal (or new normal). No more problems. This story is ending fast…

14. TRANSFORMATION REVEAL– A change has occurred in the main character, for better or worse. What has happened to them?

15. LESSON or MORAL of the story- What did the main character learn? About themselves? About life? About human nature? What?

 

If you go through the 3 Act Structure to craft your story, you’ll have a classic linear journey. Remember to keep only the details and plot points that help to propel the main character towards the resolve.

THE MOST BASIC ITEMS from this, that I used when making up stories in improv can be found HERE in this lesson, 5 Details to Include in Basically Any Story.

If you’d like a copy of the graphic used in this article (with a few notes on it) to use as a story crafting resource, just enter your name and email below on the green button to get it emailed to you ASAP.

To put this lesson into action, go outline one of YOUR stories using the 3 Act Structure. Leave a comment and tell me what story you’re going to tell!