Using the Three Act Structure to Plan Your Writing

Three act structure is one of the most popular ways to structure a story. If you’re a writer, it can also help you to plan it before you’ve written a single word. Seeing and planning your story at a glance in three acts lets you see developments (and potential holes) in your story before you’ve gotten halfway in writing it – and it can save you a lot of time through the editing process. 

Here’s how you can use the popular three act structure to plan your writing. 

Start with a Synopsis

Begin your story idea with a synopsis. That’s the premise of your entire story told in just a few sentences or paragraphs. If you can’t explain your story to someone in a short blurb paragraph (like the one you’ll find at the back of a paperback), it usually means you should reconsider the story you’re trying to tell. 

The synopsis gives you, the writer, a starting point. 

“Having lost his job as a NYC crime beat reporter, John Smith had nothing else left to lose – and when a finger in a box suddenly turns up on his desk, he’s forced into an underworld darker than anything he’s seen before.”

See? As a writer, a blurb gives you a premise, and some kind of idea where you should kick off act I. 

Planning Your Story

Open up a page on your word processor or reach for a pen. Now, create three headers – one for each act. 

Here’s where you’re going to write down the plot points; The most important things that happen in your story. These can be keywords or sentences – but try  to keep them short. This is meant to be your outline that you can refer back to while you’re actively writing the story (and will likely serve as your guide when editing).

When you change your story, go back to your outline file or page and change the same thing there. This allows for your planning outline to be current. 

Planning the First Act

Every first act has an opening scene.

If you want to see more examples of this, grab a few of your nearest short stories or books and see what their opening sentence and scene is. 

Sometimes it starts on a particularly high or tense point. Other times, it introduces a scene, setting, character or premise. 

It can start in different ways, but the first act always starts the story.

Getting to the Second Act

The second act of your story is the middle – although not always in chronological order. 

Every action has a reaction, and this is the part where you prove it. What happened in act one that set your story in motion to move forward? What’s the quest for your hero – and what throws him off achieving his goal? 

Compare it to a video game: The second act is Mario making his way through the castle. The third act is the final level. 

How does your hero and villain react to each other? Strengths, weaknesses, plot twists and “false” plot distractions? 

All of this is for Act II.

The Third Act

The third act should be the confrontation of your story. 

Tie up loose ends, bring characters together, put the hero against the villain for their final confrontation for the story. Throw in a twist-ending here if you want – but not all good stories require one. 

Make sure that the third act is never predicable through the first or second. (Here, your outline can allow you to see where this might happen!) 

Once you’re done with your basic outline, start up another document and write down any sentences and snippets that might have popped into your head as Good Ones for The Story.

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