3-Act Structure for Novels


All storytelling is built on three acts: the set-up; the main exposition & action; the resolution.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s a novel, short story, screenplay, or stand-up comic’s joke –they all have the three acts.  Even plays broken down into four or five acts still use the three-act structure to tell the story.

When I plot a novel –and especially when I rewrite after finishing a first draft—the first thing I do is craft an outline that identifies the three acts.

Here’s how I view the elements that make up the three acts:

 ACT ONE (aka Part One)

  • We meet the protagonist and most of the central characters.
  • The major plotline is introduced–either overtly or through foreshadowing.  This is the main “problem” or “issue” around which the novel revolves.
  • Subplots are introduced to give complexity and variety to the events.
  • Often Act One begins with a dramatic moment, or teaser, as a way of hooking the reader’s interest, and then we settle down to introduce our characters and establish the “world” in which they live.
  • Good novels start at some interesting point.  Have a reason for page one to open the story.
  • Begin the process of establishing the reader’s emotional & intellectual reactions to the characters.
    • Who is the protagonist?
    • Do we like this person?
    • Do we care about what is happening?
    • Do we care about the relationships that being established?
    • What does the protagonist have to solve in order for the book to ultimate conclude?
    • Is the problem compelling enough to draw us through several hundred pages?
  • The villain is introduced no later than the end of Act One.


  • In novels the middle act is generally the longest and involves the deepening & exploration of the central plot themes.
  • Character relationships are fleshed out and explored. 
  • Complications are introduced that will change the direction of the story and begin steering it in unexpected directions.
  • Backstory is provided.
  • This is the most important act in the drama because you have the two most important structural moves in the story.
  • By the end of Act Two things should look pretty grim for the protagonist.  It has to seem that what he is trying to do mail fail.
  • Act Two ends with a dramatic turn of events.


  • This is where all of the plot threads are woven together and drawn tight.
  • By the end of act three every major character will have gone through some process of change, for good or bad.
  • The world we introduced our readers to at the beginning of Act One is now different.
  • Most of Act Three is a race to resolve the story.
  • You must resolve the story.
  • The good guys don’t always win (though they seldom lose in bestsellers).


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