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The Three-Act Structure: How It Works, Examples, and Why It Is Right for You

You've often heard that the process of writing is formulaic. While it might be more complicated to apply a formula to a work of fiction, anyone who has studied how to write a five-paragraph essay understands how this happens.

The truth is that creating a plot in fiction is less about mathematics and more about understanding how stories have been told since the dawn of storytelling. While settings, characters and conflicts may change, the basic elements of a story—of a plot—are essentially the same, regardless of what the story is.

First, let's cover a bit of terminology.

When we refer to three-act structure, we are referring to the substance of the story. The three parts (or acts) are easy:

  • Act 1: The beginning
  • Act 2: The middle
  • Act 3: The end

Think of each of these elements of structure as the levels of a home. They each make up an important part of the home (story) but there has to be a way to move from one level to the next. In the same sense, there have to be turning points in the plot that keep the story moving, and keep the characters walking up stairs to the next level. These turning points are what maintain a flow in the story, and keep your characters moving through the levels with the right intensity and direction.

The nine plot points of storytelling

So, within the turning points of each major act, we have nine total points to consider:

  1. Act 1 (Setup): Exposition
  2. Act 1 (Setup): Inciting Incident
  3. Act 1 (Setup): Plot Point One or The Point of No Return
  4. Act 2 (Confrontation): Rising Action
  5. Act 2 (Confrontation): Midpoint
  6. Act 2 (Confrontation): Plot Point Two
  7. Act 3 (Resolution): The Black Moment or Dark Night of the Soul
  8. Act 3 (Resolution): Climax
  9. Act 3 (Resolution): Denouement

In referring to fiction being formulaic, I'm referring to the fact that these plot points are the basis of every great story you've ever heard. Think of it as the beat to great storytelling. A character whose journey is well-crafted will move along to this beat and will change over the course of his or her movement.

Once you learn how to recognize these plot points and the three-act structure, go back and watch your favorite movie or read your favorite book and see if you can pinpoint each plot point mapped out within the story. If you come across a story that doesn't clearly delineate each point, the beat will feel "off".

Your protagonist's journey upstairs

Now that you know where each point lies in the structure of a story, let's take a look at what each point should do to achieve effective storytelling and move your character from beginning to end, from the first level to the top level, in a way that's memorable for your reader. As I explain the details of each plot point, I'll also give you some examples of each from a well-known book and movie. I chose Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird because despite the fact it is a character-driven story (rather than a plot-driven one), Lee still stays true to the basic structure discussed in this article. For the movie, I chose The Matrix, a well-known science fiction film directed by The Wachowski Brothers.

These examples should help clarify how the author (or screenwriter) used each plot point in the three-act structure to build the story and propel the character arc forward. All examples are taken from this site, which is a great resource for any writer looking for help in building the structure of their story.

Think of each act in a three-act structure as levels on a house. The plot points move your character from one level to the next.
Think of each act in a three-act structure as levels on a house. The plot points move your character from one level to the next. Photo by Gaetano Cessati on Unsplash.

Act 1: The Setup


Think of the exposition as when you first get to know the character and his or her world. It includes any background information the author wants to provide about the setting, situation or characters in a story. The word comes from Latin and it is translated as "a showing forth." Exposition is crucial to any story. Without it, nothing that happens afterward makes sense.

Great authors and storytellers use the exposition to give us a sense of the time and place of the story, as well as empathy for the main character. Without knowing something about him or her, we can't feel empathy or care what happens to the character throughout the rest of the story.

Example from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee:

We meet the story's narrator, a young girl named Jean Louise Finch, who is nicknamed Scout. Her brother is named Jem. Her ancestors fled England to escape religious persecution and established a farm on the Alabama River. The farm is called Finch's Landing. Scout's father is Atticus Finch, who is a lawyer in the nearby town of Maycomb. Atticus' wife died when Scout was two, so an elderly woman named Calpurnia helps raise Scout and Jem.

Example from The Matrix:

A woman named Trinity is at a computer and being apprehended by police officers. What appears to be federal agents show up to take her instead. The woman is a gifted fighter who escapes apprehension by performing moves that seem impossible for a human to do. She escapes. Meanwhile, Thomas A. Anderson is a computer programmer by day and a hacker by night who goes by the name Neo. He keeps encountering cryptic references to something called the Matrix.

Inciting incident

The inciting incident varies in when it happens, but it inevitably happens in any great story. It is the moment when the main character(s)'s life is disturbed by some action or news. Like exposition, it is from a Latin word, incitāre, which means to start up, to put something into rapid motion, or to stimulate.

Without the inciting incident, a story risks losing its appeal. Additionally, too much exposition before the inciting incident can also produce disinterested readers. That's why it's very important for authors to carefully plan the inciting incident and make sure it happens swiftly.

Example from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee:

There are a few possible Inciting Events here: the discovery of the pennies in the tree outside the Radley house, Scout's hearing Boo's laughter from inside the house, and Jem's nearly getting shot by Boo's father and then finding his clumsily mended pants on the fence. Really, they're all part of a piece, but since we have to choose just one as the Inciting Event, I'm going with Jem's pants, since it's the big moment that truly influences the children's (especially Jem's) perception of their reclusive neighbor Boo Radley.

Example from The Matrix:

Thomas Anderson receives mysterious communications calling him by his hacker name, Neo. The sender has Trinity contact him at a rave. Every warning that Neo is being watched is confirmed in moments. When agents come to arrest Neo for his laundry list of hacking crimes, the mystery man calls Neo and tries to guide him to escape, but Neo lets himself be arrested rather than going out on the scaffolding of his high-rise office to escape.

The point of no return (or plot point one)

Depending on the expert you ask, this point in the story can be called multiple things, including the point of no return or plot point one. While the inciting incident gives the main character a shock to his or her daily routine, the point of no return is the moment that character makes a choice to do something about it. It is the point at which the character understands that he or she has to act to right the wrong, and take a step forward into something from which there could be no return. Life will never be the same—the character knows it and the reader knows it, too.

The point of no return (or plot point one) often results in a huge boost of empathy from the reader (or audience) toward the protagonist. It's the moment that firmly establishes the protagonist as "the good guy," or at least the guy you should be rooting for. Without this moment in the story's structure, an author could lose his or her audience because audiences need to feel empathy toward the protagonist to be interested in what happens next.

Example from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee:

The children learn that their father, Atticus, has agreed to defend the black man Tom Robinson in a rape trial—and that the town disapproves. This is where Jem and Scout are plunged into the conflict of blind prejudice—which they have only flirted with unknowingly throughout the First Act.

Example from The Matrix:

Neo is offered a choice to discover the truth and leave the Normal World behind forever—or forget everything he learned and continue living a normal life. He takes the plunge down the rabbit hole and wakes up in the real world, in a twisted cybernetic metaphor of birth.

Morpheus informs Neo he removed him from the Matrix because he believes Neo to be The One, a prophesied revenant reincarnation who will destroy the Matrix and free humanity. Neo rejects this idea, but allows Morpheus to train him to survive in the real world. .
A screenshot from The Matrix where Morpheus trains Neo to survive in the real world
A screenshot from The Matrix in which Morpheus trains Neo to survive in the real world.

Act 2: The Confrontation

Rising action

Rising action includes incidents that happen following the point of no return and before the midpoint of your story. These incidents serve several purposes: they need to build tension, raise the stakes, reveal more information about your characters (including their flaws), and create suspense in the narrative.

Another great way to look at rising action is to see it as a collection of obstacles that get in the protagonist's way while attempting to achieve his goal. As you're creating your characters, one important question to ask is: What is his/her desire? What motivates them to do what they are doing in the story? If you know the answers to these questions, then your rising action will involve ways in which those desires and motivations are hindered.

Often, this can include things like competition, separation, internal conflict and external forces out of the protagonist's control.

Example from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee:

Despite their father's entreaties for them to turn the other cheek when they are twitted for his choices, Jem loses his temper when the crotchety old lady Mrs. Dubose insults Atticus. Jem destroys her flowers, and Atticus makes Jem spend the next month reading to her.

We see the emphasis of the antagonistic force—pointless, cruel prejudice—from Mrs. Dubose. She is a one-time character, who quickly dies and exits the story, but she is a representative of the overall antagonistic force.

Example from The Matrix:

Morpheus introduces Neo to the unsettling facts that enemy Agents have near omnipresent access to any place in the Matrix, and to any person still wired into it. If your mind dies in the Matrix, your body in the real world dies. This fact is driven home when Neo fails to transcend his belief in gravity and falls dozens of stories to the pavement below, feeling the impact, but emerging mostly unharmed because it was a controlled simulation rather than the actual Matrix.


The midpoint is the plot point at which your character changes directions and moves from reaction to action. In other words, much of what happens to your character before this point is a reaction to events out of his or her control, or reaction to an internal conflict. At some point in the character's arc, he or she must experience growth. There has to be a change from reaction to action—from being out of control to in control.

Example from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee:

On the eve of Tom Robinson's trial, Jem and Scout follow their father to where he is standing guard outside the jailhouse. A lynch mob arrives, and Scout unwittingly faces them down and shames them into leaving. This is such a subtle, beautiful Moment of Truth: never stated outright, but proven through the actions of a child who doesn't even fully realize what she is doing.

Example from The Matrix:

In the real world, the rebel's ship, the Nebuchadnezzar, is attacked by enemy squid-like robots, but they escape without having to use their EMP weapon.

Cypher, regretting ever entering the real world, makes a deal with the enemy Agents, in which they promise him his ideal reality in exchange for betraying Morpheus.

Plot point two

Think back to stories you've read or movies you've seen in which suddenly, past the middle of the story, things are finally working in the protagonist's favor. Maybe the protagonist discovered a major clue and is finally on the right track after the obstacles in the rising action. Maybe the love interest is finally in his arms after they've been separated during the rising action.

Think of plot point two as the moment when everything seems to be going right, finally. It's an exciting moment and a resolution to the conflict is at least in sight.

Example from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee:

As the trial begins, Mr. Ewell—the father of the girl who is supposed to have been raped—opens his virulent testimony against Tom.

Example from The Matrix:

Morpheus takes Neo to meet The Oracle, the woman who prophesied that Morpheus would find The One. She knew the original One, who could create his own reality inside the Matrix.

She tells Neo Morpheus believes so much that Neo is The One that he will sacrifice himself for that belief, and either he or Neo will die.

Act 3: The Resolution

The dark moment (or dark night of the soul)

When our protagonist has reached plot point two and everything seems to be working in her favor for once, the next plot point is the one no one saw coming (but should have). This point has many names, but my favorite is "the dark night of the soul." Just when we thought the hero would achieve his desire—just when he thought he could let his guard down—bam!

The worst possible scenario happens. This is the dark moment and the dark night of the soul for our protagonist.

Maybe he loses a battle he expected to win. Maybe the love of his life, who he'd been pursuing throughout the story, has second thoughts—or worse, is in a major accident.

This plot point is extremely useful in a story to allow the element of surprise for the reader. It is the moment right before the climax when the story is nearing the height of its tension.

The dark night of the soul is when the protagonist faces seemingly insurmountable odds
The dark night of the soul is when the protagonist faces seemingly insurmountable odds. Photo by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash.

Example from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee:

Despite Atticus's eloquent defense and the lack of any clear evidence, the jury finds Tom guilty. The Third Plot Point is made especially personal through Jem's reaction. He is crushed by the injustice of it and struggles to understand. Despite winning the case, Mr. Ewell swears to get even with Atticus for humiliating him on the witness stand.

Example from The Matrix:

Agents find and trap them inside the building. Morpheus is captured and half the crew are killed, some by Agents or police in the Matrix and some by Cypher in the real world.


We knew this moment was coming, especially after the dark night of the soul that our protagonist just faced. The climax is when the protagonist has had enough and finally faces off against the big guy for the last time, come what may. It's the no-holds-barred moment when the protagonist simply HAS to win because he is left with nothing if he doesn't.

Think of the climax as the crisis point, when everything has come to a head. It's "do or die." Often, crises force us to make a decision we normally wouldn't make—one that has life or death consequences. This is the moment when your protagonist will fight the odds (and most of the time, win against them). In simplest of terms, it's the moment the entire story has been building toward and the most exciting point of the story.

Example from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee:

That Halloween, Mr. Ewell attacks Jem and Scout on their way home from a pageant. Jem is knocked unconscious and breaks his arm. The children are saved when Boo breaks his solitude and kills Mr. Ewell with a kitchen knife.

Scout agrees with the sheriff that she will say Mr. Ewell fell on his knife—in order to protect Boo from pointless scrutiny and attention. After spending most of the story trying to figure out a way to get a glimpse of him, she finally understands it is better to let him live in peace.

Example from The Matrix:

Agent Smith comes after Neo. Instead of running away, Neo chooses to fight Smith. He wins the fight. Agent Smith simply uploads into another bystander, but Neo has done the impossible: faced an Agent and lived. Smith chases him down as Neo's friends find him another exit out of the Matrix.

Agent Smith corners Neo just before he reaches the exit point and riddles him with bullets. In the real world, Neo's vital signs cease. Trinity reveals the Oracle said she would fall in love with The One, so Neo can't be dead because she loves him.

This alters reality in the Matrix, and Neo revives, reborn as The One. He can now change things around him in The Matrix. He easily defeats the Agents, finally destroying Smith by diving into him and destroying him from the inside. Neo emerges victorious, and the other Agents flee.


Our protagonist has reached the end of his conflict and his character arc is complete. In the denouement, a final resolution has been reached. Anything that was unclear has been clarified (unless you're reading a book in a series). Most, if not all, of the obstacles facing the protagonist have been cleared.

Example from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee:

Scout escorts Boo home. Standing on his porch, she reviews the events of the last few years and realizes Boo has been looking out for her and Jem all along.

Example from The Matrix:

Neo sends a message to the rest of the Matrix, similar to the one Morpheus give him in the beginning, asking the people to shake off their blind reality and enter a world where all is possible. He takes off into the sky, breaking the Matrix's law of gravity.
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