Friday, March 30, 2018

Is The Three Act Structure No Longer Useful?

Photo courtesy of VisualHunt

As some of you may know, I’m big into story structure. My ability to take a scene in my head and convert it into words on the page may be lacking, but story structure is a whole 'nother beast. Three-act structure, along with its requisite story beats at well-defined points, just makes sense to me. So much so that I’ve given a few lectures on the topic at local libraries and my SCBWI writing group. I can scarcely watch a movie these days without noticing the first plot point or the midpoint reversal. Heck, I’ve talked about it enough that even my wife and daughter can spot the “All is lost” moment. 

But lately I’ve come across a few writers who suggest that the three-act structure is no longer necessary for a good story. That writers can use whatever structure they want. And that makes me want to go hmmm… 

I first saw this advice a couple of weeks ago in the book Layer Your Novel by C. S. Lakin. I enjoy her books on the craft of writing, and this book does a good job of defining the important story beats and where they should go in the story, but she spent several pages at the beginning of the book telling writers that they don’t have to use the three-act structure if they don’t want to. She even pointed out that one of her books had seven acts. All a writer really needs, she said, is to have the proper story beats in the right places. 

I have to say I found this attitude rather confusing. First of all, there’s nothing about the three-act structure that says you can’t break it down into more than three parts. All you really need is the story setup, the journey, and the final battle. Pretty basic stuff. I haven’t read her seven-part story, but I suspect that it follows the three-act structure more than she would lead us to believe. In fact, if her story follows the story beats that she espouses in Layer Your Novel, then I’m positive it follows three-act structure. Because if you have all the necessary story beats and you put them in the right places, then you basically have the three-act structure whether you call it that or not. 

And then yesterday I watched a video by John Truby, another writer attempting to explain the art of writing. Not only did he knock story structure, but he claimed that following “The Hero’s Journey”—another method of characterizing three-act structure—would lead the writer to disaster. (I think his explanation was that since everyone else was doing using it, new writers would be better off doing something different. Yikes!) What I found most amusing was that the three stories he constantly held up as examples of what writers should aspire to—Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and Lord of the Rings—all follow the Hero’s Journey to the letter. 

Hey, I’m all for not being a slave to writing rules, but I see no reason for telling newbie writers that the three-act structure is obsolete. All good stories follow it to some extent and writers would be wise to learn what makes a story tick before discarding it.

Have a great Easter weekend and enjoy this week's writing links!


5 Most Common Mistakes with Setting

Understanding Your Ebook Formatting Options

What's So Wrong With Clichés in Our Fiction? This.

The Dangers of Premature Editing: Pruning Our Stories vs. Pillaging Them

Publishing Tips for 2018 and Beyond

Word Choice for Character Strength

7 Frequently Asked Writing Questions


  1. Since every story is different because it's a different writer, still following the three acts will always produce something different.
    I've never worried about the three acts but I do try to stay in tune with Save the Cat's Beat Sheet.

    1. That's all you need, since that beat sheet is based on the three-act structure.

  2. Someday, Ken, I'd like to hire you. Conceptually, I totally get story structure. I just find it impossible to tell whether or not my story follows it. I seriously can't recognize the different plot points and beats in my own writing.

  3. I have to admit I don't think a whole lot about three-act structure when I write, but I'm still glad I learned it. If, for some reason, the story isn't coming together right, looking at it from a structural point of view can help me figure out what I'm doing wrong.

  4. Since I have both a film degree and a writing degree... Well, I definitely am always able to pick out the major act turns, etc., in a film. Though I don't think about them as much with books. And when I'm writing I just go with the flow. But you might find this video interesting in examining the structure and breaking it into more than three acts:

  5. However many acts you use doesn't matter, in my opinion. Just use a proper basic plot structure, like Save the Cat, or something like it and it's fine. Something has to set off your MC's journey, then something needs to reverse in the middle of it, then you need the climactic moment and, lastly, a denouement. I use Save the Cat and combine it with Lakin's story structure pillars (at least the main four). I get stories that don't fall apart, so I'm happy.

    1. Exactly. Just follow the plot points and you don't even have to think about the fact that it's the three act structure.

  6. A book takes longer to read than it takes to watch a movie, so I think we just don't always see the three acts. But for most stories, they are still there. As long as the story is good, does it matter?

  7. I don't like rules too much. I just like good stories.

  8. Like you, the three-act structure is as natural to me as breathing. I just get it. I drive my friends and family crazy when I start telling them what point we're at in a movie. Telling writers the three-act structure is no longer necessary is crazy advice for all the reasons you've said. It doesn't matter how much you break a story down to its component parts, they all follow the three-act at a fundamental level.