The Three-Act Story Model: A Framework Not A Formula

Filed in Archive, Blog by on March 20, 2016 4 Comments

Chart of the Three-Act Story Model

Warning: this model will affect the way you read novels and watch movies because it makes story design more transparent. You may later find yourself watching a film with thoughts such as, “Oh yes, everything now looks great because the unlikely couple is finally kissing in the rain, which must mean we’ve reached the Act 2 Climax of this rom-com, so the Low Point of the whole movie – when all looks lost – is just around the corner.”

If you would like to download a free PDF with a clearer copy of this three-act model, please click here. (The wavy blue line represents the approximate level of dramatic tension.)

The first and most important thing I need to stress about this model is that it is a framework, not a formula. There is an important difference.

A formula is a rigid set of rules into which you plug stereotypical characters and predictable situations to churn out clichés. A framework is a set of structural pointers that can be applied to countless stories in order to create fresh content in a familiar form.

Of course, people generally like the familiar form of a beginning, middle and an end to their stories, but the three-act model goes much further. It is based on story models that have been developed over many centuries.

The best-known of these models is “the hero’s journey”, also known as “the quest”. About 3,000 years ago, Homer’s story of Odysseus (Ulysses) returning home to Ithaca after the Trojan Wars became the blueprint for the hero’s journey or quest.

The first great Western dramatic critic, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, argued that tragedy was the “highest” form of storytelling, but conceded the quest was more popular:

“The next best type of structure [after tragedy], ranked first by some critics, is that which like the Odyssey, has a double thread of plot, and ends in opposite ways for the good and bad characters. It is considered the best only because of the feeble judgment of the audience, for the poets pander to the tastes of spectators. But this is not the pleasure that is proper to tragedy.” (The Poetics, Chapter 13 “Tragic Action”.)

In other words, the quest structure is what audiences have enjoyed for thousands of years, even if Aristotle thinks that dramatists (“poets”) should not “pander” to people’s “feeble” tastes, and should instead write what he considers a higher level of story: the tragedy.

The three-act model is very similar to the hero’s journey or quest, so don’t be thrown by variations in terminology. For example, you will see that some versions call the “Act 1 Turn” the “Inciting Incident”, whereas this chart uses “Inciting Incident” to describe the opening crisis that precipitates the story.

In a film like Shrek (1), the Act 1 Turn is when Shrek is forced to make a deal with Lord Farquaad to rescue Princess Fiona. From this point the story enters the second act in which Shrek undertakes the quest (journey) to rescue Fiona and bring her back to Farquaad. It is easy to understand why some people might prefer to describe the deal that Shrek and Farquaad make in the arena as the Inciting Incident. So if you prefer slightly different terms to those used in this chart, then it is important to consider the function of each structural point rather than quibble over labels.

For instance, Christopher Vogler in his well-known book on story design, The Writer’s Journey, includes the term “black moment” to describe the Low Point of the story. Either way, it is the point when all looks lost for the protagonist.

If you study this chart and try to apply it to your reading or viewing, then please let me know if it helps make the structure of the story design in most novels and movies more transparent for you.

Special thanks to veteran script editor, screenwriter and Screen Australia script assessor, Tim Richards, for putting this chart together with me. We are happy for you to share it freely, as long as attribution is made.


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Comments (4)

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  1. Neville Goldsmith says:

    Hi Euan, I enjoyed your “feral tracks”. I bumbled thru McKinnon high 56-59. Fords kept me broke
    straight into apprenticeship.. graphic artist, printing so had to wait for (4) kids to grow up and leave before exploring the locations you mentioned. always enjoy a good read about our little island, just finished most of Neville Shutes books set in our outback. The real Australia. A brother has been running a small tour business in The Alice…always been envious of his lifestyle and location.

    • Euan Mitchell says:

      Hi Neville, glad you enjoyed Feral Tracks. Experiencing those outback locations in the 1970s still feels like a major stroke of luck. In recent years, I’ve noted the growing number of private schools sending students to the Kimberley as a coming-of-age experience. Great idea. Especially if they don’t have to eat too much salted beef.

  2. Alex King says:

    Here is an interesting take on the trend to move to a quantitative approach to writing.

    I do quite like his summation, by the way he is the author of the Dead Empire’s Fall series, which is very very good.

    “I suspect that the people best profiting from this new formula will be agents, because they can market new works highlighting young female protagonists who prefers hugs to sex and are particularly needy, and just market the shit out of those books until the bubble bursts, and then it’s on to the next formula for all concerned

    • Euan Mitchell says:

      Many thanks, Alex, for the link to this article. I like this author’s sense of humour about data-driven formulae for novels. It shouldn’t be long before further research uncovers that readers also value originality in stories.

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