Three-act structure offers alternate story plot

One common way to think about how a story is organized is the three-act structure. This approach dates to Aristotle, who stated that a story has a beginning, a middle and an end.

The beginning, or Act 1, introduces the story’s main character, time, place and central problem. Usually, the character’s life is knocked out of whack. This section of the story is equivalent to the inciting incident or the opening. For example, the death of a parent causes our main character to return to his small hometown for the funeral, though he’s estranged from the family. In returning home, the main character decides he must patch up relations with his family, for he’s always felt an emptiness in not having them in their lives despite his academic and career success.

The middle, or Act 2, centers on increasing tension as the main character tries to solve the problem. The bulk of the story – typically longer than the beginning and end combined – this section also can be considered the rising action. In this section for the example mentioned in the previous paragraph, the main character attempts to converse with his family members, only to be met coolly by some and outright resistance by others. Perhaps he meets an unlikely ally (a sister-in-law?) who encourages him and helps him reconnect with some. As this act continues, the main character will succeed in getting along with some family members, but the one he ultimately must reconnect with – his father, the family patriarch – remains elusive.

The end, or Act 3, is when the main character resolves the problem. This typically is the same as the climax, falling action, and ending. In the above story example, he actually would reconnect with his father during a confrontation with him. Afterward, loose ends would be tied up, such as the main character agreeing to come back to visit for a holiday just before he returns to the big city where he lives.

Though a simplified way of looking at stories, it’s still used today. As the ancients didn’t write novels but primarily plays and long poems, a modified version of the three-act structure is still used in screenwriting; for example, in television, each section between the commercials is an “Act.”


My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.