In this article, you will discover the importance of story structure using the five-act structure and three-act structure when writing. These techniques will allow you to bring cohesion and a meaningful narrative arc to your structure when writing. I will explain how to use the Five-Act structure to organize your writing as well as go into depth about the three-act structure.
The techniques will allow you to avoid producing confusing, and emotionally disappointing story narratives.
It is easy to mock and dismiss the 'science' behind story writing and story structure. Hey, I used to do it a lot (though I was unpublished at the time). The importance of structure when writing can't be ignored.
I used to ask myself, is structure important when writing?
It was not until I learned more about the technical nature of writing and how a narrative can be constructed from scratch, that I finally lifted my own writing from a mediocre level, up to a level where publishers were prepared to take a gamble on my books.
Table of Contents
What is the Five-act Structure?
What is the Five-Act Structure? Dramatic Structure is a narrative structure taken from the ancient Greeks and was used with great success by Shakespeare. In fact, Dramatic Structure remains the basic narrative framework on which the majority of successful novels, plays, and films are based.
In its very simplest terms, this is the idea of a start, middle, and end.
In 1863 German playwright Gustav Freytag set out what was to become known as the 'dramatic arc'. Freytag identified a five-act structure: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement. He produced a pyramid to demonstrate this idea; this is known as the Freytag pyramid.
The Five-Act structure can be broken down as follows:
- Act i - Exposition: Sets up the story providing any contextual background the reader needs, but most importantly it contains the inciting moment. This incident sets the story in motion. An incident forces the protagonist to react. It requires resolution, producing narrative tension.
- Act ii - Rising Action: On a simplistic level this is the obstacles that are placed in the way of the protagonists as they attempt to resolve the inciting incident.
- Act iii - Climax: This is the turning point of the story. It is the point of the highest tension. In many modern narratives, this is the big battle or showdown.
- Act iv - Falling Action: The falling action is that part of the story in which the main part (the climax) has finished and you're heading to the conclusion. This is the calm after the tension of the climax.
- Act v - Dénouement: This is the resolution of the story where conflicts are resolved and loose ends tied up. This is the moment of emotional release for the reader.
Perhaps the most famous example of the Five Act Structure is William Shakespeare's Macbeth.
Here's a summary of the five-act structure:
- Exposition - The exposition is very vague since the characters are introduced throughout the first part of the play. It can be considered that the entire first act is the exposition. Inciting incident - The three witches start the play off with a prophecy that Macbeth will become king and that Banquo's children will become kings after Macbeth.
- Rising action - The rising action is when some of the prophecies are coming true and Lady Macbeth is trying to convince Macbeth to kill Duncan.
- Crisis/Climax - The climax is the actual murder of Duncan.
- Falling action - The falling action is all the events occurring after the murder where Macbeth tries to hide his crime and cement his position as king by killing other would-be kings. Lady Macbeth goes insane.
- Denouement - Lady Macbeth dies and Macbeth is executed. Malcolm becomes the king.
- Act i - Set Up: This is the introduction of the characters, plus any information the reader needs as context for the upcoming events. This also contains the inciting moment, which establishes narrative tension and spurs the protagonist into action.
- Act ii - Confrontation: The act sees the protagonist facing conflict to resolve the situation. Each time they appear to have found a solution, they are faced with more intense problems.
- Act iii - Resolution: This act sees resolution of the inciting moment and ties up any loose ends that have been unraveled. This is a mixture of climax and dénouement from the Five Act Structure.
- What is the inciting incident in your book? This incident must have such an impact on the protagonist that they are left permanently altered and have no choice but to act to resolve the incident.
- What conflict does your protagonist face? Conflict can be Inner (internal, in the mind), Personal (with family and friends) or Extra-Personal (with society as a whole). Conflict is the fuel that drives your narrative.
- How is the Inciting Incident resolved? The resolution to the inciting incident must overcome the conflict and leave the protagonist permanently changed.
The Five Act Structure is a very classical interpretation of dramatic structure and highlights the importance of structure in writing. The start of the 19th Century (and the rise of the film) saw a more simple, but very similar, narrative structure increasing in popularity: the Three Act Structure.
What is the Three-Act Structure?
What is the Three-Act Structure? The best way to think of the Three-Act Structure is as a simplification of the Five-Act Structure:
A good example of the Three-Act Structure is Star Wars.
This flow diagram from William P. Coleman's blog offers an excellent simplification of the narrative arc.
Star Wars is famous for being written using a structure known as the Hero's Journey, which is a small progression from the three-act approach.
How to Write Using Structure
The theory behind story is long-established, but applying it to your writing is not an easy task. Although the importance of writing with structure is clear.
As a starting point I would suggest you ask (and answer) these three questions considering their importance:
The answer to these questions will give you the framework on which you can build your three or five-act story. However, to build the structure, you must first understand how acts are formed.
The building blocks of an act are scenes.
In its simplest form a scene is an event that forces the protagonist to act, altering them in the process.
To examine further… the scene will begin with the protagonist in a certain state. This may be as simple as happy or sad, or something far more complex as being perceived as a hero or villain. An event will occur that will force the protagonist to react. In reacting to the event, the protagonist is faced with conflict, which they overcome. In this process, their state is altered.
The protagonist of a novel is driving his car late at night along a seemingly deserted street. He is returning from a date with his girlfriend, where he proposed and she said yes. He is happy and content, his world seems to be falling into place.
Suddenly, a drunken man stumbles out in front of his car. The protagonist can't stop in time and he hits the man. The protagonist halts the car and can see the drunken man lying in the road. The protagonist looks around. There is no one else about. No one has seen him hit the man.
What should he do?
The right thing would be to phone the police and ambulance services, but he has been drinking and would be arrested [conflict]. He stares at his phone and glances at the man in the road before finally speeding away.
This scene sees the protagonist moving from a state of happiness and contentment to one of confusion. In a split second his world has changed from blissful peace to chaotic pain. One thing to note is that this scenes sets up the chance to examine another layer of writing, and that is the difference between a character's thoughts and their actions.
Imagine in writing this novel you had developed a backstory where the protagonist was a 'great guy'. You had even included a scene where he goes to great lengths to comment about his 'ethics'. You have a side character commenting on him being a "nice guy" and an "honest person." This one scene suddenly exposes a chasm between the protagonist's thoughts and words and his actions, demonstrating a difference between his internal dialogue and his external actions.
This is a good example of why events in themselves are of little interest, but the way characters react to these events is fascinating.
An act is constructed by linking a number of scenes. The act, in itself, will have its own narrative arc with the same rules as the scene. An act will see the protagonist changing state as he overcomes conflict. Each scene will see the protagonist moving in a stepwise fashion from one state to the other.
When considering an act structure for your novel, my tip is to start with the sweeping narrative of your story, then to build into this the three or five act structure. Once you have these acts in place, you can then pencil in the key events turning these into scenes. You can then sketch out the event, conflict and change in state for each scene before finally writing.
The Role of Genre in Determining Structure
The genre of a novel often plays a pivotal role in shaping its structural framework. Different genres come with their unique set of expectations, pacing, and narrative devices, all of which influence how a story is structured.
In mystery novels, for instance, the structure is typically designed to build suspense and intrigue. Authors might employ a nonlinear timeline or flashbacks to gradually unveil clues and red herrings. The climax, often near the end, is where the mystery is resolved, providing a satisfying conclusion to the reader's journey.
Romance novels, on the other hand, often follow a more linear structure. The focus is on character development and the evolving relationship between the protagonists. The narrative might include a predictable pattern of meeting, facing obstacles, and eventually overcoming them to reach a happy or emotionally satisfying conclusion.
Fantasy and Science Fiction
Fantasy and science fiction genres can vary greatly in structure. They often incorporate complex world-building and multiple subplots. The structure in these genres might be expansive, with a series of books, each with its own internal structure contributing to a larger overarching narrative.
Across genres, understanding and adhering to genre-specific structural elements can significantly impact how readers engage with the story. While some genres allow for more flexibility and experimentation with structure, others rely on familiar patterns that align with reader expectations. Ultimately, the chosen structure should serve the story best, aligning seamlessly with the genre's conventions while still leaving room for creative expression.
Character Development Within Various Structures
The structure of a novel not only dictates its narrative flow but also deeply influences the development of its characters. Different structural formats offer varied pathways for character arcs and their evolution throughout the story.
In linear structures, character development tends to follow a chronological progression. This format allows for a clear depiction of character growth over time, with events impacting and shaping the characters in a sequential manner. It's particularly effective in stories focusing on personal journeys or coming-of-age themes.
Nonlinear structures, including flashbacks or parallel timelines, provide a multifaceted view of characters. They allow authors to juxtapose different stages of a character's life or show how past events influence present actions and decisions, adding depth and complexity to character portrayal.
In episodic structures, character development might occur through a series of loosely connected events or stories. This structure allows for exploring different facets of a character's personality or life, showing growth in a non-sequential, yet impactful manner.
Regardless of the structure chosen, the key is to ensure a harmonious interplay between character development and plot progression. The structure should serve as a vessel that carries the character's journey, allowing their transformations to feel authentic and integral to the story's unfolding. Whether through steady growth in a linear narrative or complex layering in a nonlinear tale, character arcs should resonate with the reader, making them an essential part of the storytelling experience.
Impact of Structure on Pacing and Tension
The structural design of a novel is a key determinant in shaping its pacing and tension. Different structures manipulate the flow of the narrative, thereby influencing how readers experience the unfolding of events and the build-up of suspense.
Linear Structure and Pacing
In a linear structure, pacing tends to be more straightforward and progressive. It allows for a steady build-up of events, leading to climactic moments. Authors can manage tension by controlling the release of information and pacing the key plot points to maintain reader engagement.
Nonlinear Structure and Suspense
Nonlinear structures, such as those incorporating flashbacks or multiple timelines, can create a complex web of suspense. By carefully revealing information from different times or perspectives, authors can keep readers guessing, thereby heightening intrigue and engagement.
Modular and Episodic Structures
Modular and episodic structures, where the story is broken into segments that may or may not be directly connected, offer unique ways to sustain interest. Each segment can be a mini-story with its own arc, tension, and climax, contributing to the overall narrative momentum.
Regardless of the chosen structure, the key to maintaining reader interest lies in balancing the reveal of information and the progression of the plot. Effective pacing requires a nuanced understanding of narrative rhythm, ensuring that the story neither rushes to its conclusion nor lags in unnecessary details. The ultimate goal is to create a gripping, cohesive story that captivates readers and keeps them invested from beginning to end.
What To do Now
The three and five act structures are just two of many important act structures, but they are, especially the Three-Act, by far the most common form of story structure. I would urge you to go back to the novel you are currently writing and determine if you are applying an act structure to your narrative. If not, then it's time to act.
My final note is a plea… don't fall into the trap of thinking at your writing is beyond the need for the act structure.
It is true that there are examples of unstructured novels and films. They exist, but to be honest they are very rare.
If you are looking to apply an act structure to your novel, start with the three-act structure, it is the easiest to understand and will give you the best results with the least amount of effort. A well-written novel, which falls into a three or five-act framework, has a far better chance of being published than one that is written with an unstructured narrative.
If you want to learn more, it is worth considering the role that narrative point of view plays in the way you structure your book.
If you are looking to improve your technique, consider this article about how to write better character descriptions.
Frequently Asked Questions
Below are some frequently asked questions that will provide you with more information.
What is the importance of structure in writing?
The structure in writing is crucial as it provides a framework that guides the narrative flow and organization of ideas. A well-structured piece ensures clarity, maintains reader engagement, and enhances the overall impact of the story or argument. It's akin to the skeleton of a body, supporting and shaping the content, making it easier for readers to follow and comprehend the writer's intent.
How does the structure of a novel impact the overall meaning?
The structure of a novel significantly impacts its overall meaning by determining how the story unfolds, the pacing of plot developments, and the emphasis on certain themes or characters. It influences the reader's perception and understanding, allowing for a coherent and impactful delivery of the narrative. A well-structured novel can enhance thematic depth, character development, and narrative tension, thereby enriching the reader's experience and interpretation.
What are the benefits of story structure?
Story structure offers multiple benefits: it provides a clear roadmap for narrative progression, ensuring logical flow and coherence; it helps maintain pacing and suspense, keeping readers engaged; it supports effective character development and theme exploration; and it assists writers in building a compelling beginning, a coherent middle, and a satisfying conclusion, leading to a more resonant and memorable story experience for the audience.
What are the structures of writing a novel?
Common structures for writing a novel include the Three-Act Structure, which divides the story into a setup, confrontation, and resolution; the Five-Act Structure, often used in classical plays; the Hero's Journey, focusing on the protagonist's adventure and transformation; and the Fichtean Curve, emphasizing rising tension and climax. Other structures like nonlinear narrative and stream of consciousness are also employed, depending on the story's requirements and the writer's creative vision.