The Three-Act Structure à la Moon
By Wulf Moon
Aristotle. We know him as a famous Greek philosopher, but just like us, he enjoyed a good flick. In fact, you can discern from his writings that he did a good share of binge watching. If Aristotle got GoT, he probably would have thrown many grapes at the players for their moral turpitude. Aristotle was the first to discuss the three-act structure in ancient Greek drama, thus making him one of the earliest dramatic critics on record. Take that, Rotten Tomatoes!
Shakespeare tended to thumb his nose at this structure in his plays, proving that all rules and dramatic systems can indeed be broken. As Captain Barbosa said, the code is more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules. But Hollywood screenwriters eventually revived and embraced this storytelling system, and so have many novelists. It’s a writing theory that has stood the test of time, so it’s worth a look at the three-act structure to see if we can gain knowledge from it...perhaps even employing it in our own stories.
First, why has this storytelling structure been around for so long? Because it’s a simple framework, easy to see, easy to understand. Think about it. Every story has 1) a beginning, 2) a middle, and 3) an end. One, two, three. That sums up the three-act structure in a nutshell. Only, in the three-act structure, it’s called 1) Setup, 2) Confrontation, and 3) Resolution. Same thing. Simple, right?
Enter those teachers that like to complicate this beautifully simple structure with all kinds of complex terms and systems. I have sat through some of these dry lectures at colleges and seminars, and I must confess they resurrected suppressed memories from my youthful days of enduring mind-boggling trigonometry lessons. HELP MEEEE! So let’s keep it simple. Simple tools are easy to remember, easy to use. Just remember, this isn’t the screenwriters’ three-act structure, per se. This is the three-act structure, à la Moon. One scoop, or two? Go ahead, have three.
Act 1—The Beginning
In a story, act one is your beginning. It’s the Setup. What must every story start with? A character, in a setting, with a problem. I season the opening scene with a little more (see “Nail Your Opening” in DreamForge Anvil #2), but the point is, act one is SET YOUR STAGE. When the curtain rises, there are definite items your audience expects to see on that stage or to shortly appear. You need a setting for a backdrop, you need a main character on your stage, you need to tell us their heart’s desire, and you need to drop a combat boot down that will crush that desire if the protagonist doesn’t do something about it. Now! That’s your opening scene. That’s act one.
When does act one end? Before act two starts! Since act two is the Confrontation section—(AKA the Journey) you’re off to see the Wizard, follow the yellow brick road—the end of act one is when your protagonist faces that Nazi combat boot or that Wicked Witch of the West and says, “You nasty old witch with a mean shoe fetish, I’m going to figure out how to use these ruby slippers to get back home!” That’s the point where your opening scene—act one—ends. In The Wizard of Oz, this is where Dorothy crosses the Threshold, leaves Munchkin Land into the unknown, following the Yellow Brick Road to her adventure.
Modern movies usually do this in the first ten minutes. (Watch how long the setup of act one takes in Legally Blonde. See how quickly Elle Woods gets to Harvard?) Novels? Depending on the length of the novel, act one can be the first twenty, the first fifty, to the first one hundred pages. Short stories? Your hero better be wrapping up with their “I’m going to do something about this!” by the end of page five. That’s the limit David Farland says he will give you if he’s judging your story in the Writers of the Future Contest, and it’s an excellent rule of thumb for most short stories to follow. Set up your first act quickly, because editors and readers expect you to get to the point quickly. They are waiting for you to take them on your adventure
Gone are the days when you could begin a tale with a fifty-three-page introductory of your lovely years working in the Customs House. Today, you begin your story at the town scaffold, with an adulteress that has a scarlet letter pinned to her chest, refusing to give up her lover.
Ready to Cross the Threshold into the unknown? Are we off to see the Wizard? You’ve got this, innocent Dorothy! Don’t forget Toto!
Act 2—The Middle
The second act is the Middle of your story. It begins when your hero leaves their cozy world, Crosses the Threshold, and steps into their adventure. It’s called the Confrontation in this act, and here’s why. Your hero is going to TRY to defeat the Problem, but the Problem is always bigger and stronger than they are, and your hero is going to FAIL. Okay, there are exceptions to this rule, so even if they succeed, it’s always going to MAKE THINGS WORSE. I call this escalating tension. Tension makes readers turn pages because the stakes keep going up. You need to make the problem your hero seeks to overcome a challenging one, one that will test your hero to their core. If you wish to write a powerful story, it should be soul crushing.
How many times should your protagonist Try and Fail? Three times total in a story is the rule —third time’s the charm!— but one of those tries is your Climax. So here’s an easy rule to remember. Your middle, act two, needs two, count them, two Try/Fail cycles. Or Try/Succeed, but just like in Bonnie and Clyde, the more times your heroes succeed, the more power is brought to bear from the opposing force to stop them. Escalating tension. 
So when does act two end? Wait for it...Wait for it...Ready? When act three starts! Since act three is your grand finale —your hero’s last do or die attempt to defeat the problem or antagonist— act two must end just before Custer’s Last Stand. It must look like the end for our hero, his forces divided, his might decimated, and in his darkest hour, he gathers his remaining forty men around him for one...last...stand. 
Cut! That’s a wrap. It’s getting really dark. We’ll shoot act three tomorrow. 
Act 3—The End
The third act is your ending. It includes your Climax, and your Resolution, or let’s get really fancy and call it your Denouement. Parlez-vous francais?
Act three is your hero’s last stand. It should look like all is lost. But your hero has tried to defeat the enemy a couple times now, and even though they’re battered and bruised, they’ve learned a thing or two from the exchange. This time, they are not so naive. This time, they have gained insight to see their enemy’s Achilles heal. They have gathered power through the journey to defeat the enemy that they’ve never tapped into before. 
Or not. And that would be a Tragedy. Aristotle would like that. Because he was Greek! They loved their tragic heroes. Sometimes, the hero does pay the ultimate price, and those can be moving stories. More often in Western tales, the hero triumphs. And that’s satisfying, too. However you call it, heads or tails, the hero must face off against THAT WHICH KEEPS THEM FROM THEIR HEART’S DESIRE. This is their third TRY in overcoming the problem, often involving a do or die battle with their antagonist. They either succeed in this attempt (which the Greeks called Comedy) or fail in this attempt (which the Greeks called Tragedy). In Dorothy’s quest to go home, her attempt to kill the Wicked Witch of the West succeeded. Comedy. In Custer’s Last Stand, a real-life story, his last stand atop Custer Hill to defeat the Sioux failed. Tragedy. 
Well, unless you’re the Sioux.
Stories need Resolution. They need that fancy Denouement. You can’t just fade to black with your hero raising their fist in triumph over their enemy. For one thing, that was an awesome fight scene, and we were holding our breath that whole time and need a moment to breathe again! Or what if a beloved character like Gandalf just died? Give us a moment for pity’s sake! Help us walk through our tumultuous feelings and have someone we trust tell us there was a point to all of this bloodshed. Denouements are your moment to tell your readers your hero didn’t die in vain, or to celebrate their glorious victory as they return home with their heart’s desire and live happily ever after. 
Aristotle just rolled over in his grave.
So there you have it. The three-act structure. Beginning. Middle. End. Act One, Act Two, Act Three. Keep it simple. It’s a precious tool handed down through the ages to organize the scenes and structure of your stories. Want me to make it simpler? I can’t. But Gary Kurtz, the producer of Star Wars: A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back said it best in the LA Times. "I took a master class with Billy Wilder once and he said that in the first act of a story you put your character up in a tree and the second act you set the tree on fire and then in the third you get him down."
Who knew storytelling could be so simple? Ender’s Game author Orson Scott Card, a judge of the Writers of the Future Contest, once said: “I will always choose a simple tale, simply told.” Now you know the Secret. And once you figure out how to toss out the clutter and stick to the basics, you’ll tell a story that’s a lean, mean, streamlined machine. 
As the Greeks would say, it’s going to be epic!
DreamForge Anvil © 2021 DreamForge Press
Wulf Moon's SUPER SECRETS: The Three-Act Structure à la Moon © 2021 Wulf Moon