SCREW YOU, 3-Act Structure!

So I wanted to write this ahead of time and be all fancy with charts and info and academic stuff…but it’s 1pm on Friday and my weekly mental breakdown has come to call, so instead you’re getting this.

I’m sure you’ve all heard of the famous Three-Act Structure. You set up the story, you burn everyone’s lives and possibly kill a mentor or two, and then everything gets wrapped up in a happy little package. Or completely disintegrates, if you’re writing a tragedy. All the cool kids are doing it.

Well, here’s the thing. I have a bone to pick with you, Three-Act Structure. A distinctly non-mountain-shaped bone. Half the time…you make all the stories sound boring!

I mean really. Think about it. If you’re planning a story, say, like, Star Wars: A New Hope, for example, and for your three-act-structure map you write down “Luke leaves Tatooine, Obi-Wan dies, Luke blows up the Death Star…” That doesn’t sound like a story! That just sounds like a series of unrelated events!

And okay, yes, I was just listing what happens at the end of each of these Three Acts, which really doesn’t give a full picture of the story. You could start at the beginning, I guess… “Leia hides the plans on the droids, Luke sneaks onto the Death Star, Luke delivers the plans to the Rebels…” But still, that doesn’t leave you with much. Sure, it works AFTER the story is written. But does it really work for planning purposes?

I don’t know about you, but I have a lot of trouble coming up with three seemingly random events to mark the beginning, middle, and end of a story I’m formulating. Maybe it works if you already know how you want your story to end, or have an idea of what’s happening in the middle. But the idea that it’s the magic formula to building a story — from scratch, no less — is kind of ridiculous to me.

It gets even worse if you start trying to apply it to non-fantasy/action/sci-fi stories. For example, Catcher In The Rye. Now, it’s been awhile since I’ve read this, so excuse me if I get this wrong (and spoilers ahead, obviously), but what would you even put down for this? “Holden gets kicked out of school, has an existential crisis in NYC, and goes home.” Like…how do you get a novel out of that?

The problem is that the Three-Act-Structure is so bare-bones, it doesn’t allow for any planning in the in-between parts. Sure, you can do that too, but I feel like we’re often encouraged to come up with the defining events BEFORE we get the in-between parts. To…save time? Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method encourages authors to create a more detailed outline, but still, the three big events come first.

Maybe I just work differently than these people. I have to admit, organization and a logical approach to creativity has never really been my strong point. Maybe I’m just jumping the gun and trying to use the three-act structure too early. But then…why is it heralded as the best way to tell a story? Am I just seeing the wrong blog posts?

And, why are we ignoring other ways to tell stories? Such as Kishōtenketsu, the method of telling a story through contrast? Or the daisy-chain plot? Or ensemble plot? Or repeated action plot? Etc etc etc?

Well, what do you guys think? Are we using the three-act structure too often? Or do I just have my head on backwards, as usual?

Anyway, I’m signing off. I’m hungry and tired and probably should not be allowed to touch a keyboard right now.

Stay crazy, guys. I know I am.


Picture background from TV Tropes.

6 thoughts on “SCREW YOU, 3-Act Structure!

  1. I agree, I think this structure is WAY overused. And not only does it make a fairly boring story, but they all sound the same. Like those charts where people compare Harry Potter, LOTR, and Star Wars. It all turns into the same story after a while. I’ve always had difficulty sticking to the three-act thing, and I never REALLY do with any story I tell.

    Maybe it’s the most common because it’s the easiest way to show a hero’s journey, and killing a mentor IS a great way to push your protagonist forward. Anyway, I’ll probably be talking about mentor deaths at some point on my blog so I’ll explore that then instead of this comment area :).

    1. I think it works sometimes because it is a good measure of things getting worse and worse. However, if the story is more focused on a mental/emotional state getting worse and worse rather than a physical threat, the structure can end up looking really wonky. Or maybe nothing’s getting worse and worse. Maybe the events are just interesting in their own right. I wish people would realize there really is more than one way to tell a story. 😛

  2. THANK YOU FOR SAYING THIS OUT LOUD. I tried so hard for so long to fit my plot around the three act structure and it wouldn’t work and I thought something was wrong with ME! I was getting so worked up and frustrated. Writers are far too often told that the three act structure is the only structure. This post is perfect. Thank you.

    1. Hi Miranda! It’s nice to see you here. 😀 I think trying too hard to follow any magic structure ends up making a really contrived story. Maybe it’s a better tool for going back and checking a story that’s already written? But even so, it’s not going to work for everything. I’m glad you liked it! 🙂

  3. The problem is, I feel like this about essays 😂 I’m doing IGCSE English and I’m like ‘what?? Plan? Nah, just start writing. Leaves space for creativity.’ 2 hours and 5 pages later, genius that I am, I start to wonder if a beginning, middle and end could be a life-changing innovation… essays are a slightly different thing though 🙂 …
    Thanks for the post! 🙂

    1. Haha yes, essays are different. To be fair, the sort of “Three-Act Structure” of essays saved my butt in AP. I could grind out a handwritten essay in under forty minutes back in high school. (Ah, the good old days…actually no let’s forget those forever.) But stories are TOTALLY different, at least for me. If I tried to do that with fiction it’d be the dumbest/weirdest story ever. XD Thanks for reading!

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