Books generally consist of the three-act structure, which is considered to be the basic building block of any story. The three parts are generally called the setup, the confrontation and the resolution. The point of this structure is to show that stories have certain basic elements without which they cannot function.

Published: 15th July 2013 09:01 AM  |   Last Updated: 15th July 2013 09:02 AM   |  A+A-


We’ve looked at a lot of different stories in this column. Have you thought of what they all have in common, what makes a story a story? To start with, any story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end (although sometimes not in that order!). Some people have suggested that the three-part or three-act structure is a basic building block of any story. The three parts are often called the setup, the confrontation and the resolution.

In the setup we are introduced to the main character or characters. He or she is usually the person whose fate we are most concerned with in the story. Think Frodo Baggins, or Luke Skywalker. We are introduced to a major conflict or problem which this character faces. He or she may face more than one challenge — for example, Harry Potter has to learn to unlock his magic powers, learn what happened to his parents and prepare to face Voldemort — but they’re often all connected in some way.

Once the basic challenge is established, our protagonist has to try to solve his/her problems. This usually doesn’t work out in the first few tries, and often leads to more problems. This is the confrontation. In this part of the story, the protagonist may make friends and find people who can teach him or her what they need to know, in order to succeed in the end.

Finally, in the resolution, we have the big face-off, the final confrontation between the protagonist and the big challenge or challenges. In a fantasy novel, this might be the final battle between the forces of darkness and light. In a mystery story, this will be the moment when the detective finally reveals the solution of the mystery and catches the criminal. Or it could be the moment when the protagonist finally learns something important about himself.

This three-act structure doesn’t mean that all stories have three easily recognised parts, or that all stories can be described as trilogies, like the three volumes of The Lord Of The Rings.

What it does mean is that you need a basic conflict, an extended development and a final resolution to add up to a complete story. You could leave some of the aspects of the resolution open-ended, either as a hook for sequels or to show that everything in life is not resolved, but you have to somehow tie up the major threads of the story. If you go easy on setting up the main characters in the first half, you might find that readers just don’t have enough interest in them or in the setting to carry on. And if you skip the middle, all you have is a problem and a solution, and that’s more like a maths text book than a story.

Some people have questioned the three-act structure. They say it is too rigid and simple — a story can be told in one long act, or can be logically divided into five or more parts. There were seven Harry Potter books, for example, and the Star Wars series now has six episodes, and more are on the way.

But a story does not literally have to have three parts — that would be predictable and boring.

The point of the three-act structure is to show that stories have certain basic elements without which they cannot function.

So you can have a structure that can be divided into five or more parts, but you’ll find that each individual part can be broken into the three main parts we’ve described.

You’ll also find that you can probably group some of these parts into elements of the overall structure — the first few parts might make up the setup, the parts in the middle collectively form the confrontation and the last few parts add up to one big resolution.

Some writers and movie makers like to juggle this structure around, starting in the middle, with the conflict and then slowly filling in the details of the setup.

You’ll see this a lot in adventure stories and action films. Sometimes, you can even start with the resolution and then fill in all the setup and conflict that went before it, but this is a difficult format to pull off because the tension of wondering how it all works out is removed.

Try analysing some of your favourite stories to see how they can be broken down into a three-act structure. This will help you understand and enjoy them better, and maybe even start constructing stories of your own.


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