A great story outline highlights the major events and themes you want to be portrayed in your story. Whether you’re writing high fantasy or a contemporary novel, the 3-act story structure has proved itself time and time again.
It’s a model that divides your story into three acts—the Setup, the Confrontation, and the Resolution—and drives the story by highlighting different key moments within each act.
Putting the 3-Act Structure Into Action
The 3 Act Structure: The First Act
The Hook (1%)
The Hook starts the moment the first words cross your reader’s mind and is intended to (literally) hook your readers into your story,, usually within the first chapter. Introduce your reader to your protagonist in the first few sentences and grip them with an engaging and multi-dimensional character.
Remember, your readers often connect with the first character they’re introduced to, so make sure your reader engages with your protagonist.
The best way to engage your reader is to arouse intrigue and by getting them to ask questions. When they’re curious and asking questions, there’s a higher likelihood that they’ll reader more to seek the answers.
Introducing the Regular World (1%-10%)
Now that you’ve engaged your reader and given them a reason to invest in your story, you’ll show the protagonist in their “normal environment”, in their Regular World.
While the Hook was about introducing your protagonist, this is about introducing your protagonist’s main world, including the main cast of characters your reader will engage with throughout the story. You might even introduce your protagonist’s school bully!
Focus on internal conflict, thoughtful dialogue, and immersive writing to show and engross your readers into the story.
The Inciting Incident (10%)
The inciting incident is just that. The incident that plunges your characters into the journey thei’re about to embark on.
Something happens. It might be big. It might be small. But something happens. But remember, while it’s the event that plunges your protagonist into the story, but it’s not entirely what makes them involved in the story…yet.
Between the Inciting Incident and the First Plot Point, there’s often some back and forth from the protagonist where they’re trying to decide what they should do. There’s still a thought that maybe they don’t have to embark on their journey. This makes the reader curious if they will.
The Key Event (15%)
The Key Event not only pushes your protagonist along their storyline, but it’s when we see the protagonist take part in the story itself. There are still going through some mental gymnastics to decide whether to engage or not, but they’re leaning more toward engagement.
The Key Event often forces your protagonist to engage with their support characters and/or their antagonist, but they’re still wrestling with their desire vesus the lie your character still believes.
The First Plot Point (25%)
Your protagonist now knows what’s at stake and the First Plot Point is their first real decision to engage with the true story.
This is where the plot of your story starts to take form and there’s no turning back for your protagonist. While they might have regrets or reflections on the “once-upon-a-time” before thier conflict started, there’s no going back now.
The First Plot Point is what plunges your protagonist into the meat of their journey and makes in final decision to push forward into the Second Act.
The 3 Act Structure: The Second Act
Entering A Brand New World (25%-35%)
This first step into the Second Act is like your protagonist is stepping into a whole new world. The journey has been kicked into overdrive after your character realizes their turmoil in Act One and, after much debilitation, jumped into Act Two.
This Brand New World faces your character with challenges they’ve never seen before and into things they’ve never had to deal with or overcome. There is often a failure on their part as they learn and navigate this new world. Because of this, there’s often conflict, whether internal or external, your protagonist must work through to persevere.
This new world is a time writers oftenuse to refamiliarize the reader with the protagonist, supporting characters, and the journey they’ve just launched themselves into.
The First Pinch Point (35%)
While you might have hinted at your antagonist previously, this is where they finally make themselves known. This is the point where the antagonist remind your readers why they should take this them seriously, and why your protagonist should too.
There’s often some sort of conflict at this point, where your protagonist fails or is forced to retreat and run away, presumably to fight another day.
The First Pinch Point is important because while the Brave New World acts a sort of lull in your protagonist’s journey, the First Pinch Point escalates the plot driving the tension up. How will the Protagonist defeat this powerful opponent?
The Midpoint (50%)
The Midpoint marks a turning point for your protagonist. One, much like the end of Act One, they can’t turn back from. It’s a slowdown after the First Pinch Point, where your characters is forced to retreat, where they try to learn from their mistakes.
The Midpoint is where your protagonist takes control of their story and drives the plot forward towards a resolution.
Of course, there’s still a failure but will a refueled determination they finally have tangible proof what they’re fighting against and what the stakes are, which leads the story into the Second Pinch Point.
The Second Pinch Point (65%)
While the First Pinch Point is where your protagonist is reminded what the stakes are, your protagonist has worked through The Midpoint and worked through where they believe they failed before.
Your protagonist might grow cocky with the knowledge and understanding they perceive they’ve gained and think themselves able to overcome their antagonist, only to find out they haven’t yet found the weak spot to turn the tables in their favor and best their opponent.
This is likely where a second conflict arises—or, the Second Pinch Point—and your protagonist fails once again. Thankfully, the Second Pinch Point usually humbles the protagonist a bit, forcing them further into their journey towrd the Third Plot Point.
The Third Plot Point (75%)
In the Third Plot Point, your protagonist feels all hope is lost. That their antagonist has already won and they’re unable to defeat them. The pace of the story tends to speed up here, as your character hits their low-point but haven’t yet hit their realization.
The realization sometimes happens in the Third Plot Point and drives the story into the Third Act, which often describes the character finding a way in which to trick the antagonist into their weakness. Or, perhaps they haven’t realized the weakness yet, and are driven into the Third Act, where the tension builds and is released once they figure out how to defeat their opponent.
The 3 Act Structure: The Third Act
The Climax (75%-90%)
The Climax is all about ramping up the tension. In fantasy, this often ends with a big battle. This is where the tension pulses and the reader is left on the edge of their seats. It’s been building throughout your novel and here is where we’re starting to see the bubble burst.
But keep in mind, this isn’t where the bubble bursts entirely.
In the Climax of your book, the protagonist and antagonist are pitted head to head and the stakes are rising to extreme levels. This is where you give your reader the life-or-death scenario, where the reader is left wondering whether your protagonist will make it through their journey.
The Climactic Moment (90%)
The Climactic Moment is where the big thing happens. It’s the decisive moment. The moment your protagonist succeeds or succumbs to the antagonist.
This moment is all about answering the question presented in Act One. Will good defeat evil? Will the rebels defeat the empire? Will the boy get the girl? Whatever YOUR question was, whatever the incident that incited the story, the Climactic Moment it where you answer it.
The Resolution (90%-100%)
There’s always a calm after the storm. The Resolution is the sigh of relief after a fierce fight (even if only metaphorically). They’ve been holding their breath, on the tips of their toes through the last 20% of your novel, and this is where they get to release their held breath.
While this is where you can end your story, you might consider taking it a bit further and overcome the chore of figuring out how to go about living their normal life after everything they’ve been through. How will they recover from their journey with what they know now?
This might also be the time to hint at a sequel.
The 3-act story structure isn’t as daunting as it might seem and can push your novel to be the best version it can. Especially if you’re having trouble hitting key story beats to keep readers engaged, the 3-act story structure can help you stay laser-focused on your story’s plot.