The Three Act Form

I’m going to describe a well-established format for your novel. It is fair to say that there are plenty of people who don’t like this format, and think it a bit old fashioned. But I think it’s tried and tested, will serve you (and your readers) well, and has plenty of life left in it, so I’m going to run through it here for you.

The Three Act Form

(“How many acts?” – all together now ‘Three”).

This is a straight-forward, no nonsense format that will allow you to tell your story without the style of your book being visible or too obtrusive.  There are much ‘cleverer’ ways of writing, but this one will do the job for you in a very honest way.

Here we go;

Act 1: meet the characters




It’s confusing for characters to keep turning up for the first time right through a story. Think about how weird it would be if your hero is saved on the last page of your book by some complete stranger (come to think of it, that does sound interesting…). Typically you will find that an author begins by introducing the main characters to you in her first chapter or two.

You don’t need to tell your readers everything about your characters when you first introduce them. In fact this is a pretty poor idea. Part of the joy your reader will get derives from them getting to know you protagonist(s) as their journey unfolds. What you should do (according to this format) is allow your readers to meet the main characters early on – in the ‘first act’ as the term suggests.

How much should you tell? That’s up to you of course. Somewhere between a little and a lot. There, that’s helpful isn’t it. I like to give just enough for my readers to be able to create their own image of the character; a little of what they look or sound like – some element of their character that’s an important defining feature.

Of course, you don’t just give a block of descriptive text for each character. The fun is finding a way to introduce the details in a way that gets the story moving.  One point to be made here – about the plot – is that it is usually more interesting not to start the plot right at the starting point – start a little way in.  I’ll put another page together about this at some point.

So, in summary, use the first (few) chapters to introduce your main characters.


Act 2 – the road


This Act provides the majority of your pages – but takes the least explaining. It’s where the plot ‘happens’. All the interesting scenes that move our protagonist from A to B, the twists and turns.  (The bit that’s most fun to write?)


Act 3 – conclusion


Having got things motoring along nicely, you need to bring it to a conclusion. You can’t just say ‘…so they escaped in a boat and decided to live happily ever after…’. You need to provide a suitable crescendo that will push your reader along, making them turn the pages to find out how it all ends up. One way to do this is to provide three key elements – together they form Act 3 and can take anything up to a quarter of your word count.

They are;

  • the catalyst
  • the confrontation
  • the breathtaker

Taking each in turn;

The catalyst

At the start of your final act you need something bad to happen to your protagonist. Dig deep and think mean (you can make it up to them later).  At this point your reader should have some empathy with your characters and want them to succeed in whatever it is they are up to. Give them a proper kicking, get them down on the ground and then give them some more. Your reader should be so utterly hooked that they won’t be able to put the story down: they will have to find out what happens to their friend.

The confrontation

Being a writer, you will have loads of emotional intelligence and know of course that  hardly anyone ever speaks their minds. Being polite and leaving important things unsaid is very human (or is that just British?).

Mostly we need to be goaded into telling a few home truths, to getting things of our chest, and the purpose of ‘the catalyst’ was to do exactly that for your protagonist.

Now that you’ve been mean to them, and put them in a suitable corner, they are in a place that will allow them to let rip. ‘The confronation’ is a heart-to-heart (or stand up row) between your two main characters in which the main theme of your story can be explicitly stated.

For example;

Lets say you’ve been writing about ‘Frank’ and that throughout the story, Frank has gotten into problems with gambling debts and borrows money from his sister Sarah to pay them off. You have given him tens of thousands of words in which he’s done this again and again.

Finally (the catalyst) he gets beaten up by the mob. They chase him down an alley, find him hiding in a wheelie-bin and cart him off to a warehouse where they go to town on him. In the nick of time, the bobbies turn up (or if you prefer, Sandra Bullock from ‘The Heat’) and save him.

‘The confrontation’ happens later that night. Sarah gets a call at 3am from the hospital; Frank is in a bad way, can she come down. Frank is conscious when she arrives and there’s a bust up in which sister Sarah tells him she’s had enough and doesn’t want to have anything more to do with him.  Then there’s a change of mood and Frank unloads all this stuff about being messed up since Sarah was a little girl, childhood jealousy and attention seeking – they cry, they hold hands, all is well (blah blah blah).


‘The confrontation’ is triggered by ‘the catalyst’ and gives your protagonist the emotional space to unload (and you a place to be explicit about what your book is about – in this made-up example, the book is not about gambling and mobsters, its about how we are a product of our early years).

…neat huh…

The breathtaker

Now you need to amaze your reader by surprising them with your ending. Give them something breathtaking. What your aiming for is for them to continue to resonate with your story as they close the back cover of the book.

You can let your people ride off into the sunset (North Americans love this) or you can get all European and dash them into the ground in your last paragraph (the mob could turn up in the hospital just as Frank and Sarah have made-up and shoot them)….

….as always its up to you.


I hope you find this useful. As I said up at the top there are many (many) ways to write your novel and this is just one.  Let me know what you think and how you get on.

All good things to you.