What Film Teaches Fiction Writers About the Three Act Structure

Many writers out there are also fans of fiction found in every other form, and every writer has a list of their favorite movies and TV shows – some writers even prefer to keep the TV running while they’re writing for the addition of background noise, while others prefer to fire up Netflix once they’re done writing for some relaxation.

But watching fiction isn’t all fun. There’s a lot writers can learn from the three act structure from movies and TV that can be applied to their own writing process to create a better story that’s easier to outline.

Want your TV watching to turn into serious story research instead? Here’s how to turn your TV watching time into something that can help you write.

Why Three Acts Work

Three act storytelling is one of the most popular types. Here’s why.

Act one introduces the setting, the scenes, the characters and the intrigue. It tells people why they should give a damn about the characters or the story.

Act two introduces the intrigue, the storyline, the chase, the rest of the characters, the twists and the journey. This is the vital middle part of the story.

Act three concludes your plot – though sometimes with a surprising twist or a cliffhanger. It brings the story together, and tells people why they have been giving a damn throughout the middle. Thus, give your ending some real punch.

Three acts are effective. It allows for tension, peaking, conclusion, twists and an end to the story (whether it’s the final end or only the end to one part in a series).

Examples of Three Acts in Film

The popular three acts are seen in thousands of Blockbuster movies. The same way, it appears in thousands upon thousands of books and short stories. Almost no story begins without introducing (1) settings and (2) characters – and that’s act one of most stories and movies.

Die Hard, Toy Story, Star Wars, The Stand, Rocky, Rambo, The Hills Have Eyes, Cujo, The Shining, The Jungle Book, The Princess Bride, The Road.

In fact, the list of movies that use the three acts – some in obvious ways and most not – is almost endless.

It works so well because it works.

Even life can be seen as life in three acts if you were to think about it. First, there’s birth when you get introduced to the characters that will be in it – then there’s the middle part where your journey happens – and finally, there’s the conclusion.

Examples of Three Acts in Episodic Fiction

Three act stories can be seen all over episodic fiction.

This type of fiction generally has a presiding story arc (the characters and general setting remains the same), while each episode another “topic”, “story arc” or mystery that gets dealt with by the characters.

Fiction in episodes like these is a great way to illustrate the progression of a story arc, and you can practically use this to see how your chapters and story can progress.

The Three Acts in Individual Chapters

The three acts (beginning, middle and end) apply to your story as a whole whether it’s 3, 000 words or closer to 300, 000. But it can also apply to your chapters individually – each chapter has a beginning, middle and end too. Realizing this can make outlining and writing chapters (and seeing them in perspective for the rest of your story) a lot easier for you as a writer.

When outlining, use the “episodic” format and see each chapter as an episode in a larger part of the story.

For many writers, this is the revelation they need to get over writer’s block and back to serious writing.