Novel writers seem to be torn over whether or not the three-act structure is even relevant to their craft. I like it because it keeps my writing organized and gives readers a well-understood trajectory that makes books easier to read. But mostly, I use it because it works for me. If it doesn’t work for you, I’d love to hear how you organize your narrative. I love to hear how other writers approach a story.
Regardless of your style, I would argue that all writers have an act three, or at the very least something organized like an act three, because it’s where your story gets wrapped up.
The third act is typically the shortest of all the acts. Nothing new is introduced – it’s all about resolution and your protagonist finding some kind of equilibrium. While she may not get exactly what she wanted exactly the way she wanted, your protagonist achieves her goal.
The act opens with a twist or a confrontation that is the catalyst to the third-act conflict – this is the big battle, or the final psychological hurdle – your protagonist’s last (and greatest) test. In many stories, there is only one option for resolution, and it’s your character’s lack of choice that ultimately forces them to go a certain way, resulting in a major change in that character.
After the conflict is resolved, a scene that readers have been waiting for usually follows. In the Hunger Games (because apparently that is the only book I have ever read – are all my examples from it?) this is the scene where Katniss and Peeta win together. Readers have been waiting for it and it makes them feel good.
The third act closes with a sense that life will never be the same. This is the concept of new equilibrium. Katniss gets to go home, but there is a sense of menace looming, and we know that it’s not going to be like it was before she left. Despite these changes, the story has come back into balance, and the dramatic questions readers had at the beginning of the story (will she survive? will she and Peeta fall in love? will the Hunger Games end?) are ultimately answered.
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