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I've been writing for four years without knowledge of the three act structure. When I discovered it about a year ago, I therefore had no room for it in my writing process, mainly because I had different methods woven in to take care of development. I wasn't too concerned about this, as I could tell my novels were incorporating the structure by themselves (roughly speaking).

My latest endeavor, a very short story, has run into a small problem: I seem to be lacking act 2. Maybe not that small. Things literally jump from character/stakes development to the climax. As far as I can tell, all of the development I need is there. There's just no middle of the story. It would therefore appear that I need to look into the three act structure a bit more closely.

How does one go about incorporating the three act structure?

Clarification, based on the answers received: My problem here is that I am missing the middle of a story. I am aware some short stories are fine with one or two acts. This is not one of them. What I need is to learn how the 3-act structure incorporates three acts. This isn't necessarily so that I can use the structure. I simply need to see how it works, so that I can identify if my current methods are missing anything.

Please do NOT provide an answer explaining why I should not use the 3-act structure, or why it does not apply to short stories. That is not the question.

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I think the key to building a second act is to focus on the function of a second act: To increase the emotional payoff of the ending.

  • Raise the stakes. This forces the character to keep going, and makes the reader more worried about failure.

  • Eliminate options. None of the easy options work. None of the merely difficult or painful options work. No, in order to solve the problem, the character must sacrifice something precious. Bring the character to the point of despair. Readers care when characters despair.

  • Deepen the dilemma. Show why the stakes matter to this character in particular, so that the character cannot walk away from the problem. Show how much the character values the very thing that (in the end) must be sacrificed, so that character struggles desperately to find any other solution. The dilemma makes us care about the character, so that the sacrifice feels more deeply satisfying.

One way to develop a second act: Try/fail cycles. In each cycle:

  1. The character tries some plausible way to solve the problem.
  2. As a result, things get worse.

Each cycle eliminates options, raises the stakes, and deepens the dilemma. This increases the emotional payoff of the third act.

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To some extent it's not really possible to write a story without three acts. Unless it's only two sentences long it will always be possible for a reader to post-rationalise a beginning-middle-end structure onto your tale. But when writing, don't worry about it.

You don't need any acts in a short story. You are free to pick even the smallest atom of structure and explore your idea there.

The expectation is that a short story will be short, and readers will be happy, even grateful, for a story which gets to the heart of its idea quickly, and wraps up when the point has been made.

Suppose you were to have a really interesting idea for how to escape from handcuffs, you could construct a short story which starts with a villain embarking on a prematurely triumphant monologue, and end with that same villain's reaction when the hero appears at his neck with a hot poker.

Such a story spans just a small fraction of a traditional third act, but it would still be satisfying, and readers could still, if they wanted to, perceive it as a three act story.

Update

Following clarification of the question, here's some thoughts on adding a whole extra act to a completed story. I'm going to talk about movie scripts here, because I find structure to be far more visible in those.

If you feel your story lacks a middle act, it's probably because it lacks the story elements traditionally found in the middle act. If you're struggling to figure out what those elements are, you can try analysing other stories.

Try thinking of a familiar movie in the following way: strip out the middle act and try to make the plot make sense without that act. Here's an example using a story everyone's familiar with:

A young space farmer longs to leave his dull planet and join the Rebellion against the evil Empire. He meets two robots who happen to be on a mission on behalf of the rebellion. The robots lead the boy to a mentor who takes them all to a rebel base where the hero joins an attack on the Imperial space station.

Now try to imagine that movie got made, and the producers watched it and realised that, although it made perfect sense, it was dull, and empty: the hero just discovers a problem and goes directly to the source and solves it. It just doesn't feel like a full story. And suppose, to fix this, they went away and filmed a second act to fill the gap. What processes would they have had to go through to concoct that second act?

Instead of the boy going straight to the rebel base, his mentor takes him to a bar where they get in a fight, meet a ruthless space smuggler and get in another fight. They go where the mentor suggests but they find that place had been destroyed and many people killed. Then they get captured by some bad guys, and they meet an idealist princess and sneak around trying to avoid more fights. Doing all of this raises the stakes (the mentor dies), introduces different approaches to consider (selfish / idealistic) but it also teaches the hero the skills and confidence for his later battle.

For yourself, pick a familiar story in your genre. Strip out the second act, smooth over the join and see what the story would look like. Note how relatively easy it can be to make that shortened story make sense, but note also how it loses its heart, soul or purpose. If your story has the same shortcomings, then yes, you are missing an act. Now you already have the answer for what that writer would have had to do to add a second act. Take inspiration from that.

You'll probably find, in many stories that you analyse, the second act is about punishing the hero's (and reader's) naivety or misconceptions, and teaching him/her a more effective response to the story's main problem, but also giving him/her alternative choices to consider. You may find it quite easy, since without a second act your hero may be walking into 'battle' fully equipped and prepared, which is boring. For your new second act you would take that preparedness, analyse it, strip to down to nothing, show the wrong-headedness of it, and build it up again into the potential for something better or something worse. (It's only a potential, because the third act is where we finally discover if the hero can realise that potential.)

That's only a taster. You can read up on it all over the place, but the above is a technique I've used in your situation to help me clearly grasp what the second act is about.

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  • This is a great insight into how short stories work. Unfortunately, my question is not about short stories. My example was. What I want to know, is how do I incorporate the 3-act structure? – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron May 30 '15 at 17:20
  • Ah, ok. Its a pretty broad question as it stands. Could you clarify the original question? Do you mean you want to massage a completed 2-act story into 3 acts (keeping the length mostly the same), or do you feel you are completely missing a middle act and need to go back and write more chapters in the middle? – mwo May 30 '15 at 17:46
  • I feel I am completely missing a second act. Thanks, I will edit the question. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron May 30 '15 at 17:47
  • Not that it greatly matters, but I will also add that this is all in development. As of yet, I haven't actually written any part of the story. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron May 30 '15 at 17:54
  • An excellent update, this is very useful. Thank you. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron May 30 '15 at 18:50
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Trust your story.

Short stories in general--and very short stories in particular--often have no middle.

Treat the three-act structure (or any of the zillions of other popular structures) as tools for diagnosing story problem. If the story has a problems, a story structure can help you figure out where the problem is. If the story doesn't have a problem, there's no need to fit any given structure, no matter how popular or "universal."

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  • I used the 3-act structure to figure out what I was missing (2nd act). My question, however, was how I incorporate the 3-act structure, not necessarily how I should think of it. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron May 30 '15 at 17:22
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This is just a lengthy comment as an addition to Dale Emery's answer. Dale recommends to "[t]reat the three-act structure (or any of the zillions of other popular structures) as tools for diagnosing story problem". I wholeheartedly agree. (And I especially agree with the quotation marks around "universal".)

People have been telling stories forever. Other people have been studying those tales. Different of these people thought they found differing internal structures in narratives. Yet other people thought that it might be helpful to use these structures when creating tales. Again other people made a business out of teaching these structures. The effect is that today almost everyone believes that stories must be constructed along these structures and that a story that lacks a structural element is not a good story.

But that is not true.

If you analyse stories you will find that they invariantly deviate from those structures. If you read analyses you will find that no two scholars agree on what kind of structure can be found in a particular story.

So do as Dale and mwo suggest and do not attempt to mechanically recreate some literary theory in your writing. A bird doesn't learn how to sing from reading books about birdsong. A good story is one that feels true. So trust your feelings or, as Dale has put it, "trust your story".

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  • What, you and @DaleEmery I think are taking this too seriously. I've noticed elsewhere that if someone mentions the 3-act structure, one of you will follow denouncing it. If you read my question carefully, you will see that I do not use the 3-act structure. I am not opposed to it, I simply do not use it. My question is not if I should use it. My question is how do I incorporate it? The only reason I am mentioning it, is because I know it incorporates a second act, something I need at the moment, and I would like to know how to use it. As of yet, no one has answered that question. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron May 30 '15 at 17:18
  • For my part, I was distracted by "very short story," which I took to mean somewhere around 500–1000 words. – Dale Hartley Emery May 30 '15 at 19:06
  • I admit that I do not understand your question. I think I would need to read your story or outline or whatever you have to understand what you mean with what you are trying to explain on an abstract level. – user5645 May 30 '15 at 19:48
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George Lucas describes a basic three act structure as introduce your characters, put them in the worst situation possible, and then get them out of trouble. This works well. it is not the only way to do it, but it is a good one to start with.

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A note of caution: As stressed (many times) before, I do not think it is wise to "construct" a story according to any structure, however popular it might be. These structures are a great tool to diagnose problems of an existing story. They are useless, if you do not have a story that you can apply them to.

However, you say that you very strongly feel that your story lacks an Act II, i.e.: You are unhappy with your story. Time to dig out the Three-Act-Structure and unleash it.

Previous answers have focused on the story elements of Act II. Let me complement this view with an interpretation of the psychological significance of Act II. Hopefully, I will be able to convince you that Act II is indeed the centrepiece of any story and that it is pretty much impossible to write a story entirely missing an Act II. It is there, however short or insignificant or under-developed it might be. It is your job to identify it and modify it according to your needs.

Psychological significance of the Three-Act-Structure:

  1. Act I: The protagonist realizes he is in (more or less desperate) need of change. In one way or the other, he commits to the change and sets out to achieve it.
  2. Act II: The change is achieved. This usually incorporates some dramatic experience that helps to transform the protagonist. In the terminology of the Hero's Journey, the hero faces death and is reborn -- he sheds off some aspect of his old personality and acquires new personality traits. This sounds very dramatic, but not every Act II needs to be loud and scream: Look what a marvelous change is achieved here!
  3. Act III: The change is consolidated. While Act II provided the change itself, the protagonist now proves that he incorporated the change into his personality and will be able to live his life according to it. Hero's Journey: He is "resurrected". (Note that, personally, I find Campbell's terminology confusing: The death theme is present in both Acts II and III, but the distinction between the "reborn" and "resurrection" parts of the story is not entirely intuitive when considering the pure terminology. But then, I never was religious and might simply lack a thorough understanding of what ressurection means in a religious context.)

That is: When interpreting the Hero's Journey in a psychological sense, what it boils down to is an elobarote description of how something changes. In my opinion, this is the very essence of storytelling: We do not tell stories about things that stay the same. We tell stories about change - about how the protagonist finds the power to rise up to an unsatisfactory or threatening situtaion and change it.

To answer your question: I do not think you are in any sense able to incorporate the Three-Act-Structure into a story -- because it is there, always. What you can do is this: Identify the element of your story that brings about the central change. Once you have done so, you can give it the emphasis it deserves.


A description of the Hero's Journey and a tentative psychological interpretation that I found very useful is provided by Vogler in his The Writer's Journey. However, as mentioned above, the rigid terminology of the Hero's Journey -- starting right there with the term "Hero" that I feel decidedly uncomfortable with -- sometimes obscures the actual significance of the stage.

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There are exceptions to the rule of a three act structure, and a short story is often one of them. In your case, your story may be a "two act" rather than "three act" play.

If that's the appropriate format for your plot, from opening to climax, leave it that way.

I'm coming back to this answer two years later, but "better late than never."

In a three act play, there is a crisis at the beginning, a resolution at the end, and a long middle period of post-crisis/pre-resolution, as the characters pick up the pieces of the crisis.

In a short story, you can have a two act structure if the crisis and the resolution are the key events, and how you get from one to the other almost doesn't matter. In O. Henry's "Gift of the Magii," the crisis is that the husband and wife are too poor to buy each other the Christmas gifts they want to. The resolution is that each sells their prized asset to raise the money. (The husband sells his watch to buy his wife combs for her hair; the wife sells her hair to buy a watchchain for her husband. The actual buying and selling can be unimportant.) So this story lends itself well to a two-act structure.

If you want a three act structure, you have to "fill out" the middle. Then you show the respective bargaining of husband and wife for the selling of the watch and hair respectively, and the bargaining of their purchases of the watch chain and combs. Perhaps one or both will have a "near-miss" with "not enough money" even after selling their prized possessions. That creates the middle (third) act of the story.

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  • This is excellent advice. Some short stories are doubtless best when written this way. However, the reason I am asking this question, is because I can tell my current story is one of the ones that is not best written this way. I can tell there is a gigantic gap in the middle, and I want to find out how to take care of it. I know the 3-act structure deals with act 2, so I would like to know how to use it. If you have an alternate method for creating 'act 2', that will work as well. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron May 30 '15 at 17:25
  • What makes you think there is a gap? What make you think the gap is gigantic? – Dale Hartley Emery May 30 '15 at 17:34
  • @DaleEmery Simply put, because it is staring me in the face. :) I jump from brief character development to a life-and-death climax. The pace goes from interest-grabbing to slow, and then up to climax-speed with no transition. There is no introduction/development of the main antagonist. No development of the setting, so to speak. No development of any of the secondary characters, some of which play large roles. My problem lies in incorporating all of that stuff into the middle. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron May 30 '15 at 17:59
  • Hence my question: I would like to see how the 3-act structure does it. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron May 30 '15 at 18:09
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    I've added another answered. (I could have amended my first answer, but I don't like to do that after people have voted it up or down.) – Dale Hartley Emery May 30 '15 at 18:12

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