How to Write a Novel Using the 3-Act Structure

February 28, 2019

How to Write a Novel Using the 3-Act Structure

How to write a novel using 3-act structure


how to write a novel using three act structure
The three-act story structure is something that has been around a long time whether you realize it or not. In grade school, you may have been familiar with words like exposition, midpoint and climax and everything you wrote had a beginning, middle and end. It’s something that many people naturally follow and it’s how our brain is wired. We like structure and when we’re reading we like to know that what we expect to happen next, will happen. It’s satisfying.

You may not be an outliner and that’s okay! There is no one way to write a novel. The 3-Act structure is great if you’re stuck on moving the plot forward, if you feel you have a sagging middle or if you just want to outline your great idea and connect some dots before jumping in!

I recently read Save the Cat Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody and was introduced to this 3-Act concept and what they call story beats which breaks everything down even further. While I am an outliner and a plotter, I don’t have any formal education on writing fiction so this roadmap to writing a compelling novel was new to me.  

In a way, I’m glad I wrote my first draft on my own terms. I think it allowed my creativity to flow and not have to think about if I was following the 3-Act structure correctly. I used the book to replot and fix some slow areas of my first draft and I can tell it has already improved my book SO much!

So whether you use this to outline, to draft or to replot as I did, I think it’s great information and I am very excited to pass along some of the knowledge to you. For more details and some amazing examples I really encourage you to pick up Save the Cat Writes a Novel. There is so much more in it than what I am sharing below. You can also find other blog posts and articles that articulate the structure and its components differently. I have outlined the 3-Act structure and story beats in a way that makes sense to me. Find what works for you! 

Just Want to Dive In? Get the Worksheet HERE

The 3-Act Structure


The Opening Scene

  • What it is: A single shot of the “before.” Your hero in their world.
  • Things to Consider: Have you ever read the first page of a book while shopping in a bookstore? Often times that first page will make your reader decide to keep reading, or put it back on the shelf. Make sure your opening scene pulls them in enough for them to want to keep going.

Theme Stated

  • What it is: This is the life lesson, a hint at what kind of journey your hero will be on.
  • Things to Consider: We don’t want to make things too obvious, but if your hero is going on a journey they have to start somewhere. Often times the hero believes something to be true that he finds out is wrong by the end of the story. Or, the opposite, the hero believes something to be false, but by the end of it, they see that it is true. We want to make sure the reader is on the same page as the hero, that they can see exactly where their headspace is at. The hero can’t have a revelation if we never knew what he thought at the beginning.

Introduction to the Regular World

  • What it is: This is when we learn about your hero’s life before, what their flaws, problems and goals are.
  • Things to Consider: This makes up about the first 10% of your novel, it will lead to the inciting incident. You should be showing what kind of life the hero had before the inciting incident so the reader can connect with the change that is about to happen. Mentioning the hero’s flaws, problems and primary goal are important so we can see what issues the inciting incident might cause for the hero.

The Inciting Incident

  • What it is: This is the life-changing event that will propel your story forward, it is the catalyst.
  • Things to Consider: This incident needs to be so big that the hero has no choice but to change, going back to their normal life we saw before should not be an option.

The Great Debate

  • What it is: The hero asking themselves, “what should I do next?”
  • Things to Consider: This inciting incident likely means some big choices and some big changes for your hero. As humans, change is never easy. Choices are often hard and have consequences. Your hero will need a moment to process and to decide what to do next.


Take Action

  • What it is: This is the moment your hero decides to take action, to take their first step on their journey.
  • Things to Consider: This is it, the moment your reader has waited for, it’s time to take action! It is time for the hero to separate themselves from the regular world they leave behind. We should get some sense of “new” here whether it’s a new mindset, a new location or trying something new

The B Story

  • What it is: This is where we meet the characters that will help your hero learn their theme.
  • Things to Consider: Yeah, of course, we want to watch the hero find the magic object they’ve been questing for. But, we also want to see them find love, friendship and happiness. We want to watch them learn hard lessons and grow. Your B story is that internal journey and this is where you get to introduce those characters that will help develop your B story. It’s fine to have a lot of B characters, but you’ll want one to be your main life-lesson learning source.

A Whole New World

  • What it is: This is where we see our hero in their new world and we see how they’re doing.
  • Things to Consider: We need to get a good idea of if your hero is loving their new world or hating it. We want to see them either succeeding or failing.


  • What it is: The middle of the novel where there is either a false victory or a false defeat
  • Things to Consider: Regardless of if it is a false victory or a false defeat, the stakes should be raised. We want something that will start pushing our hero toward change. 

It’s All Downhill

  • What it is: Things are either getting progressively better or worse for our hero.
  • Things to Consider: If the midpoint resulted in a false victory, things should be getting worse for our hero. If the midpoint was a false defeat, things should be getting better for our hero. Our hero shouldn’t get all bad or all good in a dynamic story.

Rock Bottom

  • What it is: This is your hero’s lowest point when all hope seems lost.
  • Things to Consider: This is where something happens to the hero that combines with their own internal struggles and results in their lowest point.

Now What

  • What it is: This is where your hero takes time to process and react to what has happened.
  • Things to Consider: This is their darkest point, they should be worse off than before they started their journey. It’s the dark before the dawn, the night before the light. They need to process the bad before they can get to the good.


Lightbulb Moment

  • What it is: The moment when the hero realizes what they must do to fix everything
  • Things to Consider: Remember your hero will have both internal and external problems. This is the moment where they are fixing problems they have created in their world. However, they should also be fixing themselves.  

The Finale

  • What it is: The hero saves the day and learns their life-lesson
  • Things to Consider: After putting into action the big plan that they knew would fix everything, the hero should have now learned the theme you set them up for at the beginning of the novel. They should have defeated the bad guys, found love, saved the world, etc. Their world should be a better place because of the journey they took.

The Final Image

  • What it is: The last scene of the book, a satisfying “after” shot of our hero
  • Things to Consider: This last scene should mirror your opening scene and show just how far your hero has come. Your readers want that satisfying conclusion, to know that the journey was worth it in the end.

Who knew there were so many pieces to connect when you’re wiring a novel that moves the plot forward with every page? I really hope you gained something from this and that it helps your book writing process! Again, there is no right way to write a novel, if this doesn't work for you that’s okay! 

Outline your own novel using the 3-Act story structure with this free download. You can print it out and work through something by hand or keep it in a Google Doc and move things around as you need to!

Get the 3-Act Structure Outline Worksheet HERE

Already have your first draft written? Try using the sheet to see how it follows, you might be missing something that can really drive your story forward. It’s a great writing exercise no matter what point in the process you’re at!

Happy Writing Friends!

xx Kristen 

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