They say Mozart could write an entire concerto, error-free, in one sitting. He listened to the music in his head, and wrote it down. What he imagined is what he wrote. And what he wrote is some of the most celebrated music in the history of humanity.
Many of us approach writing and storytelling that way. We play the music we hear in our heads. We trust our instincts. We lay our words on the page exactly how we hear them in our heads.
The only problem: you ain’t Mozart, and neither am I.
Most musicians know better. They memorize their scales. They spend hours with their instruments, not playing or writing songs, but studying and practicing the basic grammar of music: scales, rhythm, timing.
Just as musicians need to study and practice the basics, so do you as an author.
Even if you’re writing an instructional, self-help, or reference book, you need to understand the three-act structure, because it’s part of the basics of writing and storytelling.
While the three-act structure is not a magical formula that will transform you into a bestselling writer overnight, it is a series of principles that will help you understand how stories work. It’s a toolset for constructing the jumbled ideas inside your head into powerful stories that can change people’s lives.
Novelists and screenwriters have long relied on the three-act structure to tell compelling stories. But even if you’re writing a nonfiction book, you need to understand and use these time-tested principles.
First, it can provide structure for your overall book. In the BookWorthy course, we provide lots of tips to help you with outlining. For example, just by planning your table of contents before you write, you’ll identify what exactly you’re trying to communicate to the reader.
To be sure, excessive outlining can be its own form of procrastination. Fussing with structure isn’t writing a book. But even if you’re not writing the book itself, when you’re outlining, your fingers are tapping at the keyboard. You are, by God, writing. And that’s something. A small victory.
“To know what you’re going to draw,” said Pablo Picasso, “You have to begin drawing.”
The same is true for writing. Understanding and applying the three-act story structure gives you somewhere to start. Who is the hero of this book? What do they look like when they begin? What do they look like in the end?
“To know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing.”—Pablo Picasso
These are the fundamental questions the three-act structure forces you to ask. And the answers spawn a hundred other questions; before you know it you’re actually writing your book.
Second, understanding story structure will make the stories, illustrations, and anecdotes you share throughout your book more vivid and compelling. Stories can drive home what you want to say in ways a bulleted list of principles never could.
But to tell stories effectively, you need to understand how they work. The three-act structure is a simple, memorable set of principles that will help you strengthen the stories you tell.
The three-act structure forces you to think about transformation, because stories are fundamentally about how a character is transformed by a journey.
This is why even non-fiction writers should think about the story structure of their book. If you’re writing a memoir, ask yourself, “How did I change as a result of the experiences I’m writing about?” If there is no transformation, you’re not writing a story, you’re writing a series of disconnected anecdotes.
If you’re writing a self-help or how-to book, your reader should be the one experiencing the transformation. The “story” of the book is their story, and your words will help them live their story and experience their own transformation.
At the most basic level, the three-act structure divides your story or book into three distinct parts:
Whatever the outcome, the hero has changed on a fundamental level. In Star Wars Luke goes from unimportant farm boy to rebel hero receiving accolades from a princess. However, such transformation is often more effective if the hero’s personality or perception of the world has changed. For example, at the beginning of The Wizard of Oz Dorothy longs for a better place “Over the Rainbow.” But in the movie’s final scenes, she realizes there is “no place like home.
If you were to read a typical book on story structure, you’d discover there’s a lot more to it than three acts. Story structure experts say that each act is made up of multiple “plot points.” And many of these supposed gurus claim to have identified dozens of plot points that your story must have if it’s going to succeed.
Don’t believe them.
The truth is, there is no secret formula that will transform you into a bestselling author, no secret sauce, no magic number of plot points your story must have to succeed.
Remember: you’re not learning about story structure for any of those reasons anyway.
You’re practicing your scales. You want to understand the engine that makes stories run. And you want to be able to write powerful stories that inspires everyone who reads them.
And to do that, you don’t need dozens of plot points, you just need these five:
If you understand these five basic plot points, you’ll grasp the basics of the three-act story structure and can immediately implement them in your own work.
To see these plot points in action, let’s examine three seemingly unrelated people and look for what their stories have in common: Moses, Harry Potter, and Stephen King.
Moses was a Hebrew slave who was raised as an Egyptian prince. When he murders a slave driver for abusing a fellow Hebrew, he must go on the run. But after a miraculous encounter with the Hebrew God, Moses learns his true calling: to set the Hebrew people free. He returns to Pharaoh’s court, calling down plagues until the Egyptian leader relents and lets the Hebrews go. They are released from captivity, and Moses becomes a new kind of prince, leading a nation through the challenges of the wilderness.
Harry Potter was a friendless orphan boy, forced by his insufferable relatives, the Dursleys, to sleep in a closet under the stairs. But after receiving a letter from Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry discovers he is capable of spectacular wonders. He attends Hogwart’s to learn the essentials of wizardry—and uncovers his connection to the dark and deadly Lord Voldemort. After Harry and his new friends defeat Voldemort (until the next book, anyway), Harry returns to the Dursleys, carrying with him the reassuring knowledge that his true home will always be in the Wizarding World.
Our last story is nonfiction, and it comes from Stephen King’s (highly recommended) book on writing called, well, On Writing. This powerful anecdote was beautifully adapted by the site Zen Pencils in comic form. It’s short, so we’ll put the entire thing here:
These three stories are wildly different. One is from an ancient biblical text; another is from the imagination of a novelist; the third is a true story documenting the struggles of a very real person. In spite of these difference, all three stories share a common structure:
Each of these stories can easily be divided into three acts and five plot points. Most importantly, they all involve a central character who experiences a profound change as the result of a journey.
Breaking down a story like this reveals how structure supports the central theme of a story. Depending on how you break the story down, you could wind up with an entirely different theme. For instance, Moses’ story could just as easily be told like this:
These retellings of Moses’ story contain all the same basic elements. However, they drive home two very different themes: In one, Moses’ story is all about leadership; in another, it’s all about the idea of “home.”
Both tellings include a dramatic reversal: In the first, Moses begins as a prince and ends as an entirely different type of leader; in the second, he begins in the lavish comfort of a palace and ends in a bleak desert landscape.
The same story could be told in countless ways. By thinking through structure, you identify the theme or message your story is meant to convey.
Stephen King’s story is especially helpful for understanding how story structure can help nonfiction writers. On Writing is part instructional book, part memoir. In the anecdote above, Stephen is making a simple point: Writing is supposed to make your life full and rewarding. To make that happen, you have to have the right priorities. Many writers romanticize the drunk and tortured writer opening a vein over the typewriter. Stephen wants his reader to understand that it doesn’t have to be that way. You can put your writing in its proper place.
“Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.”—Emily Dickinson
He could have just said that. Instead he told a story. And the story makes the point much more clearly and eloquently than a straightforward telling ever could.
“Tell all the truth,” said Emily Dickinson, “But tell it slant.”
By making his point with a story, King helps us find ourselves in the hero and imagine our own lives if we follow the wisdom King learned the hard way.
You can employ the same tactic with your book.
This principle applies not just to individual stories within a larger book. It can even apply to the way you structure your book as a whole.
Let’s say you’re writing a book about productivity. For years, you felt like your work habits were holding you back. You were good at your job, but struggled to maintain focus on a task for long stretches of time; you ping-ponged from project to project, failing to give any one its due attention; every notification on your phone or laptop was an invitation to ten minutes of distraction.
Over time, you developed a system to combat these challenges, and your productivity skyrocketed. You mentioned this life-changing productivity system to a coworker, and a few days later she texted you to say thanks. It changed her life. Soon, more and more of your friends and coworkers used your method, and they all said the same thing: “I don’t know how I ever got anything done without this!”
Now you realize you have an opportunity to share this life-changing productivity method with the world by publishing a book. You sit down to write and you ask yourself, “If this is a story, who is the hero?”
You could tell the story with yourself as the hero, but that seems self-congratulatory. And frankly, it would be boring to read.
Then you realize that the story isn’t for you—it’s for your reader. They’re the hero.
If your reader is the hero, how will they be transformed by the end of the story? The answer is obvious: like the many other friends and coworkers who use your productivity method, your readers will go from being unproductive and overwhelmed to productive and fulfilled.
This raises the next logical question: how do they get from one state to the other? The answer lies in the details of your productivity method, which you can lay out in a series of chapters that make up the bulk of your book.
In this way you’ve conceived of your entire book as a story following the five basic plot points of the three-act story structure:
By using the three-act story structure, you’ll create an engaging storyline that will inspire your readers. Stories are about transformation, and by using these time-tested principles, you can help your readers experience the transformation they’ve been seeking.
But just like the hero in your stories face obstacles in their journey, you’re going to face obstacles on your way to a published book. The good news is, you don’t have to do it alone.
We’ve created a complete course to help you write and publish a book that matters—to you and to your readers.
If you’re looking to write and publish a book, don’t do it alone. Sign up for the course now and make this year the year you finally write—and publish—your book.