Pros and cons of the three act structure

This entry is part 7 of 24 in the series The plot thickens (Mwahahaha)

Yesterday, we talked about the basics of the three-act structure by Syd Field. Today, we’ll weigh some of the pros and cons of using this method to plot our stories.


First of all, we have to acknowledge that this structure is very simple. In some ways, that’s one of its strengths. Because there’s not a whole lot set in stone, the three-act structure is highly flexible.

It’s also almost universally applicable. Even if you haven’t used the three act structure in plotting your story, odds are good you can apply it now. In fact, all of the plotting methods that we’ll examine later can be sketched out on the three act structure outline, too.

Finally, it’s very popular: it’s easy to find examples of the three-act structure in virtually every story we know and love. It’s familiar to readers, easy to understand and apply, and almost what we expect when reading a story.


However, this kind of outline of the three act structure is a little generic. It doesn’t offer a whole lot of guidance in the way of how to keep building in the story. It doesn’t give us a way to avoid the dreaded “sagging middle.”

Some critics of the three-act structure, such as former Writers’ Guild Director James Bonnet, say that the three-act structure is an artificial superimposition.

On the other hand, Bonnet argues that studying structure doesn’t automatically make you a wizard at writing well-structured stories. But come on—not studying structure is even less likely to help you avoid Winchester Mystery Stories.

Bonnet’s alternative (emphasis added):

Aristotle’s classical structure, which is the dominant feature of this structure, can stand alone. All of the structures you might find in the act are already built into the problem solving action that encounters resistance, namely: conflict, complications, crises (turning points) climax and resolution. It is, in fact, the structure of any problem solving action (real or fiction) that encounters resistance.

Does that sound a little familiar 😉 ?

What do you think? What weaknesses and strengths do you see in using the three-act structure to plot your story? Would you use it?

Picture by Luke

Series NavigationThe five act story structureThe act structure in actionA quick look at the Snowflake Method

3 thoughts on “Pros and cons of the three act structure”

  1. Whoa. I didn’t realize I would have to think when I visited your blog, Jordan. LOL 😉

    I do not use the three-act method when plotting my stories. I definitely go more for the conflict, complications, crises, climax and resolution.

    For me, plotting using only the three segments, is not particularly helpful in guiding the arc of my story. Whereas, the method Bonnet supports, allows me to see more clearly how the arc is defined and lets me see more clearly where I am falling short.

    Whew. I hope that made sense because my brain hurts now.

  2. I started writing 11 years ago and ever since then I’ve used a 3-point structure. It’s not exactly the 3-act structure, but it’s close and it fits my writing style.

    I’ve found that if I plot more than three general ideas of what I want to have happen at the beginning, I tend to get stuck because I have less room to bend things later. I still know subplots and character arcs going in, but my creativity isn’t squelched by too much form.

    However, I would definitely count the sagging middle as the primary con with this form. Usually, I introduce someone new or kill someone off, throw in a little sex, but I’m taking a screenwriting class at the moment where we have been going over what you’re supposed to do in the middle (aside from generally making things as complicated for your protag as possible), and there was one thing that stood out to me.

    My teacher called it ‘the pinch,’ where something happens to make your protag completely committed to his or her cause. Maybe the bad guy leaves flowers on her bed. Maybe your guy just found out his girlfriend’s pregnant. I hadn’t really thought about it in this way before, but I think it might help with the sagging middle.

  3. I think new writers should use any means necessary to heighten their inspiration and determination to complete that first draft. Twenty-six years ago, if somebody had suggested the 3-Act structure to me, I would have grovelled at their feet until the cows came home.

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