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How the 3-act structure looks for fiction (taken from https://www.nownovel.com/blog/three-act-formula-novels/).

The 3-act structure is a common form for storytelling. Movies and plays in particular adhere closely to this model most of the time. While in fiction you can write to fit the structure, nonfiction makes it a little trickier because you need to adhere to the facts. And surprise! Our real lives don’t necessarily fit into neat little storytelling containers.

That being said, I have found the 3-act structure useful in shaping my nonfiction. Reading more about the form helped me at a crucial time when I was struggling to organize my memoir. Nonfiction won’t fit every single criterion set out in the 3-act structure, but the form can be helpful as a loose guide.

When I teach memoir and other nonfiction classes, I always spend time talking about the 3-act structure. I adapted this 3-act guide from Mary Carroll Moore‘s book, Your Book Starts Here. Her book addresses all writing, both fiction and nonfiction, but I wanted to create a guide specifically for nonfiction. (Side note: I highly recommend Mary’s website and classes. I know her personally, I love this book, and when she teaches her workshops at The Loft I always hear such great feedback.). She spends quite a bit of time in Your Book Starts Here on the 3-act structure and storyboarding techniques, so check it out if you want to learn more.

Three-Act Structure
Italics represent the stages that are more common in fiction, so you may not necessarily have these in nonfiction
(In parentheses): I’ve included some adaptations for narrative nonfiction

Act 1 must:

  1. Introduce the primary quest or question
  2. Set up the primary environment of the story
  3. Introduce who is struggling with the primary quest or question
  4. Welcome the main helper or mentor
  5. Present a refusal of the call
  6. Create a loop for the reader between the opening and final chapters of Act 1
  7. End with momentum into Act 2 (cliffhanger or turning point)

Act 2 must:

  1. Take the reader toward a deeper mystery, a darker cave, a bigger question—and suggest a coming change
  2. Provide tests and new systems to explore
  3. Deliver a surprise or new perspective
  4. Deepen the narrator’s relationship with the main allies in her life
  5. Foreshadow the final crisis (or transformation)

Act 3 must:

  1. Bring about (Highlight) an unexpected but anticipated change
  2. Take the story to a final level, often via a twist
  3. Reveal the true alliances
  4. Tie together any loose ends
  5. Present a final test—how to apply what’s been learned so far
  6. Revisit the beginning chapter, echoing the primary question or quest. (How has it been answered or discovered? Have you described a transformation?)

In Part II, I will offer a worksheet that guides you through some questions as you think about your nonfiction work in terms of the 3-act structure.

If you want to learn more about the 3-act structure, I like these books:

Screenplay by Syd Field

Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schmidt

The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler