The three-act structure divides a story into three parts: setup, confrontation, and resolution. For this post, I’m going to use the movie The Wizard of Oz as an example. I've pulled much of these terms from script writing and morphed them into my own version of the three act structure. If you Google “three act structure” you’ll find many variations, but this is how I've broken it down for my own understanding.
Also, The Wizard of Oz is a complex film. One could argue that I’ve chosen the wrong plot points or inciting incidents. I don’t claim to be an expert at script writing or the three act structure, but I hope that my attempt to break down the story will serve as an example to help you do the same for your story to see what, if anything, you might be missing.
Act One: The Setup
In the Beginning, we see our hero in her everyday world. Dorothy is running home. Miss Gulch threatened Toto, and Dorothy wants to tell her aunt and uncle. But no one has time for Dorothy’s concerns.
Then Miss Gulch arrives and takes Toto away. There is nothing anyone can do. Dorothy is weeping in her room when Toto jumps through the window. And here we have our Inciting Incident. Dorothy packs up, and she and Toto run away.
The inciting incident is sometimes called the opening disturbance. It is the something that happens, usually by the end of chapter one, to get the story moving.
Shortly thereafter comes the Pinch Point: a tornado is coming. Dorothy runs home, too late to get into the shelter, and is whisked away in her house to the magical Land of Oz. Here she meets many new characters, including Glenda. Dorothy is a hero in Munchkinland for killing the Wicked Witch of the East and is invited to stay, but she only wants to go home. Glenda tells her that only the Wizard of Oz could possibly help. Dorothy is faced with a choice: stay or go home, which is what sends her to Plot Point 1, the major disaster she is facing. She wants to go home and steps through the door of no return.
Plot Point 1 puts the main character at a crossroads. She must choose a course of action that will change the course of the story. She makes a plan and embarks upon it.
Act Two: Confrontation
Our hero then sets out on her journey. Dorothy meets several new companions, develops some subplot objectives such as getting a brain, heart, and courage for her new friends. She also faces many unexpected Obstacles: angry trees, a fireball from the Witch, and sleep-inducing poppies (Midpoint Disaster). Yet our heroes prevail and reach the Emerald City and the merry old Land of Oz. They are pampered, and after a few more Obstacles, are finally taken before the great and powerful Wizard of Oz.
And here comes the False Sense of Security. Our hero is led to believe that all will be well. The problem is about to be solved. Dorothy will go home, the Scarecrow will get a brain, the Tin Man a heart, and the Lion some courage. They are feeling confident that success is imminent.
Until the Wizard refuses to help. Their journey had been a waste of time. Dorothy will never get home. Our hero’s goals come crashing all around her as we enter Plot Point 2. The Wizard offers to help on one condition, that Dorothy fetches the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West.
Plot Point 2 puts the main character at another crossroads. She must choose a course of action that will again change the course of the story. And often this choice is a no-win situation. To say yes is to seek out the Wicked Witch of the West. But to say no is to admit defeat and never get home. Dorothy again steps through the door of no return, choosing to go and get that broom.
Act Three: Resolution
Off our heroes go to find the broom. More Obstacles crop up. Dorothy is captured, her life threatened, leaving our sidekicks to save the day. The Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion rescue Dorothy, and in the most climactic point in the film (Climax), Dorothy destroys the Witch with a bucket of water.
Denouement occurs after the climax and is where all the loose ends are tied up. Dorothy and friends return to the Emerald City, discover that Oz is a fraud, Glinda arrives and tells Dorothy about the magic slippers, Dorothy clicks those heels and goes home.
And there you have it, more or less.
What do you think? Does your work in progress have some or all of these ingredients? What are you missing?