3 Act Self-Help

3 Act Structure and How To Use It In Life

When you start to learn about stories and how to make them, one of the first things you’ll encounter is the 3-act structure. Although you may not know the ins and outs of 3-act structure, we all learn a little about it at some point in our lives. Remember in school when your teacher told you to write a story and she said “remember, all stories have a beginning, a middle and an end!” Well, believe it or not, that was 3-act structure:

Act 1: Beginning
Act 2: Middle
Act 3: End

When you’re writing a story though, it’s easier to see these acts in a more technical way. I prefer the following (by Syd Field):

Act 1: The Setup
Act 2: The Confrontation
Act 3: The Resolution.

All 3-act stories follow this technical outline.

Act 1: The Setup.
We’re introduced to the characters and the world they inhabit. We get a glimpse into the character’s day to day lives. Who they are. What they do. Then suddenly some event changes their life situation, for better or for worse, and this event takes them down a previously unknown path, challenging them. This path is called:

Act 2: The Confrontation.
The main bulk of the story. The character struggles with their challenge and attempts to bring normality back to their world. Obstacle upon obstacle is thrown in their way until eventually they succeed (or fail) which takes them to:

Act 3: The Resolution.
The story ends and the characters fall back into a form of normality. They go back to their lives, which are now better or worse due to the path they followed.

Your next question may now be “but what links these acts together? When does act 1 turn into act 2?” My answer would be that all acts are linked by “plot points.”

Plot points are events within the story that set the next act into motion. The moment where the main character of a story decides to set out on their adventure, that’s a plot point. The moment when the main character finally completes their mission, that’s a plot point. Every act 2 is started and ended by an event, these events are plot points.

Now the reason I believe 3-act structure is so successful for telling stories, is that it is a structure we all go through in our lives at some point. Whether we know it or not, our lives are a series of stories. We’ve all at one time seen the begining, middle and end of personal stories.

In fact, 3-act structure can be used as a template for our entire life:

Act 1: Birth
Act 2: Living
Act 3: Death

That’s a story we’ll all go through at some point. But we all go through smaller stories too, such as:

Act 1: Making a cup of tea.
-Plot point: Realising there’s no milk.-
Act 2: Going to the shop.
-Plot point: Buying milk.-
Act 3: Finishing tea and drinking it.

Now my thought is, if we know that our lives are a series of stories, why can’t we put ourselves into a story, with an ending we already know, and use this to get what we want? Let’s have a closer look.

3-Act Self Help

Act 1: The Setup

In life, we all have a setup. Our setup is everything about our lives. Every possession we own, every friend we talk to and most importantly our daily routine. Those of us that are content with our lives, not looking to make any changes, will stay in this act until something forces us out of it. If you enjoy your setup, there’s no reason to change it (and no reason to go into Act 2.)

But for other people, who aren’t happy with their setup, it’s time to take action and push yourself into the second act. If you never make it into the second act, your story will never start and nothing will ever change. You’ll never find Resolution.

So it’s time to get yourself into the second act. But how do you do this? Well to put your plan into action, you need to visualise your act 3. How do you want your story to end? Not with you dying I hope. Happy endings can be cheesy, but they’re happy at least. But whatever you want, picture it, act 3 is your goal, it’s where you want to end up.

That moment you decide to take action – and actively start to change your life – you’ve reached your plot point, you’re into Act 2.

Act 2: The Confrontation

Nobody gets anything good in this life without a fight. Act 2 is that fight.

As I said earlier, act 2 is the point in the story where the hero has to take on obstacles. If you want to get to your preferred act 3, you have to take on these obstacles. Each obstacle should take you closer to your goal. You should be aiming for act 3. It might take you 5 minutes, it might take you 5 years. The important thing to remember though is that no matter what happens, act 3 is always at the end. If you ever feel like the obstacles are too much for you, picture your act 3. Remember your goal, and eventually, one day, everything will click into place and you’ll have:

Act 3: Resolution

Your life is now as you wanted it to be. You made it through your story and got through the obstacles. Act 2 is a distant memory. Enjoy it, it was worth it. But remember, at any time you can decide you want something different. You can set yourself another goal and jump right back into act 2. That’s the fun of stories and life, right?


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