Inside Story: Notes on the 3-Act Structure

In my review of Inside Story: The Power of the Transformational Arc by Dara Marks, we had a brief look at the importance of theme in the creation of stories. Once you’ve identified what your story is really about – or its thematic value – you can begin to build a structure around your characters and their various problems.

The plot of your story reveals the external line of action for the characters, while the internal process of transformation is explored through the subplots. This means the subplots carry the emotional and thematic content. Dara Marks divides the plot and subplots into three storylines: A, B, and C.

Obviously, Inside Story is aimed at screenwriters so the storylines are relatively simple in comparison with a novel. If you’re writing a novel, you’ll probably need more subplots and complications – depending on the genre you’re working in. But the same principle applies: the internal process of the protagonist will be revealed through the subplots, no matter how many you have.

Let’s look at how this works in the 3-Act structure.

Act One

The protagonist starts the story in a state of conflict or something happens that puts them into conflict – either with themselves or with someone or something else. The exclusive purpose of the first act is to set that conflict into motion in all three storylines. These are:

  • The A Story – external events and action which create an opportunity for the protagonist to grow and evolve towards the thematic value.
  • The B Story – the internal conflict, or fatal flaw, which represents what the protagonist lacks inside that’s forcing them to grow.
  • The C Story – the relationship conflict which shows the impact the fatal flaw is having on the protagonist’s ability to connect with someone or something.

To resolve the external conflict, the protagonist will need to change internally. So to set your story up effectively, ask yourself: what will the protagonist achieve internally at the end of the story that they’re not capable of achieving at the beginning?

The A Story shows the problem or conflict in the outer world that can only be solved if the protagonist changes. This shift in consciousness happens in the B Story (the inner world) via relationship to someone or something in the C Story. So it’s through the relationship that the problem in the A Story is ultimately resolved.

Act Two

The first half of act two is where the protagonist’s old values, bad ideas and distorted perceptions are challenged. Anything that doesn’t serve their external or internal needs is broken apart because their old way of doing things no longer works. But they’re still chasing after the wrong thing and not trying to resolve the real conflict.

All three storylines need to be pushed to exhaustion. In the A Story, external attempts to solve the problem are thwarted or done badly, which leads to frustration and disappointment. In the B Story, the protagonist is in denial of their internal conflict, which has an impact on the C Story relationship. In the C Story, relationships are held at the level of resistance.

The midpoint of act two is where exhaustion reaches a breaking point and the protagonist has control ripped from their hands. This casts a new light on the problem so the protagonist can begin to move towards resolution. But the impact of the midpoint is bigger on the level of the B and C stories. It’s the internal reaction (B Story) to what happens in the A Story that opens up new possibilities. The protagonist starts to see how their own behaviour (fatal flaw) needs to change if they want to resolve the conflict. This is a moment when the theme is expressed clearly. You need a midpoint for each storyline – A, B, and C – but it’s not essential they happen in the same scene or at the same time.

After the midpoint there’s often a period of grace – the protagonist feels inspired and motivated to face what lies ahead. This is where you can show what’s happening inside the protagonist that will lead to their transformation. What was unknown, externally and internally, is now becoming known.

But this new awareness must be acted upon and put to the test. So next comes the fall. The protagonist won’t easily let go of old perceptions and values which creates a conflict between the old self and the new self. This makes them ambivalent or indecisive over what to do next.

The fatal flaw is dying – being dismantled – leading to the death experience at the end of act two. This doesn’t have to be an actual death, but should be the worst thing that can happen to the protagonist in relation to their internal struggle and the theme of the story. This is where something happens externally that creates a major challenge to the internal change. The protagonist feels like they’ve lost everything – otherwise known as:

The ‘Oh Shit!’ Moment!

Act Three

The second turning point at the start of act three is where the protagonist meets their darkest fears. This is followed by a descent into pain, disappointment, and unhappiness that shows them what life will be like if they don’t change. All ego systems fail and they’re forced to engage with the world in a new way. Important point: Don’t rescue the protagonist! It has to get worse before it gets better. There must be some self-sacrifice or surrender which leads to a renewal.

At this point in a tragic story the trajectory stays downward. In a heroic story it turns up, because the protagonist makes different choices. We must see them make a conscious decision to take action to achieve the goal of the story. This internal decision is the transformational moment, which could be the climax of the B Story.

Now the antagonist can be overcome. The antagonist represents the darkest side of the protagonist’s shadow, and is the physical manifestation of the internal conflict of the protagonist. In overcoming the antagonist, the protagonist shows that they’ve transformed or healed their fatal flaw. The Climax brings the conflict to a conclusion but you still have the resolution – a glimpse of what the new life will look like for the protagonist.

There’s much more that can be said about this way of structuring stories and I’ve barely scratched the surface here. It’s similar to the classic hero’s journey structure but really focuses on the inner transformation of the main character. The book contains tons more detail and loads of examples that show how it works in practice. More on the book here or read my review here: Inside Story: The Power of the Transformational Arc.

Explore the hero’s journey structure using the film Thor here, or Jane Eyre here.