Three-Act Storytelling Structure: Strengthen Your Business and Academic Writing

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One common feature that all writing types share (including academic, business, journalistic, and creative) is storytelling. People tell stories all the time, and you might find a story anywhere from a film script to an audit report. Likewise, in attempts to prove our beliefs, sometimes we look for stories and patterns in non-existent places.

When you realize that anything can be transformed into a compelling story, your writing and audience will improve. Think about this for a second: would you rather read a business report structured as a story of success, or read a boring, data-filled report? You would likely choose the success story over bland data. Also, remember that you don’t need to lie to make a story interesting. Instead, structure your facts in a captivating order because not all stories evoke a similar level of interest. When you do this, you’ll realize the problem isn’t the story itself, but the story’s presentation. Just think about your friend who just doesn’t know how to tell a good joke.

Writers have always understood the importance of storytelling. Because of that, they have been searching for a universal story structure. In the past, writers mixed different storytelling features to create their personal formula. Today, the world has four dominating storytelling structures that vary in terms of complexity, number of elements, and characters. In this article, shows you the first storytelling formula: the three-act structure.

Being a well-known storytelling mechanism, the three-act writing structure consists of a beginning, middle, and end. Due to the structure’s simplicity, many writers use it as a base of their stories and devote roughly 25% of it for the beginning, 50% for the middle, and the remaining 25% for the ending. To understand the difference between each part, you can read the first act as the set-up, the second act as the body, and the third act as the resolution of the story.

As a writer using the three-act structure as your foundation, you’ll develop a set of turning points inside each act. Thus, a story tends to start from a conflict, also known as an inciting incident. The conflict usually forces the subject of a story from the comfort zone and sets the groundwork for future events. As an example, Neo from Matrix (1999) begins his journey after reading the computer message in the first act.

Similarly, the inciting incident in journalistic writing might be considered the first paragraph where the writer presents all the important information. For academic pieces, an inciting incident is the research question, while for business reports it might be the identified issue. Eventually everything in your story, regardless of story type, revolves not only around the subject but also around the inciting incident.

Learn more about the rules of journalistic writing here.

In the first act, you’ll introduce the characters and give important information your reader might need to understand. In a number of well-written stories, authors put only necessary details and avoid bringing ideas that don’t lead to anything. This rule, called Chekhov’s gun, can also be used outside of creative writing. Remember, you shouldn’t overload a story, an article, or a report with unnecessary information.

You’ll finish your first act with the first turning point. In script-writing, the turning point signals the main character’s first major change. For example, the appearance of the villain may cause this transformation. This feature can be used as a smooth transition from the set up (Act One) to the body of a story (Act Two). For an academic paper, the transition occurs between the methodologies and research findings sections. The findings section tends to be the body of a written piece.

Your second act mostly consists of small obstacles with one turning point in the middle and another turning point closer to the end. Such a concentration of unexpected turns makes the second act the most entertaining part of your story. Usually, the last turning point leaves the main character at the rock bottom making the audience question if the main character manages to overcome the obstacles. All this build-up prepares the basis for your third act.

In academic writing, the obstacles of the second act should be considered as pieces of information presented in the findings and discussion sections. As a writer, you should learn when to present new facts and how to organize them. As a suggestion, the discussion section can focus on the important information in the middle and closer to the end of your work while mentioning less important parts in between.

The third act provides a story’s resolution. All highlights of the first two acts are revealed in this section. This is when Chekhov’s gun fires. And if not, then something went wrong with your story. The important part of your third act isn’t to bring new ideas, but present solutions to themes that have been discussed before. As nobody introduces a new villain in the third act, nobody should report new findings or hypotheses in the conclusion of an academic paper.

While the three-act structure is well-known and respected, it doesn’t mean that an author should use only this structure for the writing process. Some authors believe in the four-act structure, while others don’t see a story as something created from a formula. Whether you use the three-act structure in your writing or not, it is useful to learn about it before building your writing formula.

Get ready for our upcoming articles where we will discuss other writing structure types for you to use. Until then!

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