How Do You Move Beyond the Three-Act Structure?

From Jane Friedman:


How do you write organically and originally while sticking to Freytag’s Pyramid and the three-act structure? I’ve read Meander, Spiral, Explode by Jane Alison and Craft in the Real World by Matthew Salesses, both of which advocate moving beyond Freytag’s Pyramid and the three-act structure, but how do you do that and keep a genre story moving? (I write science fiction/fantasy for adults.)

—Trying to Escape the 3-Act Pyramid


Hello, Trying to Escape! I’m very glad for your question—the topic hits on an approach to writing that I frequently proselytize to authors.

The answer lies in your question: You say you want to write “organically and originally.” I love that—it’s the very seed of strong, singular storytelling and often the antithesis of “sticking to” a prescribed method or system, as you suggest in your question.

Trying to impose a particular mold onto your story and make it fit is writing from the outside in, rather than letting the story grow from the inside out, which I consider the more organic approach you describe.

It sounds like you may be try-curious, wanting to bust out of the strictures of a rigid approach and find your own—but perhaps a little leery that doing so will dissolve your story’s structure and cohesion?

Let me first offer a way of rethinking approach and structure for any story, not just genre fiction, and then suggest a method for organically finding what your story wants to be and how to most effectively unspool it.

Build your writing buffet

I am a big fan of craft books. Huge. I read them the same way I devour self-help, psychology, business, and (I’ll be honest) décor and style books: like popcorn—I can’t get enough.

But if I tried to slavishly dedicate myself to implementing every single system, I’d freeze up. It’s too much, and not everything I read is going to work for or resonate with me, or apply to every personal situation I face. (I’m looking at you, Marie Kondo. You take your folded underwear and get it out of my life.)

I think of all this information as a delightful smorgasbord from which to create my ideal plate. Each of them teaches me about topics I’m interested in and expands the knowledge I can draw upon in creating my preferred menu.

But to play out the metaphor way too far, I may not want the same plate for every meal. Maybe next time I decide to try some foie gras (why not? never had it) but then discreetly spit it into my napkin because it’s gross. Maybe I get a second heaping helping of something I loved—but it’s too much or I get tired of it.

We’ll stop with the gluttonous strained metaphor now, but you see the point? Think of all these craft approaches—many of which offer valuable, actionable, useful suggestions—as items in that cornucopia you can choose from at different times, with different stories. Take elements from various approaches, mix and match—find the right tool at the right time for the right job.

But how does that approach lend itself to creating a solid, cohesive story, rather than risk its riding off the rails?

Define Key Story Elements

What most craft techniques have in common is that they build from the basic form of story:

A character is invested in something or wants something; they face what stands in the way of their getting it, with varying results; and their failure or success in achieving it effects some meaningful change (in the character, their world, or both).

There’s lots of nuance and variation on that basic format, but this is what most readers anticipate from story.

Keeping those guiding principles in mind, you don’t have to unspool that story strictly to the three-act structure—or any prescribed system—as long as you hit certain key notes:

  • If you establish your story’s driving forces—what your characters want and why; what they stand to gain or lose from attaining or failing to attain it; and what action they take or fail to take in achieving it—you have your basic building blocks.
  • Understand that every story needs ups and downs to hold readers’ interest: movement toward attaining those goals, and setbacks away from them. Flat lines are narrative dead space. Create those levels throughout.
  • While there may be many smaller ups and downs, identify the major successes and major setbacks the character experiences in the journey toward their goal—their key high and low points—and then plot a course that leads your character(s) to each. What actions (or failure to act) led to that major triumph or major challenge? What turning point shifts their course toward the next high or low?

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

3 thoughts on “ How Do You Move Beyond the Three-Act Structure?”

  1. I like to use a four-part structure. Part 1 is Act 1. Part 2 (first half of Act 2) ends at the “mirror” moment. Part 3 is the second part of Act 2. Part 4 is Act 3. After gaining some experience, that’s what works for me. What works for others, I have absolutely no idea, but after more than 50 short stories and books, I am able to pump them out using that “method”.

    Of course, it goes without saying that one must know structure, inside and out, and backwards.

    I must admit that there are days when I sit in my writing chair and laugh maniacally as I run my characters through hopes and dreams on their way to life, death, and immortality. It’s the best fun ever.

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