Writing Excuses Season 2 Episode 8: The Three Act Structure with Bob Defendi

With Brandon still mysteriously missing, Professor Bob Defendi returns to take Dan and Howard on a magical journey through the three-act format: every step, every element, every nuance of this very common and very helpful writing structure. The only way you could conceivably learn more is in a magic school bus, and frankly we don’t think that’s very likely.

This week’s episode is brought to you by Bob’s podcast audiobook Death by Cliché, by Robert J. Defendi. No matter how hilarious you think this is going to be, it’s actually more hilarious than that.

Writing Prompt: Plot out a three act structure for a current project or a new one.


39 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Season 2 Episode 8: The Three Act Structure with Bob Defendi”

  1. We’ve talked a lot about 3-act format in earlier podcasts, but we felt it was important to really sit down and explain exactly what it is for those who didn’t know.

  2. I have a question I wouldn’t mind hearing about from you guys: What about the less famous formats/formulae? My project in revision is a chase, for example, and I’m assuming it goes in a similar way, but the “fail to solve the problem” turns into “escape by the skin of their teeth”. Similarly, I’m sure there are more archetypes than the hero’s journey. Could you give us an overview of these established story types and how they generally go?

  3. I agree with Dan and Howard. They’ve mentioned the three act structure before, given it a basic sort of “what is it” once-over, but I don’t think that this was repeat information. And talking about story structure in depth like this is always valuable.

    So thanks, guys.

  4. Jen, fwiw:

    A few things finally opened up acts and plot to me. Maybe they’ll be helpful to you. I say this because a chase would work the same as anything else. I’ll just start at the beginning, although I’m sure you know a lot of this.

    1) Story is about someone solving a problem. The problem is one of happiness (danger or lack on some level–physical, social, freedom, etc.) or mystery.

    2) The reason why we tell stories about problems is because the solving of problems, if done a certain way, evokes suspense, surprise, and curiosity in the reader, and then a release of emotional tension. Why we humans like that ride, I don’t know. But we must keep this in mind when dealing with #1 because these effects are the main effects the bulk of people go to story for.

    3) Plot is simply the actions the characters take, the results of their action, and what they decide to do next. Except this can’t be any old action and result. It has to be action and result that builds the anxiety of suspense, surprise, and the mystery or puzzle.

    4) There are four possible answers to the question of “did the hero’s action solve the problem?”: yes, no, yes but, no furthermore.

    For example. Yes, you killed the monster. No, you didn’t. Yes, you killed the monster, but it bit you and now you have the virus that’s going to turn YOU into a monster. No, you didn’t kill the monster furthermore you woke up its mumma.

    Of those four possiblities, only the last two build suspense and curiosity. The first removes it totally. So it’s out. And a no answer leaves suspense unchanged. All you’re doing is delaying things with that. What you want to do is ratchet it up.

    So if you want to build suspense then when a character takes an action, that action has to make things worse. They may escape by the skin of their teeth, but now the federal police know where they are (yes-but). Or not only did they not escape the police, but now the mafia, the real bad guys, know where they are (no-furthermore). These escalations and complications to the plot/problem continue until the hero’s plan is in total shambles and it appears he really is done for. That’s when they get one last shot at it.

    If someone is trying to escape you don’t need a different plot structure. Their actions simply need to make it harder and harder and harder. Their plan needs to start to come apart. Things go wrong. Things they didn’t plan for make it worse. Someone double-crosses them or goes AWOL. We need to see them walking into dangers they didn’t plan for. If you go back and look at Prison Break season 1, you’ll see this all over the place in the last two episodes.

    5) Acts are just a nifty way of breaking up the problem solving process into parts. In act 1 (the beginning), as stated, you introduce the problem and show that the character won’t or can’t walk away. Often a big reversal or reveal (a big yes-but or no-furthermore) marks the end of that act. But the key thing is that the hero MUST act. The stakes or too high or they simply can’t get away.

    Now in act 2 (the middle) the hero says, aha, this is the real problem. Let’s try to solve it. Act 2 is a breeze to write IF you think about escalations and complications and nasty surprises–yes-buts and no-furthermores. He takes an intelligent action. BAM. It gets worse. And as these complications pile up we see that the hero comes to a point where his plans are in a shambles and the problem looks almost certain to squash him for good. In Star Wars, sure they saved the princess, but they led the empire to the secret base and the death star is going to blow them away (a grand yes-but).

    In the last act, the hero straps on his guns and trys one more thing. Sometimes it helps to think of acts 1 and 2 as the hero reacting and act 3 as the hero finally getting the inititative, although it appears to be almost too late, and strapping on his guns. In Star Wars they do this. They’re running, running, running, and then they attack the death star. But the odds are slim. And they only have one little chance.

    Remember: the odds are slim at this point and things get worse not because this is how problems are solved. Many get solved on the first try in real life. But because solving a problem in this way produces maximum suspense, surprise, and curiosity–the chief effects readers go to stories for. Any time you see a new plot structure or theory, you need to ask yourself what effect it has on the reader. If you can’t see any, junk it.

    So you might have 3 acts, four, seven. It doesn’t matter. An act usually ends with a huge change in the nature of the problem. See Robert McKee’s STORY. But the number of acts isn’t the issue. It’s the effect on the reader.

    All I need to do is ask myself what are some actions the hero might take in this situation? What are some possible results that pose a yes-but, no-furthermore, and surprise in them. Choose one. And then repeat it all over again and again until the hero is looking the gun in the face.

    6) The hero’s journey is nothing more than a bunch of mystical names for common elements in this specific type of problem solving structure. Why does the hero have to leave home? Not because of some mystical archetype mumbo jumbo. No, because this forces them out into unfamiliar territory–adventure, risk. Things go wrong. They have to face the problem. Why do they go to “the cave”? Again, not because of some mystical archetype mumbo jumbo. No, because turning and facing the monster, going onto ITS turf, poses the MOST RISK and hence most danger and hence most suspense. Always keep the purpose of the story in mind: suspense and curiosity DRIVE most stories. All the rest of those Joseph Campbell terms are useless to writers unless they make the connection and see how they play into suspense and curiosity.

    And even then I’ve found it’s wrong-headed to bind yourself to them just because. Or to think you need to slavishly follow them. The decision has to feel right for the story, build anxiety and curiosity. And whatever does that well is right, regardless of whether it follows some formula. Although, I will say that certain story structures are used again and again because they deliver the goods to the reader better than other structures. It’s an evolutionary process.

    So that ended up longer than I intended. Hopefully the ideas were as helpful to you as they were to me.

  5. What a great post, John. Thanks!

    And I think John’s right, you don’t need to slavishly follow a formula. Shouldn’t even. Just do whatever’s right for your story and your characters. You probably WILL end up following at least one formula, probably a lot more, whether you do it deliberately or not. This isnt’ a bad thing, it’s just something that will happen. More or less inevitable. The reason these formulas are formulas is because some stories are universal.

  6. The reason they’re formulas is also because they were originally designed to describe the stories that work best, and were aimed more at telling you what not to do than at what to do.

    That said… great post, John! 😉

  7. Thanks for the in depth look at the 3 Act format. I learned a lot.

    Only complaint is mic placement. The voices go in and out an awful lot and as such make the podcast a hard listen.

    Anyways, thanks again!

  8. To me “pattern” has always been a more helpful way of looking at it than “formula.” I know, that’s semantic quibbling. :) But “formula” suggests to me THE way while “pattern” suggests to me something not so strict, something with some give to it and perhaps a great variety of variations. Either way, pattern or formula, I found that unless I can understand the why of a part of the pattern, the effect it has on the reader’s experience, it’s not much use to me.

    BTW, here’s a good explanation of the 3 act structure with some tips from an old pro: http://www.writerswrite.com/screenwriting/lecture4.htm. I really like his tips on act 2 issues and complications.

  9. I’m finding the “yes, but” and “no; futhermore,” quite useful–Thanks, John.

    As I said, I’m in revision, so it’s not that I’m looking for a formula to follow, but a new pair of eyes to re-vise with. Any new perspective helps me make informed decisions on what I want to do next. So thanks for the perspective, guys :)

  10. I’d like to thank and destroy you three, thanks to the cold and your podcast my back was in agony this morning, fortunatly it cleared up once I reached work.

  11. Great work guys
    But please, check those mic levels Jordo. I used to think that maybe you just liked messing with Brandon, but I am now starting to think that maybe you have a thing about promoting Dan as his mic is always up there. ;>

    I really enjoyed the in depth look at 3 act. It helped a lot. And John B. GREAT post follow up.

  12. Jordo, coming from a multimedia specialist, I understand your pain when it comes to mics. This podcast was bad, but let’s not forget to praise you for all the podcasts that were outstanding and easy to listen to. You can’t win them all, but I think you are batting 9 out of 10. Great work, keep it up.

  13. lol I actually thought the mics were fine and it was just that Bob would talk really quiet for expression every now and then.

  14. Another factor to consider is he probably moves a lot when he talks. Sounds like he tends to move back away from the mic and then suddenly get closer. Unless they are individually miced with lapel mics, then I have no clue what was going on.

  15. @John Brown: That link appears dead. :-( I poked about on the site, but didn’t find it.

    Anyone have a good pointer to a book or otherwise on 3-act format? I got a *lot* from the podcast and want more. I’m trying to pick among my novel ideas for my first sacrifice, er, novel, and the 3 act really woke up my ideas for one of them.

  16. My wife introduced me to the wonderful world of books about a year ago (i’m 25 now, which means i have a lot of catching up to do haha). and once i get “in” to something, i really get “in” to it. I enjoyed your books and that of Robert Jordan (which is what got me hooked) so much that got curious as to how you guys put something like that together. I eventually started listening to your writing excuses pod cast and have gotten the urge to try and write. I tried it once without an outline and I got about 7,000 words into it before I realized it was a doomed attempt. I realize now that its best to outline your story before you attempt to write it, that way you can weave you’re story together; as compared to wondering aimlessly. Now, I can do outlines, its what got me through college, BUT, i’m not sure where or how to begin outlining a story. I’m not sure how detailed I need to be (high level, granular, etc…) and what its supposed to look like. My question/request, is that somehow you could give me, or have someone else give a small example. maybe of just a chapter or so so i can have something of a blue print. It can be of really old stuff that nobody wants to use anymore but is a good example of story board outline. I’d appreciate any help you’d be willing to give me.


  17. hmm, my browser doesn’t seem to want to keep this page bookmarked which is totally strange. Howard, I blame you since the University of Georgia uses Novell client software for remote logins on computers! Now how do I fix this?

  18. Although, it is the university EITS who are not quite smart enough to use Open Suse so maybe it’s their fault. Hmm…

  19. The link added the blasted period. Here it is, Guerry:


    You’ll want to read through all the lessons.

    As for books, there are three I can highly recommend. Two are out of print, but you can get them easily with interlibrary loans. Click the link above to the post on my site about plot basics and scroll to the bottom, you’ll see the recommendations there.

    Then there’s a post only a few days ago on my site about loglines that links to an incredible tutorial. It’s not about 3 acts per se, but it’s the best tutorial on loglines I’ve come across, and loglines have everything to do with problem, which powers all 3 acts.

  20. @John Brown

    By the way, I like your site very much.

    Also, the Dwight Swain book keeps coming up. Time to get it, either now or for Christmas. :-)



  21. @ Jake I am so glad that the computer software I use is no longer a political statement. Sorry to hear about the Novell client issues… I guess I’m also glad I’m not you. 😉

  22. Haha. Howard’s probably wished so many times he could tell that to a customer on the phone.

    I know I had days like that when I was working tech support.

  23. Hey guys, when you click the “Plot” word in the topics cloud, this episode does not appear on the list, and there is no “go on to previous episodes” at the bottom of the list, either. Thought you might want to know.

  24. Regarding the three-act system, here’s how I look at it for fantasy. Consider the all-powerful Harry Potter series.

    Act I: Discovery
    Harry Potter learns he’s a wizard. Learns about the world. Comparable to the exposition in Freytag’s pyramid. Books 1-2 inclusive.

    Act II: Intensification
    At this point, discovery is starting to get old and will not hold the story up. Harry becomes more aware of the conflict which will carry the rest of the story through Act III. Comparable to the rising action in Freytag’s pyramid. Books 3-4 inclusive.

    Act III: Immersion
    At the beginning of the third act, there are preparations for the “final battle.” In Harry Potter’s case, this is very much a literal interpretation. The overall goal becomes the main conflict, and the tone of the book becomes more serious. Harry directly opposes Voldemort, and that external conflict is at the forefront of his mind 99% of the time. Books 5-7 inclusive.

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