A story in three acts or five, percentages or chapter spread, does it matter?

Some writers believe a story should be told in three acts. The first act being the beginning, this is where we meet the character or characters and get to know a bit about them. The second act is the middle, this is where we learn of the character or characters problem and follow their antics as they attempt to solve the problem. The third and final act, this is obviously the end where everything resolves and we go away hopefully feeling satisfied. This is the structure I usually adhere (although not usually consciously) when I write a short story.

Other writers contest that a story should always be told in five acts. Here is the structure that a five-act story would follow:

Act 1 – Exposition – Again, we meet the character or characters, we get some background information but then there is an inciting moment that sets the action into play. This inciting moment must cause a problem for our protagonist that needs a resolution.

Act 2 – Rising Action – This is where the protagonist encounters some roadblocks on the way to solving the inciting moment.

Act 3 – Climax – The turning point happens here. This is where an epic battle or tense moment occurs within the story.

Act 4 – Falling Action – The tension that occurred during the climax begins to settle and relax a bit.

Act 5 – Denouement – The conclusion or ending part of the story. Loose ends get tied up here and everyone lives happily ever after… or not!

In addition to placing importance on the structure of the acts, I have seen experts put percentages to how much of the novel each act of these structures should take up. For example, the 25 – 50 -25 model says that based on the three act novel structure, the first 25% of the novel should correlate to act 1, therefore 50% should be act 2 and the final 25% is act 3. In the five-act structure act 1 is still the first 25%, acts 2-4 are the next 50% and then act 5 is the final 25%.

How does my new novel hold up to the percentages and the structures?

I have nearly finished chapter 3 of my new novel and am about 18.000 words in. The structure of my story was something I worked out in my prewriting steps but will admit to never giving any thought about assigning percentages or the number of acts I would use.

The first chapter does involve an inciting incident which is leads readers directly into chapter 2. Chapter 2 introduces other characters and their back stories and sets up a few minor inciting incidents that the other characters will need to resolve. The end of chapter 2 leads readers nicely into chapter 3, where the characters get to know each other and reveal their goals. Those three chapters are set up chapters, the are the beginning.

Chapters 4-5 will begin to drop hints to the reader that something is not quite right in the world the characters have been placed in, this is the rising action.

Chapters 6-8 put the characters directly in the midst of the conflict and danger, this is the climax.

Chapter 9-10, the characters begin to plot to resolve their situations, this is the falling action.

Chapter 11-12 wrap things up, this is our happy ending… or is it?

If you do the math there is 25% 51.2% 23.8% structure to my five-act novel. I certainly didn’t set out to adhere to a formula but have done so unconsciously.

Does anyone else make a conscious effort to adhere to these structures in the novel planning stage or is this something that appears to just happen naturally for you as it has done for me? Does anyone try to go against the structure and create something new. Does it matter in terms of publishing?

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About Billie Jo Schinnerer

Born and raised on the edge of the Helderberg Escarpment in eastern New York. Formerly a primary and middle school teacher. Moved to the North West area of England in 2003. Now a mother of three and a wannabe author.
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11 Responses to A story in three acts or five, percentages or chapter spread, does it matter?

  1. Jo Eberhardt says:

    Like you, I generally subscribe to the 3-act model, but have never actually sat down and thought about percentages. I’m in two minds about whether to do this or not. While it’s interesting, I’m worried that I’ll start trying to make sure I have the percentages right rather than just telling the story. Perhaps better to just wait and check out how it looks at the end.

    • It is funny because after writing this I went and checked a few other novels I have written and they either follow the 3 act or 5 act model but they also match up to the percentages.

  2. Lara Dunning says:

    You’ve given me something to compare my stories too. For larger pieces I follow more of a five act model. Never really looked at percentages, good to know for reference.

  3. Gene Lempp says:

    I tend toward the “four act” model introduced by Larry Brooks in Story Engineering. In this model, Act 1 is the setup with story causing disturbance, Act 2 is making attempts to resolve the issue without success, Act 3 is actively fighting back against the problem, Act 4 is climax/resolution. Each act is essentially 25% of the novel/story. There are additional structure points throughout. If you aren’t familiar with this method I’d highly recommend this book.

    Great post, Billie Jo!

  4. Good post, Billie Jo! I never thought of it as “Acts,” but rather, as you mentioned, the Beginning, the Middle, and the End. What I have usually done is split each one into three: the Beginning, the Middle and the End. Thus I end up working with nine parts: the Beginning-Beginning, the Beginning-Middle, the Beginning-End, and so on. It helps me stay focused on what I need in each section.

    I gave a short-story course a couple years back with people who had never had a fiction story published and many of them had never written a story at all. I gave them the above model to follow. The short stories that resulted blew me away. As a matter of fact, they were so good that I encouraged the students to participate in putting out a book of them, which we did (entitled “In the Shadow of the Burr Oak”).

    The books were so popular that the first run of 100 books sold out in a matter of days. The second run sold out in a month or so, and we decided to leave it at that.

    I will be the first to agree that this model may be too detailed for some people, but I find it very comforting to be able to slot things this way during writing. I even sometimes write my outline like this.

    • That method makes perfect sense Sandra. I appreciate you sharing it with me. My outline was actually done in a similar way but with three sections each, representing the beginning, middle and end but then for each section I assigned four chapters, the fourth chapter of each is like a transitional chapter between each section.

  5. Selena says:

    I follow the three act process, but not consciously. If I think about percentages and stuff, I fall out of the mood to write it! At heart, I’m a pantser and just lately have dedicated myself to outlines.

    • I know the feeling Selena! I was just reading an article on saleability of novels and they were talking percentages so I went and had a look. Surprisingly, I seem to do these things by nature.

  6. Carrie Rubin says:

    Was just doing some research on the 3-act structure in terms of story percentages, and your post came up. Great information. I know you wrote this post 2 years ago, but I hope things are going well with your novel. (Or maybe you’ve already finished it. 🙂 )

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