Aristotle, Cinderella, and the Three Act Structure


If you’re reading this blog, you’ve probably heard of the Three Act Structure. First described by Aristotle, it’s a fixture on every creative writing course – if only for the sake of argument. It’s the hallmark of every Hollywood film, the rhythm of every gripping novel. You don’t need to know the theory of the Three Act Structure to appreciate its effect; it’s embedded in our literary DNA. It’s the reason why fairy stories are innately satisfying. It’s what keeps us listening to The Archers.


If a television adaptation doesn’t “work” in spite of opulent settings, gorgeous costumes, and heaving bosoms it’s generally because the plot has strayed from the Three Act Structure in order to squeeze an epic into a corset – or it’s been mauled by a tiger in post-production. The final episode of the recent BBC adaptation of Little Women was a masterclass in the Three Act Structure whilst the Corporation’s other 2017 Christmas offering the The Miniaturist just didn’t work. (I can’t be bothered to watch The Miniaturist again to analyse why this was so but I feel it was something to do with a premature Midpoint – unless the reveal of Whatsit’s sexuality was not the “big twist” and his sister’s pregnancy was – which would skew the whole story. OTOH I’ve watched Little Women three times.)

The Three Act Structure is one of those writery rules we should try to understand – even if we’re going to be terrible brave and alternative and break it. I am not yet that writer and so this week I turned to the Three Act Structure for help. First I analysed my WIP and it fitted nicely – which I knew it would because it’s flowing like a dream. Then I slotted in the plot of my completed MS and found, yep, we have a problem. I can see where the problem is and I think I know what I need to do to sort it out – but I cannot bear the thought of doing it.

I’m sure if I just keep wriggling and squeezing and shaving bits off, like the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella (now, there’s an excellent Three Act story), the glass slipper will eventually fit. It has to – because the alternative feels like fratricide.



About Hannah

Author of literary historical fiction set in the First World War. Revising my first book, writing the next, seeking representation. Mountaineer, gardener, traveller, off-road runner. Africa, modern history, coffee, roses, films, book and unrealistic romance. NHS midwife in a former life.
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4 Responses to Aristotle, Cinderella, and the Three Act Structure

  1. Anony Mole says:

    I think the three act structure is undoubtedly fine. I wonder though, how one might shoehorn various stories into the structure? Maybe by ignoring certain parts of the story one can force other novels into this pattern. Or, most likely, the three act is just one of many structures that works for fiction.
    Here’s a corollary thought:
    (The image enlarged for easy reading)

    How would one categorize The Hobbit? Or The Martian?

    It’s probably inaccurate to picture a story as I’ve done it, in a true arc. Or, if I were to change it, I’d just tilt the image up at the right hand side, so we still have an arc but we end up at a higher landing spot than where we started.

    I’ll be reading through your essays looking for more excellent advice.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Why Journey’s End didn’t make me cry | Mountain Hares & Moonlit Roses

  3. Pingback: Less is more | Mountain Hares & Moonlit Roses

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