TSS #052: Plotting Your Story’s Three-Act Structure with ChatGPT

by | Jun 3, 2023

Read Time: 6 minutes

Picture this: You’ve generated a story idea, created magnetic characters, built an immersive world, but still have a blank page staring you down.

What’s next?

It’s time to intertwine those elements into a cohesive story that connects with audiences.

In this week’s issue of TSS, we’re diving into the sea of story outlining. We’ll examine the basics of the three-act structure, and as always, we’ll explore how ChatGPT can serve as your compass to guide you to the promise land.

Understanding Basic Plot Structure

A story’s plot is its sequence of events, the core thread that ties your themes, characters, and world together.

There are several classic plot structures that many successful stories follow. We’ll focus on the basic three-act structure here to help illustrate its architecture, and look at several examples from popular books and movies.

Note: If you want to dig deep into the three-act structure, check out TSS #033: 8 Plot Diagrams that Illustrate the Storytelling Power of Dramatic Structure

The Three-Act Structure:

This is a simple foundation often used in plays, films, and novels. The acts are as follows:

Act 1: Setup

  • Introduce the protagonist, the setting, and the status quo.
  • Establish the protagonist’s overarching story goal.
  • Set up the main conflict and the stakes (what the protagonist stands to gain or lose).

Act 2: Confrontation

  • The protagonist takes action to pursue their story goal, encountering obstacles.
  • The antagonist presents further challenges, escalating the stakes for the protagonist.
  • The protagonist gains allies, skills, and courage essential for their journey.

Act 3: Resolution

  • An epic confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist occurs at the climax.
  • The outcome of the protagonist’s story goal is determined.
  • The protagonist’s character arc, the story’s conflicts, and the overall narrative reach a satisfying conclusion.

4 Examples of a Basic Three-Act Structure from Bestselling Novels and Blockbuster Movies:

The Hunger Games

Act 1: Setup

  • Katniss Everdeen volunteers for the Hunger Games to save her sister from the deadly competition.
  • Her goal is to survive the Games and return to her sister.

Act 2: Confrontation

  • Katniss, with her fellow district tribute, Peeta, navigates the complexities of the Capitol and the Games.
  • She faces multiple threats from other tributes and the dynamic arena itself.
  • She builds alliances, sharpens her survival skills, and garners the audience’s favor.

Act 3: Resolution

  • Katniss and Peeta, the last two tributes, refuse to kill each other, challenging the Capitol’s rules.
  • They threaten a double suicide which forces the Capitol to declare them both winners.
  • Katniss achieves her goal of survival, but also ignites a spark of rebellion against the Capitol.

The Matrix

Act 1: Setup

  • Neo, a hacker living a dual life, is searching for the elusive truth about the Matrix.
  • Meeting Morpheus and Trinity, Neo chooses the red pill to discover the “real world.”
  • The conflict arises as Neo discovers that humanity is enslaved by intelligent machines.

Act 2: Confrontation

  • Neo undergoes rigorous training to become “The One” and grapples with his doubts.
  • He faces a series of challenges in both the Matrix and the real world.
  • Neo starts developing his powers and a deeper understanding of the Matrix.

Act 3: Resolution

  • Neo confronts Agent Smith, using his full confidence and newfound powers to defeat him.
  • Neo fulfills his destiny as “The One”, and tells the machines he will show the people trapped in the Matrix a world where anything is possible.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Act 1: Setup

  • The fellowship is scattered across Middle-earth, each facing their respective challenges.
  • Frodo and Sam’s goal is to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom.
  • The threat of Sauron’s full strength is imminent, raising the stakes.

Act 2: Confrontation

  • Frodo and Sam endure hardships in Mordor, and Aragorn rallies forces to distract Sauron.
  • Allies are gained, enemies are confronted, and the characters develop strength and wisdom.

Act 3: Resolution

  • Frodo and Sam reach Mount Doom for the epic confrontation with Gollum.
  • The Ring is destroyed, resolving Frodo and Sam’s quest.
  • The victory over Sauron allows for a sweeping resolution for all characters and Middle-earth.

Gone Girl

Act 1: Setup

  • Amy disappears on her fifth wedding anniversary, and her husband, Nick, becomes the prime suspect.
  • Nick’s goal is to find his missing wife and clear his name.

Act 2: Confrontation

  • As the investigation unfolds, media and public opinion turn against Nick.
  • Nick uncovers Amy’s manipulative scheme revealing she’s alive and framing him.
  • He must gather evidence to prove his innocence while evading the police.

Act 3: Resolution

  • Amy returns home, creating a surprising turn of events.
  • Nick confronts Amy, but she uses her pregnancy to force his compliance.
  • The story ends with their twisted relationship continuing, leaving the audience questioning societal norms of marriage.

ChatGPT Prompts for Plotting Your Story

ChatGPT remains a great collaborator when building and outlining your story’s basic plot inside a three-act structure.

Below are three starter prompts to generate a plot.

  • The first ChatGPT prompt helps come up with a story from scratch.
  • The second ChatGPT prompt focuses on building around an existing story idea, characters, and setting.
  • The third ChatGPT prompt helps analyze your favorite stories to get inspiration.

As usual, modify the bracketed placeholders as needed.

Prompt #1: Story from Scratch 

// Prompt below – edit the bold text in brackets //

“Let’s create a thought-provoking and fresh [insert genre] story from scratch. My protagonist, whose name and characteristics are yet to be defined, embarks on a journey with other characters in a world yet to be built. Use the Three-Act Structure to generate a compelling plot. Here’s how:

Act 1: Setup

1/ Protagonist and Status Quo: [Who is the protagonist and what is their normal routine or world like?]

2/ Story Goal: [What goal will drive the protagonist throughout the story?]

3/ Main Conflict and Stakes: [What major event disrupts their status quo, and what do they stand to lose?]

Act 2: Confrontation

4/ Obstacles: [How does the protagonist try to achieve their goal and what challenges stand in their way?]

5/ Antagonist’s Influence: [How does the antagonist or circumstances amplify the stakes?]

6/ Allies and Skills: [What friends, abilities, or tools does the protagonist acquire for their journey?]

Act 3: Resolution

7/ Climax: [Describe the ultimate showdown between the protagonist and antagonist.]

8/ Outcome: [What’s the result of the protagonist’s struggle towards their goal?]

9/ Satisfying Conclusion: [How does the story wrap up in a satisfying manner for the reader?]”

// Prompt above – edit the bold text in brackets //

Prompt #2: Adapting existing theme, story idea, characters, and world

// Prompt below – edit the bold text in brackets //

“Given the genre of [Insert Genre Here] and the central story idea of [Insert Story Idea Here], let’s construct a vivid narrative within the immersive and intriguing setting of [Insert Setting Elements Here]. This narrative will center on the dynamic protagonist [Insert Protagonist Description and their Story Goal Here] and compelling antagonist [Insert Antagonist Description and their Story Goal Here]. Let’s also consider the roles of additional pivotal characters: [Insert other Character Descriptions Here]. The narrative is woven around the underlying theme of [Insert Theme Here].

For Act One, introduce the setting, protagonist, status quo, hint at the antagonist, and unveil other crucial characters. What is the primary conflict or problem that the protagonist must confront? How does it link to their overarching story goal and hint at the antagonist’s motives? Describe the significant, temperature-raising event or turning point propelled by the antagonistic force, which pushes the protagonist towards their goal and into Act Two.

In Act Two, explore the protagonist’s struggle with the repercussions of Act One, their navigation of new challenges, and their transformative personal growth. How does the formidable antagonist present further obstacles, escalating the tension and stakes? What unexpected allies, skills, and sources of courage does the protagonist gain along their journey? Detail the suspenseful sequence of events leading up to the story’s climax.

Finally, Act Three will unveil the climax of the protagonist’s journey and the resolution of their story goal. Describe how the antagonist’s role culminates in an epic confrontation or significant interaction with the protagonist that ties into the resolution. How do the characters’ journeys conclude, effectively tying up loose ends, but also leaving room for thought-provoking questions or sequels if necessary?

Please generate a detailed, tension-raising 3-act narrative structure based on these elements. Prioritize a slow and nuanced evolution of characters and a gradual building of the narrative arc, refraining from rushing the main plot. Let your story unfold like a suspenseful roller-coaster ride, filled with captivating twists and turns that make sense for this genre, theme and story details.”

// Prompt above – edit the bold text in brackets //

Prompt #3: Get plotting inspiration from your favorite stories

// Prompt below – edit the bold text in brackets //

“Analyze the plot and structure in one of my favorite narratives, [Insert your favorite story, film or novel]. Identify the specific elements that contribute to its compelling plot. Discuss how the author or screenwriter’s detailed plotting shapes a believable and engaging audience experience.

What strategies did the storyteller use to unfold the plot within the three-act structure? How do these plotting choices influence the story’s characters, theme, setting, and overall impact? How do these elements affect the audience’s engagement and perception of the narrative?

Finally, reflect on how these insights could be applied to craft a compelling plot in my own writing using the Three Act Structure:

1/ Act 1: Setup – [Discuss how characters are introduced, the world established, and the main conflict set up in the story.]

2/ Act 2: Confrontation – [Discuss the challenges characters face, how the conflict escalates using the antagonist, and how characters are affected.]

3/ Act 3: Resolution – [Discuss the climax, how the conflict is resolved between the protagonist and antagonist, and the characters’ final states.]”

// Prompt above – edit the bold text in brackets //

Bonus Strategies for Effective Plotting

Plotting a story is a delicate balancing act.

Here are additional strategies to ensure your plot effectively engages your audience:

1/ Cause and Effect:

A compelling story often uses cause and effect to reinforce continuity and keep the audience engaged.

  • For example, in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” Hagrid’s revelation about Harry’s wizardry (cause in Act 1) catapults Harry into a magical world, setting the stage for all subsequent events (effect in Act 2).

2/ Rising Stakes:

As your story progresses, the stakes should continually rise, keeping readers invested.

  • In “The Matrix,” Neo discovers that he’s been living in a simulated reality (Act 1), decides to fight against the machines controlling it (Act 2), and finally confronts Agent Smith and challenges the machines (Act 3).
  • With each act, the stakes escalate and the tension rises.

3/ Character Arcs:

Align your plot with the growth and transformation of your characters. Their decisions should drive the plot and the plot should influence their development.

  • “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” the final book and movie in the trilogy, showcases the culmination of Frodo’s character arc.
  • Frodo is now a seasoned ring-bearer (Act 1), grapples with Gollum’s treachery and his own faltering resolve (Act 2), and finally destroys the ring at a high personal cost (Act 3).
  • The growth of Frodo’s character across the trilogy reaches its peak in this final installment, with his journey reflecting the story’s escalating tension and climax.

4/ Plot Twists:

Keep your story unpredictable and intriguing by introducing unexpected turns of events.

  • “Gone Girl” is a masterclass in plot twists.
  • From Amy’s disappearance and the subsequent suspicion towards Nick (Act 1), the revelation that Amy is alive and framing Nick (Act 2), to Amy’s return and the shocking conclusion of their toxic relationship (Act 3), the story continually upends reader expectations.

5/ Combining Strategies:

“The Hunger Games” is an excellent example of combining all these strategies.

  • Katniss’s decision to volunteer for her sister (cause in Act 1) leads her into the deadly Hunger Games (effect in Act 2).
  • The stakes rise as she faces other tributes and the oppressive system of the Capitol.
  • Her character arc from a resourceful girl to a symbol of rebellion is perfectly aligned with the plot.
  • And the plot twist of both her and Peeta surviving the games keeps the readers on their toes.

Final Thoughts on Plotting Your Story

Think of your plot as the backbone of your story.

It helps your characters become real and your world come alive.

By understanding the three-act structure, learning plot mechanics, utilizing ChatGPT prompts, and studying popular stories, you can craft complex narratives that people love.

That’s it for this Saturday.

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See ya next week!

— Dave