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Is the Three-Act Structure Still Alive?

"Long ago, two races ruled over Earth: HUMANS and MONSTERS. One day, war broke out between the two races. After a long battle, the humans were victorious. They sealed the monsters underground with a magic spell. Many years later... MT. Ebott, 201X. Legends say that those who climb the mountain never return" (Fox, 2015).

This excerpt, for those who do not already recognize it, is the premise of Undertale. It's a simple story that unfolds gradually over playthroughs and is known for its intricate narrative design, funny and touching resonant moments, themes of acceptance and peace, and exploration of the action-consequence dynamic.

This game has incredibly high replay value as the choices you initially make as the protagonist human character will affect future playthroughs. Also, famously, while your player character does enter fights, you have other options. Pacifism is an act of resistance.

What about the story structure?

There is an introduction, there are mid-points, and there are endings, all of which relate to a given conflict. However, those conflicts change over the course of Undertale depending on the choices made as do the endings. The player, also, is not beyond reproach. Again, this is not a new concept, but this is a great example of a game that does not strictly follow a standard three-act structure.

Evan Skolnik (2014) introduces the model of the three-act structure: the beginning (Setup), the middle (Confrontation), and the end (resolution). Skolnik does not state that storytellers must perform each act in the same way, but opts to describe how each function.

We must, in the beginning, have some understanding of who we are playing as, what we need to do, and at least a semblance of a why. As the characters you are focusing on develop over time, anything set up in the premise has the capacity to change.

In the case of Undertale, the player character comes to learn more about why their world is the way it is. At one point, we uncover a second premise upon which the game can be replayed.

Novels are no stranger to this idea. For example, when a novel is written from the perspective of someone who is largely innocent of the reality of their surroundings, the setup to the character can appear to be one set of concepts. However, it's possible for any part of that setup to not be true.

Diana Wynne Jones (1982) plays with this concept in her YA novel, Witch Week. One of the most striking quotations reads, "When you grow up to be an author and write books, you'll think you're making the books up, but they'll all really be true, somewhere."

If a novel has this kind of thesis, the story will be read differently the second time and it will affect the reading of books contained in the series provided there is a series.

More than one "beginning" is possible.

How about a confrontation?

Skolnik states that the second act is when we usually become acquainted with the source of the conflict and where the rising action takes place.

Depending on the purpose of the game, there should ideally be some rising action to keep a viewer (reader or player) engaged in the story. They should feel as though they are moving forward and accomplishing objectives. Skolnik does allow for transitions and natural story breaks in among this rising action. While he doesn't specify what these should look like and does state that these transitions can get "fuzzy," he doesn't necessarily read them as core to the progression of the game.

In Undertale, there is a clear course and progression with different methods by which to advance. Players can unlock secret doors and encounter characters that can add new perspective to the world. Each character's perspective of the world is core to the story in some way. There will always be something new to do and learn. "Side activities" become moments through which the player character can become better friends with the monsters of the Underground. While those moments can range from silly to serious, developing these relationships are a part of the point of the game.

The idea that "everything matters" does not always have to be a part of every story. However, it is not new, and increasingly, more stories have used this.

In Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, everything and everyone matters. There is rising action, there will always be different forms of tension between the sets of characters, but there are no "side stories" or "breaks" because every person and every perspective is intentional. They are important and they contribute to the world somehow.

A well-constructed resolution can be incredibly effective. Marriage plot novels were not doomed. Fairy tales hold value. Morals to fables can resonate. It's not all contrived, but storytellers have always been seeking exceptions to the rules.

Valuable stories have exhibited standard three-act structures with distinct beginnings, middles, and ends with plot points that break up the story. Each can effectively contribute ot the conflict. However, authors have continued to experiment with uncertainty-fueled stories that are no less valuable, but the key, as I have conveyed to a client, is that there must be something to follow.

There must be some kind of intentional plotline, and the author must know what, in their story, they will prioritize. A premise, a reason for beginning a story, stakes, motive are all essential components. The three-act structure still exists, but storytellers do well to dismantle it.

Interacting with a story in a video game creates a different experience as the player makes choices. A novel is already written and the choices have already been made. However, someone's personal reading of a story can change its takeaways.

For example: A young woman has experienced a great deal of trauma and loss in her life. As such, she had to build resilience and a support structure that her stepfamily does not offer her. She is forced to serve her stepfamily, a role that she accepts for the sake of her own safety. In the process, she becomes the scapegoat for anything that goes wrong in their lives. Presumably, she is aware of the limitations of her own social mobility. When a local event of significance happens, the young woman wants to go. Her goals are happiness and freedom from her constraints.

I have chosen the version of Cinderella as it was replicated in the Disney film, a story that can be said to have a three-act structure. However, in this reading of what becomes a marriage plot, management of what has stemmed from trauma becomes the rising action, but this reading can also change and call into question the resolution.

People don't always want easy-to-follow clearly defined worlds because our world does not look like that. Storytellers will always be asking, "What if?" because people cannot be so easily represented in three acts.


Thank you to everyone who has contributed to Purposeful Prose thus far!

This topic did present difficult choices, and I definitely still admire Skolnik for the tools he provides. So far, he's provided a lot of starting points through which more intricate plans can be made, but I would still love to read further analysis of these topics than he provides through his examples.

If you want to follow my current discussion with Video Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know About Narrative Techniques, I recommend buying it and other titles I've mentioned through your local independent bookstore or through where proceeds from your purchase go directly to local independent bookstores.

I also highly recommend playing Undertale and/or watching a playthrough as it is an incredible story. In this post, I have focused on what this story does as opposed to what it is.

You can also become a member of Purposeful Prose! That is always a huge help to me. If you become a member, you will be among the first to be notified when I post. You can also comment on my posts and write on my forum.

As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!


Fox, Toby.(2015).Undertale [Steam].Toby Fox.

Jones, D. W. (1982). Witch week. New York: Beech Tree.

Skolnick, E. (2014). Video Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know about Narrative Techniques (Illustrated ed.). Watson-Guptill.

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1 comentário

Vita Viviano
Vita Viviano
01 de ago. de 2022

You bring up such a good point! Life seldom conforms to a three act structure so a writer should not feel constrained to keep within it. Yet I love the way you emphasize the importance of crafting a credible storyline. Loved your examples. So well done!

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