Story Arcs, and the Three Act Structure

Just to round off the current series of posts on the story structure (or narrative structure) of a game, I think it’s worth mentioning a few more terms that you’re likely to see if you explore this topic in further depth.

First up is the idea of a story arc – this is the principle storyline/narrative thread in a game, (although it may also be refer to one of several coherent storylines in a game, as for example in a game with a threaded structure). Using television or radio soaps as an example, (or equally, serialised comic book stories, or game and film franchises/sequels) a story arc is an extended storyline that may weave several consecutive episodes together in narrative terms, whilst still allowing each individual episode to explore its own, ‘local’ storyline.

To contrive an example, a series of inevitable points in a foldback story structure can be used to construct the story arc that plays out through a game as a whole.

Use of the word ‘arc’ evokes the visual idea of a curve, and with it the sense that the story arc takes the player on an emotional journey through the story – an emotional rollercoaster, maybe…

In many storytelling traditions, certain tried and trusted story arcs – or character arcs (that is, the emotional rollercoaster that the lead character lives through) – can be seen again and again in many different stories, and across many different storytelling forms (traditional (oral/spoken) storytelling, theatrical plays, short stories, novels, film screenplays, and so on).

The Three Act Structure

One of the most widely used patterns is the three act structure, which will be familiar to any budding film critic. Trivially ordering the story into three acts – the beginning, the middle, and the end – the three act structure


In a series of articles describing the ‘design’ of a novel, the following summary of the three act structure is provided (Conflict and Character within Story Structure: The Basic Three Act Structure):

In the Beginning you introduce the reader to the setting, the characters and the situation (conflict) they find themselves in and their goal. Plot Point 1 is a situation that drives the main character from their “normal” life toward some different conflicting situation that the story is about.

(Great stories often begin at Plot Point 1, thrusting the main character right into the thick of things, but they never really leave out Act 1, instead filling it in with back story along the way.)

In the Middle the story develops through a series of complications and obstacles, each leading to a mini crisis. Though each of these crises are temporarily resolved, the story leads inevitably to an ultimate crisis—the Climax. As the story progresses, there is a rising and falling of tension with each crisis, but an overall rising tension as we approach the Climax. The resolution of the Climax is Plot Point 2.

In the End, the Climax and the loose ends of the story are resolved during the Denouement. Tension rapidly dissipates because it’s nearly impossible to sustain a reader’s interest very long after the climax. Finish your story and get out.

The three act structure harkens back to Aristotle, and Greek tragedy, and often employs one of two well known dramatic devices. As the OpenLearn unit Approaching Literature puts it in a section on Play structure:

Before the denouement can take place, there are two key features identified by Aristotle that are still important in any drama: anagnorisis, which can be translated as recognition or discovery, and peripeteia, or a change from one state of affairs to its opposite, a reversal of fortune. The famous example used by Aristotle to illustrate his theory is that of Oedipus Rex. Once Oedipus, king of Corinth, has recognized that it was he himself who, unknowingly, killed his father and thus condemned the city to relentless plague, he puts out his own eyes and goes into voluntary exile, thus reversing his fortunes.

These dramatic events, or crisis points, can be used to manipulate the emotions of the audience, and the level of tension they feel through engagement with the characters as they ‘live out’ the story:


The Hero’s Journey

Another popular character arc is the Hero’s Journey, articulated by Joseph Campbell’s monomyth pattern. The monomyth describes the structure of many classical myths, and also provides a structural starting point for many science fiction narratives today.

Read the hero’s journey : summary of the steps and summarise the key steps in the journey. Write down your ideas (linking back here) for two or three different, interactive ways with which you might represent the hero’s journey. For example, here is an interactive hero’s journey wheel – hover your mouse over each part of the journey, and a brief description will appear.

PS I have added a monomyth checklist template to the Digital Worlds wiki. Feel free to add a page to the wiki using that template analysing a myth, film, or game according to the monomyth pattern…


15 Responses to “Story Arcs, and the Three Act Structure”

  1. 1 Tony Hirst April 25, 2008 at 8:40 pm

    Here’s a short reading list containing a few more references that describe the Hero’s Journey in the context of game design:

    “Into the Woods: A Practical Guide to the Hero’s Journey” [ ] – a review of the structure of the Hero’s journey, and a consideration of how each step may be used within the context of a game.

    “Using the Hero’s Journey in Games” [ ] – a levels based breakdown of a game, in multiple acts separated by planned cutscenes, showing how the structure of a Hero’s Journey can be used to shape a multi-level game.

    “The Gamer’s Journey” [ ] – another take on how the structure of the Hero’s Journey can shape the structure of a game and the journey traveled by the player character as the game is played.

    “Character archetypes” [ ] – this is a list of different archetypal characters that may be encountered along the path of the Hero’s Journey.

    “Epic Vision: Mythology and Game Design” [ ] – a reference that could well have helped me as I put together this part of Digital Worlds, this article describes a pedagogically informed framework for teaching about mythology in game design.

    [via ]

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