The Nonfiction Three Act Structure and Hero’s Journey

by | May 10, 2021 | Non-fiction, Writing

The three-act structure is a common outline used in fiction writing and screenplays. Traditionally, it involves the set-up (beginning), the confrontation (middle), and the resolution (end).

As I was editing the outline section of my next book, Written: 9 Ways of Writing a Nonfiction Book to Suit Your Personality, Even if You’re Busy or Can’t Write, I began thinking about how I could apply it to a nonfiction book.

The Three Act Structure

Act 1

This is where you set-up the problem you were having and what life was like living with it. How did you identify it was a problem? What was the turning point that spurred you into action? Be as descriptive as possible to paint a vivid picture. Allow your reader to experience your pain because it’s likely what they’re feeling too.

Act 2

Act two often makes up the bulk of your book. Document your journey to fix the problem. Think about:

  • The paths and wrong turns it took you down
  • Your false starts and failed solutions
  • The lessons you learned
  • Your motivation to keep going
  • The fears and limiting beliefs you faced
  • How you responded to each
  • Where and how you received help or support

These are the things your reader can relate to and may also have tried.

Act 3

This is the final act where you discuss what solution worked for you and why. Was it one thing or a combination? What changed to make it successful? Describe what was going on for you internally and externally. How is life different now without this problem?

The Hero’s Journey

They often overlay the three act structure with Joseph Campbell’s 9-part hero’s journey, which is:

  1. Setup
  2. Call to adventure
  3. Refusing the call
  4. Help from beyond
  5. Crossing the threshold
  6. Tests and obstacles
  7. Rebirth
  8. The road back
  9. A moral choice

These nine steps are further grouped into three to align with the three act structure; act 1 includes parts 1-3, act 2 are parts 4-6, and act 3 contains parts 7-9.

The Story Circle

Another version is Dan Harmon’s Story Circle. This can be a good way of helping you understand your personal story and how to tell it in a way that relates to others. You can use the story circle within a chapter, or as an entire book outline.

It’s an 8-part story broken into four sectors. The drama comes from crossing these sectors (the red arrows).

Part 1 – You: Your life as it was before.

Part 2 – Need: There’s something you want.


Part 3 – Go: Your situation changes.

Part 4 – Search: Your journey to get what you want begins.


Part 5 – Find: You find what you’re looking for.

Part 6 – Take: There’s a cost or consequence required to be, do, or have what you want.


Part 7 – Return: You go back to your life a different person.

Part 8 – Change: The way you think, act and feel has changed. You have a new normal.

* These are points on your journey where you can create or introduce drama by telling a story, sharing a case study, or revealing an insight to connect with and engage your reader.

Do you use the three act structure or hero’s journey in your writing? I’d love to know how in the comments below.

Cheers to your writing success!