Skip to content

A three act structure for short fiction

A break down of Mary Bernadette Kowal’s three act structure for short fiction.

David Gane
David Gane
1 min read

This is part 3 of the lessons I've learned from Mary Bernadette Kowal’s discussion on writing short fiction (see lesson 1, lesson 2 here).

In this last lesson, we’ll break down her three acts of the short story:



  • Show the who, where, and genre.
  • The who shows the POV of your character. How do they interact with the world? What adjective defines their attitude?
  • The where reveals specific sensory details.
  • The genre is about mood and tone.


  • Show the struggle. Identify which MICE quotient it is.
  • What is the character doing, and how are they failing? This is the initial try/fail cycle.

Build Act 1 in 5 sentences. 2-3 for the intro, 2 for the conflict.



  • This is the heart of your character’s story and struggle. Build it out.
  • Always think about the want of your character and how they move towards it. Regardless of their actions, they’ll continue to fail (yes/but or no/and).

Build this out in 5 sentences.



  • Resolve the story with a try/success cycle (yes/and or no/but).
  • Revisit the MICE quotients you opened. Have you closed all of them, preferably in reverse order?


  • Mirror the intro of Act 1 and show how things have changed.
  • Show how the who, where, and genre been affected.

Mirror Act 3. Use 2 sentences to show the final try/success cycle, and in 2-3 for the ending.

Initially, this structure didn't work for me. I struggled with the first act and the storytelling felt rigid.

But for the past few weeks, I've been testing it again. The more I practice with it, the easier it gets. And the more comfortable I get with it, the more I can experiment at its edges.

Hopefully I'll be able to share what I've learned in the future.


David Gane Twitter

Co-writer of the Shepherd and Wolfe young adult mysteries, the internationally award-winning series, and teacher of storytelling and screenwriting.


Related Posts

Members Public

What's it for?

Seth Godin recently asked two questions in a blog post: "Who's it for? What's it for?" When writing, do you know who it's for? It doesn't have to be an audience with a capital "A." It doesn't have to be for any audience; it can be for just you. But

Members Public

Journey with your characters

Most people can't have the whole story in their heads. Too many pieces, too many moving parts. That doesn't mean you must plan it out. Once your character's story takes shape, then begin. Allow yourself to be surprised and adapt, and let your imagination take you on a journey. That

Members Public

The lies our characters tell themselves

Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon tells the story of a priest and woodcutter trying to understand a murder by listening to the testimonies of the multiple people involved. Ultimately, they struggle to find the truth amongst the lies. A similar type of story occurs within each of us. We tell ourselves multiple