Three-Act Structure

Narrative Analysis: The Basics


In the world of narrative analysis, the classical three-act structure forms the basis upon which all other structures have been derived. First conceptualized by Aristotle in Poetics, the three-act structure consists of the most basic building blocks of story: beginning, middle, and end.1 Over two thousand years later, the ‘beginning-middle-end’ paradigm that Aristotle put forth has been both expounded upon and refined, resulting in additional plot points between a story’s beginning and end. These plot points serve as markers for changes in the flow of tension and action, guiding a story through a natural course that satisfies both writers and audiences.

This diagram depicts the basic Three-Act Structure and some of its major plot points.
This diagram depicts the basic Three-Act Structure and some of its major plot points.

When Aristotle first wrote about dramatic structure, plays were the primary storytelling medium of the day. In the modern era, the art of storytelling has expanded into countless forms, including books, movies, and television shows. Video games exist in this same space, as they too are capable of telling the kinds of stories that Aristotle first dissected in Poetics. Like the plays written in ancient Greece, every video game story consists of a beginning, middle, and end. Likewise, the growth of video games as a storytelling medium has given writers opportunities to explore the same expansions and refinements that narrative structure has seen since Aristotle first proposed the three-act structure. Today’s video game narratives often hit upon the same common plot points seen in other modern stories, such as those found in best-selling novels or on popular television shows. It is therefore possible to break video game narratives down into their component parts for analysis, allowing both players and writers to gain a better understanding of their structures.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past uses a Three-Act structure to tell its story.

To understand the three-act structure, the simplest method is to break it down into Artistotle’s original component parts—beginning, middle, and end—and apply it to a simple, familiar, narrative. In the world of video games, there are few games as well known as The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Released in Japan in 1991, A Link to the Past came into being at a time where video game narratives were just beginning to extend beyond their instruction manuals and play out within the games themselves. Thanks to advances in cartridge storage space, games could now contain the large volumes of text necessary to tell a complete story, which A Link to the Past used to its full advantage. The game boasts a broad cast of characters in an expansive world, giving writers the opportunity to tell a story that contains all the necessary plot points for a compelling story.

In its most basic form, A Link to the Past is a story about a hero rescuing a kingdom and its princess from a great evil. Although that simple summary leaves out a good deal of detail, it still conveys the heart of the story, as it defines its beginning, middle, and end. In the beginning, a princess and a kingdom are threatened by a villain, and a hero rises to help. In the middle, the hero confronts the villain. In the end, the villain is defeated and hero rescues both the princess and the kingdom. This is the skeleton of A Link to the Past; the framework upon which the entire story sits. If it sounds generic, that’s because it is. Just as skeletons bear more similarities to each other than people do, so too do basic stories have more in common than fleshed-out narratives. It’s the addition of details that differentiate the narratives; the more details, the more differences.

The kidnapping of Princess Zelda is a key story element in A Link to the Past.

With the framework established, A Link to the Past needs its most important details. These details can be set in place using the same Aristotelian framework of beginning, middle, and end. In the beginning, Zelda, Princess of the Hyrule, has been kidnapped by the evil wizard Agahnim. Link, a skilled swordsman, must save her. In the middle, Link uses his skills to travel across Hyrule and confront Agahnim. In the end, Link defeats Agahnim—and his true form, Ganon—and both Zelda and Hyrule are safe. This is the exact same story from the previous paragraph, but it has a greater degree of dimension. The characters have names, as does the setting, and the hero has a specific skillset that allows him to overcome the equally well-equipped villain. These details give players people and places to care about, allowing them to get invested in the narrative.

At this point, the summary of A Link to the Past has been fleshed out to a degree that it can be called a story. It’s still not a very compelling story, however, as it leaves a great many questions unanswered. How does Link know that both Zelda and Hyrule are in danger? Why is he willing to save them? What trials must he overcome in order to reach Agahnim? Does he overcome those trials with ease, or do some of them prove more difficult than others? The answers to these questions form the basis of the expansion and refinement of the three-act story structure, which has been honed over the millenia to add depth and life to Aristotle’s basic framework. The result is a series of plot points that fit in between the beginning and the end, providing helpful markers along the way for writers and audiences alike.


1 Aristotle. Poetics (sec. 1450b). Perseus Digital Library.

* Reference Run: Nintendo Complete. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES) Playthrough – NintendoComplete. YouTube, 2018.

** Reference Script: Davogones. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past – Text Dump. GameFAQs, 2002.