Harry Potter and the Three Act Structure
It’s a curious contradiction at the heart of great story-telling. We seek originality in all things: character, plot, setting, action, but when it comes to structure, we all crave the same thing. Most of the stories we tell and retell conform to the standard three act structure. There are exceptions of course – there are always exceptions – but there aren’t that many.
Part of its success is its simplicity. The three act structure provides the beginning, in which we are introduced to the world of the story, the middle, in which the action escalates, and an ending, in which story tensions are resolved: a beginning, a middle and an end.
You’ll find it in Beowulf and you’ll find it in Avengers: Endgame. It’s ever-present, and yet it’s almost unnoticeable. It’s been around forever and yet it never seems to age.
There are few hard and fast rules here, but generally speaking, the first act tends to take up the first quarter of the book, the second runs from the 25% to the 75% mark, while the final act takes us through the resolution and aftermath to the final full stop.
In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Act 1 concerns itself with the miserable world in which Harry has existed for past decade. It’s the classic set up of penniless orphan subject to the whims of cruel step-parents. And then we get what’s commonly called the ‘inciting incident’, or sometimes, the ‘disturbance’ in which Harry’s world is rocked by the arrival of the letter from Hogwarts. The action escalates – as action always must. The forces opposing the hero try to prevent his escape from this horrible world, until the arrival of Hagrid gives our hero the boost he needs to stand up to the Dursleys. Act 1 ends – and this is important – when the hero takes deliberate steps to leave the world of the first act behind. He answers the ‘call to adventure’. He steps through the ‘doorway of no return’.
Again, you’ll find different takes on exactly when this happens, but for my money, it’s the wonderfully symbolic act of pushing his baggage trolley through the wall at Kings Cross, and emerging into the world of the second act – the world of magic and wizardry.
Now we are completely immersed in the story scape, and we learn so much about the fabulous world that Rowling has created, including the dire enemy – so bad that no one will use his name. As in Act 1, exposition happens organically as the action escalates, drawing Harry deeper into the world, and tossing higher and higher obstacles before him all the time.
As an aside, Rowling is brilliant at turning what looks like an insurmountable obstacle into a massive win for the hero. This always delivers a big emotional payoff for the reader, and is one of the key reasons why the series has succeeded so well. In the incident where Harry stands up to Malfoy and flies off the retrieve Neville’s remembrall, it looks as though he’s about to be expelled. Instead, we are introduced to Quidditch and Harry’s brilliance at it. And we have that wonderful set piece during his first match, when he is nearly killed but ends up winning in a such an offbeat way.
Note that it is always the hero – now teamed up with Ron and Hermione – who drives the action forward and overcomes each successive obstacle. Act 2 ends, just as Act 1 ended, with the crossing of a forbidden barrier, when Harry and his friends enter the chamber where the three headed dog is sleeping.
Once again, there’s no going back. In Act 1 the irrevocable nature of the transition from Act 1 to Act 2 was psychological. Harry could choose to return to the Dursleys at any point, but to do so would be psychological death. By the end of Act 2 however, the jeopardy is physical. Fluffy has woken up, and there’s no means of retreat. By now too, the story has become an ensemble piece, and while Harry, will, in the series to come, face the greatest battles alone, he now has a team at his side that help him through.
Act 3 climaxes – the entire story climaxes – with confrontation of and victory over Voldemort (though he of course lives to fight another day). For the first time, the action de-escalates and we have that wonderful aftermath section, which friendships are reaffirmed and loose ends are neatly hemmed.
As so often happens in great three act stories, the hero returns to the world which he left in Act 1, but things have changed. Power has shifted: the Dursleys don’t know that Harry can’t use magic during away from Hogwarts: ‘I’m going to have a lot of fun with Dudley this summer’.
And that’s it. Perfect. Just like a piece of music resolving to the tonic, the action returns to the beginning, the reader heaves a contented sigh…then reaches for The Chamber of Secrets.