We’ve taken one of the most well-known fairytales of all time and broken it down to explain the three-act plot structure of the novel. Take a moment to apply it to the story you're trying to tell.
ACT ONE: THE SET-UP
Cinderella is the daughter of a widower who married again and then passed away, leaving his daughter under her stepmother’s care. Cinderella is downtrodden, overworked, of good character but sadly mistreated for no good reason (we're on her side). Her spirit broken, she dreams of living the life her stepsisters lead. Every leading character in a story desperately wants something for the duration of the book, but what they want in the first act isn't always their overall want. They also have a deeper need, which will last until it is resolved at the end of the story.
What does Cinderella desperately want when we first meet her?
To be an equal to her stepsisters.
What does she deeply need?
To be loved for who she is.
The Inciting Incident
The Prince is throwing a ball for all the young women in the land – he’s looking for a wife. Cinderella is swept up imagining the fantastic night that awaits her.
At the end of every act, there is a turning point that catapults the reader into the next act. The turning point here is when Cinderella’s stepmother tells her she can't go to the ball.
ACT TWO: THE JOURNEY
In Act Two, the protagonist's want is solidified, in this case Cinderella now desperately wants to go to the ball so she can marry the prince. A simplification of this is that she wants to marry the prince. She goes a journey taking action to try and get what she wants, but comes up against all sorts of mounting obstacles. She meets an obstacle, has a reaction, then tries to overcome it. At the midpoint of this act, a huge obstacle will get in the way of the protagonist's goal. She will have a major reaction, which will bring about a twist in what she wants. This will lead to a situation where it seems all is lost for our protagonist and there is no way she can recover.
Part One: Cinderella tries to go to the ball
Cinderella gets an impossibly long list of chores from her stepmother. Reaction: "I'll never get them all done".
She tries, but things go even further awry. She is overwhelmed and reacts: "I'll never get to the ball."
She resigns herself to not attending the ball. Then her Fairy Godmother shows up and says Cinders can go to the ball.
Cinderella thanks the Fairy Godmother, but says she can’t possibly go to the ball. She’s filthy, has no dress and a stack of work to do. How could she measure up to anyone else at the ball, even if she did find a way to go? (Obstacle, reaction)
But the Godmother has magic and hey presto! Cinderella is cleaned, dressed, her work done and her pets and pesky rodents are turned into grand coachmen and horses – the pumpkin into a coach. The ominous warning to be home by midnight is given by the Godmother, again raising the stakes of her risk/attempt to go to the ball against her stepmother’s wishes. Off she goes and is let in to the ball – she thinks she's finally made it.
Midpoint Major Obstacle: The clock strikes midnight.
Everyone has noticed her. The Prince sees her and instantly falls in love. He