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3 Act Story Structure & Tarot

For those of you who outline, or for those who are in trepidation about outlining, you might be considering using the 3 Act Story Structure as a starting point. Tarot, whether you read the cards or not, can be very helpful in this.

The banner for the blog post reading : 3-Act Story Structure and the Tarot. Finding Direction for the 3 Acts and the Them of your WIP

What is the 3 Act Story Structure?

In a nutshell, the 3 Act Story Structure is, in its most simple form, the beginning, middle, and end.

But anyone who has actually looked into the 3-Act system will tell you it’s a little more complex than that. In a later series, I’ll dive a bit deeper into what the 3-Act system looks like, but for now, here is a brief overview.

Act 1

Act 1 of the 3-Act system is comprised of introducing your main character, showing their world as it currently is in some way, and the inciting incident. This leads you up to your first plot point.

The first act is often referred to as the Set-Up, for obvious reasons: You’re setting up your story. This is where a problem is presented and your MC has to step forward to resolve it, whether they want to or not.

The first act maybe consists of a quarter, at the very most, of your story.

Act 2

Act 2 of the 3-Act system is the largest part of the story. This is the bulk of your book. It’s where you have the confrontation of the problem presented in the book. This is your middle build all the way up to your climax.

In this section, you’ll have the try-fail sequences, you’ll have the complications in the love life, the obstacles that get your heroine has to overcome in order to slay the dragon, the difficulties in learning to fit in in order to become the champion—whatever your plot is, this is going to be what happens after your MC says yes to making changes (the inciting action) all the way to the climax.

The middle or middle build is where your character grows the most.

Act 3

Act 3 of the 3-Act system is where your MC’s growth is challenged. This is the point during which they can show that they truly have learned/changed/matured/excelled, or, they can show that despite all this learning, they failed (which would make the story a tragedy).

The climax happens in Act 3, and then, from there, the resolution of the problem presented in the first act, and the conclusion.

This section of the book is also quite small, maybe 15% of your book. Of course, there is no hard and fast rule to this, but that’s generally the standard.

3-Act Story Structure and Tarot

You can use the 3-Act Story Structure with Tarot, or rather, you can use Tarot to determine what happens in each of your Acts. Very simply (though I’ll go over this in more detail), you draw a card to represent each Act of your story.

In my first post about Tarot and writing, I talked about how in order to read the tarot with your writing, you only needed to look at the pictures and write about what you see. You don’t need to know the meaning of the cards.

The same concept applies.

Here is a spread to assist you with your 3-act stories, as well as a way of upgrading your system in order to help you develop your theme.

Please Note: This is a spread that I created in 2019 and published on my Tarot blog, KarmaStar Tarot. If you have seen it before, I assure you that I’m not stealing it. I own that blog, I own the spread (to my knowledge).

3-Act Story Structure Spread

A visual depiction of the 3-Act Story Structure Tarot Spread. There is the signifier card to the left, three vertical cards next to it, number 1 at the bottom, 2 in the middle, and 3 at the top. There are two cards on the right, vertically lined, reading card A at the bottom and Card B at the top. To the far right it reads S: Signifier, 1: Act 1, 2: Act 2, 3: Act 3, A: Theme 1, B: Theme 2

Your first three cards will each act as a single act:

Card 1: Act 1
Card 2: Act 2
Card 3: Act 3

This can be helpful if you have a signifier card.

What is a Signifier?

A signifier card is a card that you choose to represent your MC if you know who your MC is at this point.

When you pull this card from  your deck prior to laying down the cards, you can use it as a focal point as you shuffle. This can be a visual representation of your MC, that is, someone who looks like the MC, or it can be a picture that you feel depicts the spirit or the journey you plan to send your MC on.

Traditionally, the Court Cards of the Tarot were used to represent people. Because I’m encouraging you to set aside what you might know about the Tarot already, I strongly suggest that you look through the whole deck for your Signifier. It’s alright if you choose a Court Card, but just know that you don’t have to.

Using the Spread

Once you have your Signifier, if you’re planning to use one, then you can focus on it and what you know of your MC while you shuffle the rest of the deck. When you feel ready—and there is no wrong time—stop shuffling and draw three cards.

As mentioned before, the first card is your first act, the second card is your second act, and the third card is your third act.

I suggest that you lay them down face-down and turn them over one at a time. Spend some time on each card with a journal in hand, ready to write down what comes to mind. Don’t focus on it too much, just let your pen go. You can always shape it how you want it later on.

You can write what you see in the scene in the card, you can write down a feeling that you get from the card. This is for you. There is no wrong way to do it, unless you’re doing something that doesn’t feel right. Even then, trust yourself.

Spend at least 5-10 minutes on each card, really letting yourself free write on each card.

Adding 2 Cards for the 3 Acts

Once you’ve drawn the cards for the 3-Act Story Structure spread, you can draw a further two cards for the theme.

While there will be an all-over theme that your story will have, there can sometimes be a point in which the theme seems to switch, or at least, alter. For example, a story that starts out about surviving a war can then alter into a story of surviving in a new society. The overall theme of survival is there, but there is a switch in what the MC is surviving.

Draw two cards, A and B, one to put between the first and second act cards, and one to put between the second and third act cards.

Again, I encourage you to read the cards one at a time. Flip card A over and read it, spending time with it, and then looking at it in relation to how it relates to cards 1 and 2. Spend some time journaling what you think. Try looking at the cards in the order of 1, A, and 2 like they’re a story on their own. How does A act as a transition between cards 1 and 2? Or, you can read card A and look at cards 1 and 2 as the details of card A. How does this shape your story?

Do the same with cards 2, B and 3. Look at how they shape each other. Play around with this in your journal.

You can do this first, or you can do this after playing with cards 1-3, but another combination you can try is looking at cards A and B together to see what their combined meaning might be in terms of an overall theme for the story.

After the homework assignment, there will be an example if you’re interested in seeing how this might look.


If you have a deck of tarot cards, try this spread out, either on an existing concept for a story that you have, or completely from scratch.

If you don’t have a deck of cards, check out, using the 3-card reading feature. Use the three cards to represent each of the 3 acts. This isn’t an optimal site since it uses the Rider-Waite Smith deck (which I personally don’t find the best when reading for creative writing, though that’s a personal opinion). However, you can explore other sites that let you pick cards at random, or follow the hashtag #tarotreadings on Instagram, where you can find people posting their 3-card readings, and use those as inspiration for your 3-Act Story Structure Spread.

Example Reading

For this sample reading, I am using the Light Seer’s Tarot by Chris-Anne. I love this deck, and totally recommend it for creative writing prompts. There are many, many others that I could recommend, but that’s a post for another day.

Signifier: the Sun

I picked the Sun because it represents a woman who ha it all. She’s free-spirited and has a pretty contented life. If anything, she can be a little cocky, which is a downfall of hers, but Tasha feels like she has been touched by the sun.

Act 1: 3 of Pentacles

3 of Pentacles Light Seer's Tarot

Tasha is a part of an artistic group, and she’s somewhat the boss in the grope. The guy, Daniel, is in love with her, and then he asks her out. Tashia, however, knows that her sister, Rebecca, sitting on the floor there, is in love with Daniel. While Tashia has harbored feelings for a while, she has respected Rebecca’s feelings and kept them to herself.

When Daniel asks her out, in front of her sister, everything changes. What was once a tight-knit creative group of friends has now become a place of hurt.

Act 2: 10 of Swords

10 of Swords Light Seer's Tarot

With her sister blaming Tashia for Daniel’s feelings and Tasha not wanting to confront her own feelings, she leaves. She can’t stick around for this. She needs to figure out what she wants in life. Is it Daniel? Is it family? What means the most to her?

She knows that she can’t stick around to find out, and so she leaves, getting them both out of her daily living so she can learn about herself.

Act 3: Queen of Wands

Queen of Wands Light Seer's Tarot

What Tasia learns is that life is precious and must be celebrated. She knows that she loves Daniel and Rebecca equally, and she would rather love Daniel as a friend and keep him in her life as well as keep Rebecca in her life by not betraying her and going for Daniel.

She has gone and come back with her heart-centered answer, and was humbled during the experience.

Card A: Death

Note: If ever you draw the Death card in Tarot—IT DOES NOT LITERALLY MEAN DEATH. I feel like since I’m talking to writers that we can all understand the idea of symbolism. Death is a symbol of transformation and growth, of shedding that which is no longer needed in order to move on to the next thing.

Tarot Spread. Far left card is the Sun, showing a woman spreading her arms and looking up at the sun, as if she's been spinning and stopped to pay homage. Three cards are next to the left card, lining up vertically. The bottom card is the 3 of Pentacles, showing a woman sitting and knitting on the floor, working on the wall hanging in the center of the card. A man is holding the wall hanging up, looking down and smiling at a second woman, who is standing with her back to the reader and looking up at the man. The middle card is a woman walking away along dry, sandy ground, with ten crows flying over head. This is the 10 of Swords. The top card is a woman sitting cross-legged, smiling with joy, with a cat curled up at her feet. There are candles all around her. She is smiling at a ball of light in one hand, and in the other hand she holds a staff straight up in the air. This is the Queen of Wands. There is a third column of cards, made of two cards. The bottom card is Death, a hooded face that reveals a night sky over dark trees inside the hood. The top card is a person suspended by a ribbon, bent

That being said, I’ll move on.

There is a hooded figure in the Death card, and a center of light, with tells me there is a journey within. It’s a night time setting within the hood, which tells me that it’s a journey into the unknown. This is the theme of the first part of the story, is helping Tasha look within, which is something she hasn’t done before.

The Death card is a contrast to the shiny card of the Sun which is her signifier, which says to me that the lessons she has to learn will balance her.

With this card falling between card 1 and 2, there is a transformation in which she has to think of other people. Her social sphere has changed when Daniel told her that he cares about her, and when Rebecca overheard it. She’s forced into the changed sphere. If she wants to fix it, she needs to change is further.

Card B: Hanged Man

The Hanged Person is confident and comfortable enough in their position that they can close their eyes and reach into the pools of messages and meaning. Tasha grows comfortable with her ability to sink within to find meaning, to remain still and listen to what her inner wisdom has to say. She can remain suspended in this place for as long as she needs to.

It is through this sitting with herself that she recognizes the need to act from a place of love, in its truest and purest sense, in order to make things right between her, Daniel and Rebecca. From this, she comes back with the answer.

Combining A and B

The first part of the story is about delving within. For Tasha, she’s not comfortable with this because she’s never done it. Because she wants to find answers and keep her sunshiny existence as loving as peaceful as she can, she has to get uncomfortable in order to grow.

She finds that the discomfort isn’t so bad, and even begins to find comfort in it, and from there she grows.

The overall theme then is finding growth in discomfort.

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Nicola Thompson

Born and raised in the Pacific North West (Washington State to be specific), I'm currently living on a farm, raising chickens, and writing in North Yorkshire. A former editor of Durham University's online magazine, The Bubble, I also write for the magazine Carpe Nocturne, and have several short stories published in a variety of anthologies.

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