Home > Blog > How to Use 3-Act Story Structure in Comic Strips

How to Use 3-Act Story Structure in Comic Strips

Hey everyone! Sorry for the hiatus. I’ve moved to New York City and needed the time to get things in order. But I’m back now and raring to talk about how to use three-act story structure in comic strips.

So, here we go!

Recently, I gave a lecture at The Center for Cartoon Studies Summer Workshop introducing the very basics of three-act story structure.

Since the majority of students were entirely new to the idea of story structure and the rest of the week’s curriculum focused on creating comics that were no longer than one page in length, I knew the graphic novel approach I usually take on my blog wouldn’t work.

So, I developed a lecture on how three-act story structure is present in stories no longer than 4 pages, including daily comic strips.

In just three to four comic panels, you can utilize three-act structure to tell a story. If there’s conflict and a character reacting to that conflict then you’ve got a story and that can easily fit within three or four comic panels.

Here’s the breakdown I used to discuss three-act story structure in the lecture:

Act 1 is the “Beginning”, where information is setup to provide CONTEXT for the story.

Act 2 is the “Middle”, where characters attempt to achieve GOALS and encounter CONFLICT.

Act 3 is the “End”, where there is a RESOLUTION to the CONFLICT and our character’s character is revealed.

Panel 1 (yellow) is Act 1. It provides the CONTEXT for the strip, answering the 5W’s: Where, When, Who, What and Why.

In this example (Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson), the CONTEXT (5W’s) for the strip is:

  • Where are we? A white space. We may be inside or we may be outside, it doesn’t matter. The rest of the strip should make sense without that information. (If it doesn’t make sense, then Bill should have clarified).
  • When are we? Day or night is not specified, so it shouldn’t matter for the rest of the strip to make sense. (But it is set post-1932. How do we know that? The character is playing Superman, who was created in 1932.)
  • Who is involved? A kid. We know his name is Calvin from the title of the strip, Calvin & Hobbes, but within the CONTEXT of Panel 1, it doesn’t matter. All we really need to know is that the character is a kid who plays pretend.
  • What are they doing (their GOAL)? Playing Superman. And we know that by the use of Superman’s trademark line “Up, up and away!” along with the cape.
  • & Why are they doing that? Probably because playing Superman is fun.

Now that the CONTEXT has been established, we want to see the character attempt to achieve a GOAL and face CONFLICT in Act 2.

Panel 2 (blue) shows the character trying to achieve their GOAL – the WHAT from Panel 1 put into action. It can also be called the PREMISE of the strip.

Using the same example, Calvin’s GOAL is to play Superman, so in Panel 2 we get to see Calvin doing just that: playing Superman.

But there is no story without a problem. So, there must be CONFLICT. Something (a person, a thing, fate, or a force of nature) must CONFLICT with the character’s GOAL.

This CONFLICT brings the potential DEATH OF THE PREMISE.

In Panel 3 (red), gravity prevents Calvin from flying (CONFLICT). Will this be the DEATH of playing Superman?!

NO! Calvin continues to play Superman despite the reality of his situation, thus revealing something about his character.

Character is revealed through conflict and Panel 4 (green) is where we get to see that.

Panel 4 is the RESOLUTION of the CONFLICT, and that RESOLUTION lets the reader know something about your character.

This is where you get to show how your character behaves or thinks. In a well-written comic strip, it results in something funny or unexpected.

Calvin has every reason to give up pretending to be Superman but he refuses and improvs his way back into play. Why? Because play is more fun than reality (and if you’ve read Calvin & Hobbes, you’ll know just how true that is for Calvin).

Here’s another Calvin & Hobbes example:

Panel 1 [Act 1] – CONTEXT (5W’s):

  • Where are we? A white space.
  • When are we? Day or night is not specified, but it is set after those bubble bottles were created and mass-marketed for kids.
  • Who is involved? Calvin.
  • What are they doing (their GOAL)? Blowing a bubble.
  • & Why are they doing that? Blowing bubbles is fun?

Panel 2 [Act 2.1] – GOAL (WHAT in action. The PREMISE): Calvin blows a bubble.

Panel 3 [Act 2.2] – CONFLICT (DEATH OF THE PREMISE): Calvin is stopped in blowing a bubble. Is this the DEATH of blowing bubbles?

Panel 4 [Act 3] – RESOLUTION: Yes. Calvin’s reaction to what happened reveals his character.


The best part about Panel 4 is that different characters can provide a totally different outcome or joke from the same PREMISE.

Here’s an example of a Nancy strip by Ernie Bushmiller (notice how Nancy’s reaction to the DEATH OF THE PREMISE provides an entirely different joke):

Panel 1 [Act 1 and 2.1] – CONTEXT (5W’s) & GOAL:

  • Where are we? Outside a store.
  • When are we? Daytime.
  • Who is involved? Nancy.
  • What are they doing (their GOAL)? Blowing a bubble.
  • & Why are they doing that? Blowing bubbles is fun?
  • GOAL (WHAT in action. The PREMISE): Nancy blows a bubble.

Panel 2 [Act 2.2] – CONFLICT (DEATH OF THE PREMISE): Nancy is stopped in blowing a bubble. Is this the DEATH of blowing bubbles?

Panel 3 [Act 3] – RESOLUTION: Yes. Nancy’s reaction to what happened reveals her character.


So, when writing your own comic strips, keep this breakdown in mind and use Panel 4 to show the reader what makes your character interesting, funny or unique.

I hope that helps!

Categories: Blog
  1. 09/03/2011 at 11:01 PM

    Excellent insight, Tim…it shows how plot structure is there, even in a super-short strip! I especially like the “death of the premise” notion; Save the Cat talks about how that hint of “death” always exists in a well-structured story…I understand that better now, thanks to this article. Thanks!


    • 09/04/2011 at 8:55 AM

      Thanks, Sean! I appreciate it. Once I had this comic strip structure, I started using it to create individual scenes in a larger narrative. It works really well for that, too, because every scene has its own premise and there’s conflict in every scene resulting in the potential death of the scene’s premise. Try it out. Let me know what you think.

  2. 08/07/2014 at 2:05 PM

    Excellent! I’m starting a panel comic and I was looking for resources to help out and this is brilliant. I’m not familiar with the “death of the premise” concept (I can guess at it) but do you have any sources to illuminate my oh-so-dim brain?

  3. 01/19/2016 at 12:18 PM

    Great stuff, thanks. I’m the creator of “MIKE DU JOUR” and while I don’t analyze the process I enjoy those who do. -ML

  4. 03/17/2016 at 4:21 AM

    Awesome insight, thanks so much. Definitely a huge help, any bit of info helps. Thanks again!!

  5. 05/16/2017 at 1:00 AM

    Hey, I’m a teacher in Oregon and I was wondering if you would let me use your stuff in my class for a project this week?

    • 05/16/2017 at 11:33 AM

      Sure thing. My only request is that you attribute the work you use (for example, putting timstout.wordpress.com in the corner of the slide or worksheet). I hope it goes well!

      • 05/16/2017 at 11:34 AM

        Thank you so much!!! And will do!

  6. Kurt Gerstner
    07/18/2017 at 1:29 AM

    Such good content and makes me focus on how to tell the arc in just 4-5 panels. Really helped me distill down a kid story and made it better. Donation on the way, totally felt like I went to coffee store, bought you a cup of java, and had a great discussion on short form structure using comic panels for an example.

  7. 09/20/2017 at 6:05 AM

    Hey! The “5Ws” help me work with no hassle. It’s a cinch! Thanks.

  8. Cj
    01/09/2018 at 2:22 PM

    This is by far and away the best breakdown of how to construct a comic strip I ever read. Excellent job, Tim

  9. Vanessa
    01/28/2018 at 1:48 PM

    How would you use this for a longer comic. Like say 22 pages or a graphic novel of 50-100 pages? I do love how you made it way easier to understand though. I would just like to use it for a longer comic.

    • 01/29/2018 at 3:36 PM

      Vanessa, I recently finished a graphic novel script that is 240 pages long, utilizing a combination of the framework in the article above and the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet: https://timstout.wordpress.com/story-structure/blake-snyders-beat-sheet/

      I started off by writing a rough draft. Once I had that, I was able to analyze it. (I don’t recommend analyzing a story until AFTER you’ve written a rough draft. I often find what I’m trying to say by writing it, then analyzing, and then rewriting. When I analyze before I start, I run the risk of killing the story before it’s been allowed to breathe. Once I write a rough draft and have what I want to say on paper, then story structures help shape it and communicate it in a way that a reader is going to understand and enjoy. Just my two cents.)

      In the final draft script, each of the 16 beats below ended up being 15 pages (15 pages x 16 beats = 240 pages).

      ACT 1 (CONTEXT/5Ws)
      – Opening Image/Theme Stated (Context for Act 1; the 5Ws for this act AND the overall story)
      – Setup (Goal for Act 1; the Premise for this act—often establishing the “before” world)
      – Catalyst (Conflict for Act 1; the Death of the Premise for this act—the “before” world is changed forever)
      – Debate (Resolution for Act 1; the protagonist reacts, creating a new goal for Act 2.1)

      ACT 2.1 (GOAL/PREMISE)
      – Break into Act 2 (Context for Act 2.1; the 5Ws for this act)
      – Promise of the Premise 1 (Goal for Act 2.1; the Premise for this act AND the overall story—often seeing the protagonist succeed, e.g., the superhero explores their new superpowers for the first time)
      – Promise of the Premise 2 (Conflict for Act 2.1; the Death of the Premise for this act—the protagonist’s success is cut short)
      – B Story (Resolution for Act 2.1; the protagonist reacts, creating a new goal for Act 2.2)

      – Midpoint (Context for Act 2.2; the 5Ws for this act)
      – Bad Guys Close In 1 (Goal for Act 2.2; the Premise for this act—often seeing the protagonist succeed against the new wave of bad guy efforts)
      – Bad Guys Close In 2 (Conflict for Act 2.2; the Death of the Premise for this act AND the overall story—the protagonist’s success is cut short and the initial goal for the overall story dies; the protagonist can’t win by approaching the problem the way they always have.)
      – All Is Lost/Dark Night of the Soul/”Whiff of Death” (Resolution for Act 2.2; the protagonist reacts—he or she is going to have to stop evading the truth of the theme to succeed—and creates a new goal for Act 3 AND the overall story)

      – Break into Act 3 (Context for Act 3; the 5Ws for this act)
      – Finale 1 (Goal for Act 3; the Premise for this act—the protagonist puts the truth of the theme into action and is succeeding)
      – Finale 2 (Conflict for Act 3; the Death of the Premise for this act—the protagonist’s success is cut short; he or she going to need to dig a little deeper into the theme, often risking their own death, and finally succeeding)
      – Ending Image (Resolution for Act 3 AND the overall story; the protagonist reacts—the protagonist returns home, changed.)

      In my rough draft, sometimes beats were 20 pages long, which meant I had some fat to trim. And sometimes they were 12 pages long, which meant I had cut that beat too short and I needed to flesh it out to give it more weight.

      Breaking the 240-page project down into these smaller chunks helped me know whether or not each page was serving a purpose in the story.

  10. Jj Wind
    04/09/2019 at 8:39 PM

    currently I’m working on a comic strip about cats, and this helps me a lot. Thanks a bunch. Cheers

  11. 05/28/2019 at 4:59 PM

    I’m venturing myself into creating digital comic strips, but was looking for some resources and guidance and found yours. Your tutorial clearly helps me to think in a perspective which eventually creates a mini-story. Thank you!

  12. Daniel
    08/12/2019 at 8:40 PM

    Great analysis. Bear with Me by Bob Scott does the three act comic strip gag very well too.


  13. 09/21/2019 at 6:58 PM

    This is fabulous! I plan to use it with teachers this week as I demonstrate that all texts can be used to engage students in reading and writing and STILL meet the $@*% standards. Your site is both credited in the slideshow and linked, so you may get some traffic from the university.

  14. Susan Thames
    05/07/2020 at 8:50 PM

    Your lesson is brilliant and beautifully organized. Could I use this with my 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th graders next school year? I would give you credit by adding the website URL to each slide and your name at the beginning of the presentation. They create stop motion animations and have such a hard time with story development. I think adding a comic strip lesson as prep before stop motion will help them tremendously.

    • 05/08/2020 at 3:01 PM

      Absolutely. Go for it. I hope it goes well. 🙂

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