Three Act Structure: How I plan and outline a book

So you’re thinking about writing a book, eh? Well! Prepare to do a lot of preparing, good sir or madam.

So, as a disclaimer, I would like to point out that for my first book, I did not do any preparation or outlining at all. I just sat down with a vague, half-baked notion of my characters and my story and winged it.

It wasn’t BAD, but it was not good by a literary standard in any stretch of the imagination, which is why it took me over a year to rewrite it and I am only now starting to do true copy and proof reading edits.

In On Writing, Stephen King says that he doesn’t bother that much with planning out specific plots or the global structure when he starts writing. He describes it more as starting with an idea and then doing the work to make that into a story.

But that’s Stephen King. He’s forgotten more about writing than you or I will ever learn. There is nothing wrong with coming up with an idea that you THINK could be a good story, putting some scaffolding-like structure around it.

So that’s what I’m going to share with you today. It’s not a scientific or even very academic method of outlining or structuring a novel, but this method won’t be the absolute worst.

The Three Act Structure

Writing a novel is like no other form of writing, but there are things from other mediums that I feel have been serviceable guides to my process and my writing schema, one of which being the theatrical or film concept of the three act structure.

What’s great about the three acts is that, at least for me, it helps me arrange the bones into a skeleton resembling what I learned in school was a story: Beginning, Middle and End.

Act One

For Act One, what I try to focus on is the exposition. So exposition can sometimes feel like an afterthought but guess what, JACK! Act One is important because, if it’s boring or not going to hook the reader, they’re not going to stick around for your even more amazing acts two through three.

Here’s a few questions to answer in Act One: What is going to be the voice of this novel? Who are the audience going to cheer for, and who are they going to cheer against? What is the inciting action, the confrontation?

Act Two

Act Two is rising action and the eventual twist of the book. Rising action is important to conveying the stakes, showing the conflict between characters and building suspense. Then the twist is that “oh WOW” kind of moment. It can be subtle or really in your face, but it is what all of Act Two has been building up to.

Questions to answer in Act Two: What is at stake for our protagonists? How and why are our antagonists motivated against our protagonists goals, or what goals of theirs conflict with our protagonists? Why are our characters destined for this conflict?

Act Three

Act Three is our climax and resolution, or denouement, which is a fancy french word for tie up the loose ends and put a bow on the story. Climax is always going to be the point you want to build up to the most, so it is crucial to spend as much time on it to get it right.

With your denouement, you need to consider any loose ends, unanswered questions, or deliver the things your audience would have expected or felt they were promised. You don’t want to Sam and Diane a pair of characters and end the novel without their being some kind of closure to that relationship.

After you figure out your three act structure, you’re hardly done but you’ve managed to start planning and approaching your story in a way that will benefit you in terms of what you want to accomplish. It will also give you a helpful reminder of the guardrails of your book, so that when you go to edit, you can keep in mind the parts that are most important or relevant to the plot.

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