Outlining Your Plot: Three-Act Structure

Authors, it’s about time we faced the truth: there is a method to the madness of a starving artist. Structure does not hinder our creative freedom. It, in fact, challenges us to write smarter. Are there ways to get around the three-act structure? Yes, there sure are, but you can’t break the rules if you don’t first know the method behind them. With that in mind, here’s a quick and easy template into which writers should challenge themselves to fit their own novels.

Plot Outline: Describe your novel in one to two sentences. You should be able to whittle your story down to the essence.

ACT I:

Answer these three questions for your readers:

Who is your main character?

What does he/she want? (motivation)

What significant event changes everything?

This significant event will be called your inciting incident. This inciting incident will kick your novel into action. It marks the point in which the readers have finished getting to know the characters and now are propelled into the plot of the story. For example, the inciting incident in the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone occurs when Harry, the forgotten child living under the steps, decides to accept his invitation to go to Hogwarts.

ACT II:

Your second act is the meat of your story. These will be the various trials your main character goes through in attempt to get the single thing he/she wants. Every trial should be an obstacle in your character’s way to keep him/her from getting what he/she wants.

Trial I:

Trial II:

Trial III:

Trial IV:

Your second act should end with a turning point. This is often known as the “black moment,” or the moment when all seems lost. In order for the resolution to be truly satisfying at the end, you need to use this point to make everything as hopeless as possible for the hero. For example, in a romantic comedy, this is usually the moment the main character has committed some seemingly unforgivable act and the lovers have separated, fully intending never to get back together (of course, as an audience, we know better). On the flipside, if your novel is a tragedy, this is the point in which the main character is on the top of the world and the author is preparing the readers for the fall.

ACT III:

For the most part, Act III will be split up into two sections:

False resolution: how does your main character get what he/she wants?

True resolution: how does your main character get what he/she needs?

The false resolution is exactly what it sounds like: when the characters have achieved what they want, but not what they need. The false resolution and true resolution are what separates our main characters from the rest of the flock; it’s the very thing that makes their story worth telling.

(Spoiler alert:) in The Hunger Games, the false resolution occurs when Katniss and Peeta seemingly beat the Hunger Games. However, their trials are not over, there is a twist: the rules of the Games have changed and they now have to kill each other. The true resolution occurs when they defy the system and threaten to take Nightlock together, refusing to play by the rules. In defeating the Games, they have survived the main drama of the story, but it isn’t until they threaten the system do they become more than survivors; they become heroes worthy of having their story told.

Is it possible to write a successful story that does not adhere to the three-act structure? Certainly. However, make sure that you know and understand the rules before you try to break them. To learn more about how to strengthen your writing, contact our editors at editor@bookwritingpros.com

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