Monday, July 16, 2012

Outline Madness #1: The Three-Act Structure

Tip of the Day: Check out Megg's Big Freebie Bash to win free Amazon gift cards and get free ebooks.

Yay, it's another writing series! I haven't done one of these in a long time. This series is all about outlining. This is my summer of Outlining Madness--I'm outlining a trilogy and a few other books to decide what to work on next and learn the craft of pre-plotting. So come, pull up a comfy chair and learn about Outline Madness on Mondays.

What's the Three-Act Structure?

It took me years to get a Kate definition of this in my head. I went way off-outline in my last novel. As I printed it out, though, I found that the first third all took place in one location; then there was a plot twist. The two-thirds point of the novel brought my characters to a huge crisis. Have I absorbed the three-act structure without really trying?

As I develop a novel idea in my head, before I write a word, I have a succession of images: exciting things that could happen to my main characters. The meaty scenes I really want to write. They may not connect together perfectly yet. The three-act structure is about connecting them together. Something exciting is going to happen one-third of the way through the novel. Something else exciting is going to happen two-thirds of the way through the novel, something that will lead to the exciting climax in the third act. And if you're like me, you've probably figured out how the novel ends before you've figured out most of the rest.

So basically:
-- Something happens to kick off the novel
-- 1/3 of the way through, here's an awesome scene I really want to write
-- At around the midpoint, I'd better plan out something else to keep you interested
-- 2/3 of the way through, here's another awesome scene. After this, it's all downhill to the climax.
-- Toward the end, the climax scene resolves the main conflict

And then, you know, just fill in the gaps between the scenes so they happen in logical order.

So what's one-third of the way through? Depends on what you're writing. A 60K word novel, you've got 20K words to work with. How many scenes or chapters that breaks down to depends on your writing style.

Yeah, But That's Not a Plot, Is It?

No, it's not. It's a structure. I still have to figure out what the plot is. What does the main character want? How would I describe this novel in a sentence or two? Actually, it helps to figure out the plot before you try to plug it into a structure.

So, my main character wants a pony, but she's opposed by the fact that ponies have been crossed with lions and are now bloodthirsty predators.
-- Kick-off: My MC meets the pony of her dreams
-- 1/3 of the way through, pony of her dreams kills her neighbor's dog
-- At around the midpoint, MC and pony run away to the Outerbanks
-- 2/3 of the way through, the Federal Board Against Ponies comes to flush them out
-- Toward the end, the MC rallies the ponies to fight back
-- The climax is resolved when MC goes to live in a protected pony habitat she founds

See, I wasn't even really trying there.

Okay, But That's Not Necessarily a Great Novel, Is It?

In other words, just because I have an outline doesn't mean I'm not going to come up with a better plot as I write. How do I know that my outline is the best possible outcome for the bloodthirsty pony world? Or two months from now, will I realize that the book would be immeasurably better if, instead of a Federal Board Against Ponies, there were hunters killing the ponies for sport? And now I have to rewrite the damn novel. How does my outlining method prevent this?

And that will be the topic of my post next week!

-- Kate, Miss Perfecting the Pages


Megg Jensen said...

GREAT post on outlining. I normally pants my first draft, then do all of this technical stuff before draft two.

I'm definitely bookmarking this post!!!!

(And thanks for mentioning the Bash) :)

Daisy Carter said...

I have a huge problem with this post: you didn't tell me how to avoid rewriting! I have to wait until next Monday, for realz? :)

Great post! Will definitely be back for part 2!

Kate Fall said...

Thanks! I'm not exactly sure how to avoid rewriting, but it's definitely something I want to explore and study and talk about before it happens to me again (and again).

DeenaML said...

Love this post! Can't wait for more! This is a great basic structure to work towards even if "pantsing."

Anonymous said...

The third act is basically past the apotheosis. Watch Kal Bashir's videos at

Kate Fall said...

Hmm, I looked up apotheosis and Webster's says it means "The glorification of a person or thing." So this must be a different context because my main characters definitely won't be glorified, and especially not at the end of the second act, when everything should be going to hell for them. If anyone has a different definition, please share. I was trying to avoid jargon in my post since it took me so long to understand how to apply this concept flexibly.

Emily Marshall said...

I love structure. Or really I like someone that's created an outline and I can plug my info into it. It's really valuable for mysteries of getting an idea of about how far into the book you need to add a twist. I wish there would be easy access to detailed 3-act and 4-act structures for any genre. If you know of such a place, let me know.