Hey, TWNers! Welcome back to another post from TWN. Today I’m going to be talking about the three-act story structure. The inspiration for this post actually came from a TWN reader, Emma. Y’all go check out her awesome book blog right here!
When Emma requested a post on writing outlines, I was immediately sold on the idea! Now, y’all know I’m a panster, but I have outlined before and more people than not have tried to convince me I need to start outlining. All that to say is I’m very knowledgeable in writing outlines, even if I’m not as practiced. So when I started thinking about what my post on outlines would be I knew there were several aspects I could talk about. It ended up becoming its own mini series in my mind, which I may or may not ever get around to. But when considering what I would write about, I knew there was one area that needed to be covered first. The plot points. I’m sure most of us are familiar with the three-point plot structure. It’s the most talked about and used of any story structure, and it’s actually very simple to follow along with! And I thought now was the most perfect time to talk about it as I have come across some plot problems with my own WIP Project: Defender as I’m working through my macroedits and am referring heavily to the three-act story structure as I try to fix them. So while I still plan to write later posts about outlines, I do hope, Emma, that this will be helpful as you’re outlining your project.
If you’re not familiar with the three-act story structure, basically it breaks down the plot into three major sections. You have the beginning which is the set-up for the novel, then the middle which is the confrontation points, and then finally there is the end which is the resolution section for your story.
But how do you take these simple points and turn them into a novel that’s engaging, interesting, and keeps readers flipping the pages?
Before we talk about how to outline, we must first discuss what exactly makes a good plot great! This is something that will benefit you regardless if you need an outline before writing, you need a general direction where the draft your pansting is going, or you’re ready to start completing those tedious self-edits.
Today I’m going to be walking you through and breaking down the major plot points in the three-act story structure. I’m going to be following along with this great resource I discovered a year ago from Jill Williamson. If you’re trying to outline and want a more simple structure to follow, I could not recommend a better source! You can find her links to several writing resources here or go straight to the template I’m going to be walking through with you. Alright, let’s jump in!
Every story should start out with a strong beginning. This is where you are introducing your reader to the world, the characters, and the plot. It’s kind of like your contract with the reader. Depending on how you start the tale, it will inform the reader if this is to be an exciting and fast-paced plot or a slow burn, character driven story. There are all sorts of things I could explain about how to pull off a strong beginning, but this post would get very, very long, so we’ll have to save that for another time. A couple of key things to remember is that you don’t want to jump us straight into the action without first giving us some reason, no matter how small, to root for the character, and you also don’t want it to be boring. You want to both give us a glimpse of a normal day for the character while not overdoing it with mundane details, like your character waking up and getting ready for the day. We know what it’s like to wake up and brush your hair and get breakfast. Unless there’s some very important reason to show this to us, let’s skip to the fun stuff. 😉 You should start your story very close to the inciting incident of the plot. Let’s use Jennifer A. Nielsen’s YA fantasy novel The False Prince for an example. This book starts us off with a normal day for Sage, our main character. He’s stolen a roast and is running for his life. As an orphan in Carthya, this is Sage’s normal day. He’s hungry, he steals food, and then he tries to get away. But it’s not a boring opening. It’s actually very exciting!
Our next point is the Inciting Incident. This point is one of the most important parts of your story! This is basically when you’re telling the reader why he/she should keep reading your story. You want to introduce this point as early into the story as possible, usually at the end of the first chapter at the earliest or the end of chapter three at the latest. Again, just like with story beginning, I could do a whole post on how to write a compelling inciting incident, but for now, just remember that the purpose is to propel the story forward. It shakes the character’s “normal” world and makes him/her have to take action. An example of this comes from the movie The Hobbit based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien. The inciting incident is when the dwarves appear at Bilbo’s house and invite him to join in their quest to reclaim their homeland. Bilbo has to decide whether to go or not.
Next is the Climax of Act One. This is the end of the first act. As you go through the plot, the climax for each act will get more and more intense. So just make sure your climactic moment of act one isn’t more climactic than act three. Your story should be gradually building, preparing the reader for that final climax moment that is honestly the best part of the story! But it doesn’t mean you can’t have a little bit of fun with this one.
Then we move into the confrontation section as we enter act two. Jill Williamson includes two obstacle scenes in her template. This is the point in the story when we see the character taking moves to complete the task, goal, assignment, or whatever it was that happened for your inciting incident, but something or someone tries to stop them. Such as the dwarves and Bilbo in The Hobbit, trying to get to the Lonely Mountain only to meet constant conflict with those attempting to prevent them from completing the task, whether they are orcs, goblins, or elves. Remember. It shouldn’t be all terrible and failures all the time.
Make sure you have moments where your character is accomplishing something but then gets pushed back again by an obstacle.
From here we move into the midpoint twist, probably one of the most fun points to write. This is when the story you thought was going one way takes a drastic turn, maybe due to a plot twist or obstacle no one saw coming. This helps keep your story from becoming predictable and boring. I mean, who doesn’t love a good turn of events, a twist that never could’ve been predicted? Such as in Ally Carter’s YA thriller All Fall Down. Grace believes a man with a scar murdered her mother, though everyone tells her that it’s not true and her mother’s death was an accident. But Grace finds a man with a scar who she believes to be the one who killed her mother. Throughout the first half of the story, we see that Grace is trying to prove that this is the man and that she is not crazy. And then we reach the midpoint twist when *SPOILER WARNING* she realizes that this man is actually a friend of her grandfather’s. Wow, wasn’t expecting that, amiright!
So make it fun. Twist the story. Change the direction. Make it exciting!
From here, I’ve seen stories take one or two directions. You could go straight into the climax of act two or have your disaster and crisis moment. We’re going to continue following Jill Williamson’s template which moves us into the disaster and crisis. I’m lumping these two together because they each have a direct impact on the other. The disaster is when everything takes a turn for the worst. Maybe everything the character has worked so hard for is ruined. Or his plan to save the day failed. Things are usually worse than they were before, which is why it leads so smoothly into the crisis moment. (Also known as the “dark night of the soul.”) This is when your character is at his/her lowest point. Usually a moment of reflection or change that prepares him/her to rise up and conquer the enemy or obstacle once and for all. (Which is why sometimes I just like to put these two points after the climax of act two so we can move right into the climax of act three, but like I said, I’ve seen it done both ways.) Again, this will probably have spoilers but I’m going to use an example from a book I just recently read: Roadside Assistance by Amy Clipston. I thought the disaster and crisis moments were really well done, especially for a contemporary romance novel! I’m sure you’re aware how a romance book goes. Girl meets Dude and they fall in love. But the disaster for this book happens when Emily, our main character, and Zander, the love interest, get into a fight and they break up. From here, Emily feels her whole life is falling apart. Still dealing with the grief over losing her mother to cancer a year earlier, Emily closes herself off from God, family, friends, and any other source of help. This puts us into the crisis.
From here you’ll have your climax of act two, where the character will have to rise from the crisis. He/she could face off against the antagonist here (but will have to lose since we’re not at the final climax yet) or it could be a moment of being challenged to change what they thought of someone or something or maybe even himself. Maybe the climax is having to ask for help from your long-time rival so you can defeat the antagonist. Or finally figuring out the perfect plan to defeat the antagonist/win the race/save the day. Usually it’s a moment of rising up and preparing for the final climactic face-off with the antagonist.
Which brings us to the climax of act three. This is it. The moment you and your reader have been waiting for. I have a plan post coming up about how to write a strong climax so I’m not going to dive into this point too much. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the big climax moment. My best tip, without going into a long post, is to study other climaxes in books and movies. See what the writer did that worked or didn’t work.
Now we’re in the denouement that wraps everything up. Any loose ends (if you’re not going for a sequel) should be tied up at this point.
You don’t want to spend too much time in this section since after the climax the interest will begin going down, but at the same time, don’t rush it! I just recently read a book that wrapped up the ending so quickly, I was left with too many questions and it felt incomplete. Unsatisfying.
And that’s the end of your story’s plot! Maybe you’ll have a happy ending or a bittersweet one. It could be a closed ending or an open one, ready for a second installment. Either way, this is where everything comes to a close and is usually a reflection of the opening.
And that’s it! Alright, let’s chat in the comments, writers! What’s your favorite point to write in the three-act story structure? Which point do you have the hardest with? Do you use the three-act story structure or another story structure? And as always, if you have a writing question or post idea, let me know in the comments below.
Until the next post,
Keep on being awesome and never stop writing,