Need some help outlining your next novel? Maybe the three-act structure is just what you need. When this handy breakdown of this writing tool you will quickly be on your way to planning your next big hit. Below are two articles on the three-act structure and how it can help you out when you seem stuck at the planning stage. These rules are not set in stone so you can twist them to fit your needs any way you like. There is also a great video on this style of outlining and the benefits of using it. I hope you enjoy and apply what you learn to sell more books😉
What is Three Act Structure?
You’ve probably heard of three act structure before. But what does it mean? And is it a useful concept for helping you build a stronger plot for your novel?
Don’t get too hung up on the word “act”. Three act structure originally referred to stage plays (which are divided into acts). But it applies to the divisions in any kind of story, including novels.
At the simplest level, the three “acts” look like this…
- The beginning. The story’s main character decides to act on a goal.
- The middle. The action itself.
- The ending. The consequences of the action.
So in a classic “boy meets girl” plot, for example, three act structure works something like this…
- The beginning. The boy meets the girl and falls hopelessly in love with her. He decides that he must either win her heart or die trying.
- The middle. So he sets out on his quest. This being a novel, though, nothing comes easy. He takes several steps forward but even more steps back, and he eventually loses her. (In an opera, this would be the point where the curtain comes crashing down at the tragic end to Act II.)
- The ending. Actions have consequences in fiction, and in a novel this usually takes the form of the central character changing. In other words, the boy recognizes his flaws, changes his ways and wins the girl. Big sloppy kiss, stirring music, the end!
A plot is obviously a lot more involved than that simple summary. But it should at least give you the broad idea of three act structure. And it should hopefully start you thinking about how it applies to your own novel.
In short, three act structure allows you to take your initial idea for a plot and ensure that it has all the fundamentals in place.
What About Other Types of Plot Structure?
Now let’s complicate things (but only very briefly). If you’ve ever searched online for how to write a plot, you may have come across four act, five act, seven act… even nine act structure.
(There may be more variations than that, but I stopped searching after I ran out of fingers to count them on.)
Here’s why we’ll ignore all those variations and keep things simple…
First, the structures I mentioned (four act, five act, etc.) are all three act structure in disguise. In four act structure, for example, you take the middle act and chop it in two.
Second, the more acts you have, the more of a straightjacket the structure becomes. A really complex structure tells you to add a plot twist at this point, a disaster at that point, and so on. And that leaves you, the writer, with far less flexibility to use your all-important human judgment.
Bottom line? Classic three act structure is…
- Rigid enough to make sure you follow the rules of compelling drama. But…
- Flexible enough to allow you to follow your instincts and the demands of your unique story.
So we’ll stick with three acts! The only reason I mentioned the alternatives is to point out that they’re not different ways of structuring a plot. They’re the same as three act structure only more detailed, more inflexible and more like writing-by-numbers.
A Deeper Look at Three Act Structure
If you’ve been following this definitive guide to plot from the beginning, you’ll know that the first few articles cover the big picture of plotting.
In the next article, we begin our deep-dive into the three acts of your plot: the beginning, the middle and the ending. Before that, I want to give you the broad overview of where we’re heading.
I said above that three act structure boiled down to this…
- The beginning. The hero decides to act on a goal.
- The middle. The action itself.
- The ending. The consequences of the action.
It’s now time to reveal how that simplest of structures translates into the 10-step plotting process we’ll be looking at in the articles ahead. Here we go…
Act I: The Beginning
- Step 1: Start with the Status Quo. We first meet the protagonist carrying on with their ordinary life in their ordinary world. The story itself hasn’t started yet. But because this is fiction, readers will know that something dramatic is about to take place.
- Step 2: And Then Something Happens. The action kicks in when the status quo is disrupted. The child is kidnapped, the boy meets the girl, the airplane develops engine trouble. The protagonist now has a goal (to find the kidnapped child, to win the girl, to land the plane safely).
- Step 3: The Hero Makes a Decision to Act. In some novels, acting on the goal is a no-brainer for the hero. In others, he or she may hesitate (the boy doesn’t want to try to win the girl because he’s too shy). But after persuasion from another character, or after a second disruptive event that raises the stakes, the hero finally commits to the goal.
Act II: The Middle
- Step 4: The First Mini Plot. In novels, leading characters don’t try to accomplish their overall goal in one giant step. Instead, they break it down into a series of small goals, each of which will (hopefully) move them closer to success. Needless to say, the first mini plot doesn’t work out as planned and usually leaves the hero in a worse position.
- Step 5: More Mini Plots. The bulk of the middle of the story proceeds in the same fashion. The hero keeps pushing forward, despite getting constantly pushed back. For every small victory they experience, they experience small or large setbacks. Overall, the danger and tension rises as they move closer to achieving their overall, novel-length goal.
- Step 6: Rock Bottom. And then, just when you feel that the hero might be about to succeed, they’re struck by a disaster and all is seemingly hopeless. This is the darkest point of the novel. The final part of the three act structure is where you make everything right.
Act III: The Ending
- Step 7: Reaction. The hero reacts emotionally to the devastating setback they’ve just suffered. Typically, this involves them laying low and licking their wounds, so to speak, while they think about the death of their dream.
- Step 8: Rebirth. But then they experience a sort of epiphany – an understanding of where they’ve been going wrong and what they must do to put things right. This is where the protagonist changes in a small or large way. It’s also where you, the writer, need to be careful. If the hero’s “rebirth” is unbelievable and happens seemingly out of the blue, it will kill the credibility of the entire story.
- Step 9: Seizing the Prize (or Not). Strengthened by their rebirth, the hero is now in a position to fight the final battle and achieve their overall goal. Alternatively, they may decide that they no longer want what they thought they wanted. But this realization will be a kind of victory in itself.
- Step 10: The New Status Quo. The conflict is over and life returns to normal again, albeit a different version of normality than the one that existed at the beginning.
And that’s it, how to plot a novel in simple steps using classic three act structure! If it helps, I’ve also tried to illustrate three act structure (and the ten steps) in a diagram…
Don’t worry if everything doesn’t make perfect sense just yet. It will after we’ve covered each step in detail in the chapters ahead.
For now, you should at least have a much stronger sense of how you’ll take your protagonist’s goal and turn it into a full-length novel, laid out in three acts.
One more thing before we dive into those details…
Don’t Be Afraid to Break the Rules
Plotting a novel is like many things in life: first you understand the rules, then you adapt them in a way that works for you. Don’t get me wrong…
Three act structure is a rock-solid way to build a novel. And my detailed version of that structure (the 10-step plotting guide) works. It’s based on storytelling techniques that have stood the test of time. But here’s the thing…
It can only tell you how to write a “typical” novel. And such a thing doesn’t exist, of course. Think of it this way…
If you take every work of fiction ever written and distil their plots into a single blueprint, you’ll come up with something like the blueprint you’ll find in the chapters ahead. But what this blueprint takes no account of are the quirks and idiosyncrasies and broken rules found in almost every work of fiction ever written.
So you must use the material above (and ahead) as a guide to constructing your plot, not a set of unbreakable commandments…
- If one of the 10 steps of the plotting process doesn’t make sense for your particular novel, twist it into a shape that fits. Or even omit it altogether.
- Similarly, feel free to add steps of your own. For example, if it feels right that the central character should experience not one but two moments of “rebirth”, do it. If it works, it works!
So long as you understand the plotting rules in the first place, and aren’t skipping steps because you don’t quite “get” them, you’ll have the confidence to adapt the rules to your unique requirements. The late novelist Oakley Hall put it well…
A novel may possess more verisimilitude if it contains some disorder, and it may be better to sacrifice formal niceties of structure in order to gain the quality of lifelikeness we look for in serious fiction. The makers-of-rules for fiction must fall back on the global disclaimer, that what works, works.
As you know, novels – and plots in particular – are incredibly complex things. The best way to build them, therefore, is to begin with the “big picture” of what your story is about, then add layer after layer of detail to it once you’ve got the fundamentals right.
Three act structure is about as “fundamental” as it gets. So don’t move on to the detailed plotting steps until you can mentally divide your novel into three distinct phases: the beginning, the middle and the ending.
Outlining With The Three Act Structure
Act One (set-up)
The first act is used to introduce the reader to the world your characters live in and to set up the coming conflict.
Block One – Introduce Hero in Ordinary World
- Chapter 1: Introduction (set up)
- Chapter 2: Inciting incident (conflict)
- Chapter 3: Immediate reaction (resolution)
In the first chapter, you need to set up your hero in their ordinary world. There are certain things you should include, as well as common mistakes you should avoid. In The Hunger Games, the first chapter introduces the dystopian world and the Reaping.
The inciting incident in Chapter Two is the event or decision that sets your hero along the path of your narrative. The inciting incident is really important – without it, your story would not occur. The inciting incident in The Hunger Games is Katniss volunteering herself for the Hunger Games to save her sister; if Katniss didn’t volunteer, the rest of the novel would not have happened.
In the third chapter, the hero reacts to the inciting incident. The immediate reaction in The Hunger Games is when Katniss’ family and friends come to say goodbye to her before she leaves for the Games.
Block Two – Problem Disrupts Hero’s Life
- Chapter 4: Reaction (set-up)
- Chapter 5: Action (conflict)
- Chapter 6: Consequence (resolution)
Chapter Four is where the hero reacts to and reflects on the long-term impacts of the inciting incident. In Chapter Four, Katniss reflects on the impact her death would have on her community, especially her mother and sister. Katniss also starts to discuss strategy with Haymitch, her mentor.
As a result of their reflection, the hero decides to take action and do something to change their situation in Chapter Five. In The Hunger Games, Katniss takes her first step towards winning the Games in the parade of tributes. Her fiery dress and attitude win over the crowd.
Chapter Six details the immediate consequences of the action the hero took in Chapter Five. In The Hunger Games, Katniss discusses the success of the parade with Haymitch. She also reflects on her past and the difficulty of rebellion.
Block Three – Hero’s Life Changes Direction
- Chapter 7: Pressure (set-up)
- Chapter 8: Pinch (conflict)
- Chapter 9: Push (resolution)
The hero’s life has changed as a result of the action they took in Chapter Five, and this creates a lot of pressure and stress in Chapter Seven. The pressure is obvious in Chapter Seven of The Hunger Games. Here, Katniss has her demonstration where she shows the Gamemakers her archery skills by shooting an arrow towards them in frustration.
In Chapter Eight, the first pinch – or plot twist – occurs. A good plot twist is something completely unexpected for the reader. The first pinch in The Hunger Games is Katniss receiving a score of 11, something completely unexpected.
As a result of the pinch, the hero is pushed into a new world in Chapter Nine. The majority of this chapter in The Hunger Games centres around the television interviews with Caesar, the last formality before the tributes are sent into the Games. Here, Peeta declares his love for Katniss.
Act Two (conflict)
The second act is full of conflict.
Character development is crucial in the second act; the hero at the end of Act One does not yet have the tools (whether those tools be emotional, physical or literal items the hero must retrieve) to succeed in the third act, so Act Two is all about the journey.
Block Four – Hero Explores New World
- Chapter 10: New world (set-up)
- Chapter 11: Fun and games (event/conflict)
- Chapter 12: Old world contrast (resolution)
Chapter 10 allows you to introduce the reader to the new world. What has changed, and how does the hero feel about it? In Chapter 10, Katniss finally enters the Hunger Games.
In Chapter 11, the hero can take a break and have a little fun. Maybe they have a date with their new lover, or maybe they do something they’ve never done before. Here, Katniss travels through the arena looking for water, and while she is still in an intense environment, she still has a bit of a break.
Chapter 12 is time for the hero to compare their current world to how things were at the novel’s beginning. After realising Peeta has teamed up with her enemies, Katniss reflects on their relationship and compares this Peeta to the person she was friends with.
Block Five – Crisis of New World
- Chapter 13: Build-up (set-up)
- Chapter 14: Midpoint (conflict)
- Chapter 15: Reversal (resolution)
The fifth block is all about the midpoint, or the main crisis or conflict of your novel.
Chapter 13 is the build-up to the midpoint and Chapter 14 is the midpoint itself. A good midpoint will dramatically change the hero or impact their life in a negative way. In The Hunger Games, Katniss is pushed towards the Career tributes in Chapter 13, and escapes from them after Peeta saves her in Chapter 14.
Chapter 15 is the immediate reaction or consequence of the midpoint. Here, Katniss makes an alliance with Rue and they formulate a plan to take down the Career tributes.
Block Six – Finding a Solution
- Chapter 16: Reaction (set-up)
- Chapter 17: Action (conflict)
- Chapter 18: Dedication (resolution)
In Chapter 16, the hero reflects on the long-term impacts of the midpoint. In The Hunger Games, Katniss realises that to take down the Careers, they need to stop their food supply.
In Chapter 17, the hero decides to take action to resolve the problem created by the midpoint; however, they realise the enormity of their task when things don’t necessarily go to plan. In Chapter 17, Katniss blows up the Career’s food supply, but before she and Rue can celebrate, Rue is attacked by another tribute.
Despite the set-backs, in Chapter 18 the hero decides that they will succeed no matter what. Rue dies in Chapter 18, and Katniss promises to win for her.
Act Three (resolution)
The final act is all about resolutions. In the third act, the hero needs to find solutions to the conflict created by the midpoint, and you as the author need to make sure you tie up all the loose ends.
Block Seven – Victory Seems Impossible
- Chapter 19: Trials (set-up)
- Chapter 20: Pinch (event/conflict)
- Chapter 21: Darkest moment (resolution)
In Chapter 19, the hero faces significant trials. These trials are extremely difficult for the hero and is something the hero has never experienced before. Here, Katniss races to find Peeta and struggles to help save his injured leg.
Chapter 20 is the second pinch, where the hero experiences something completely unexpected that makes everything even worse. In Chapter 20, Peeta’s injury leads to blood poisoning.
This plot twist leads to the darkest moment in Chapter 21 where the thought of success is incomprehensible. Here, Katniss risks everything to get medicine for Peeta, and the chapter ends with her passing out from her own injuries.
Block Eight – Hero Finds Power
- Chapter 22: Power within (set-up)
- Chapter 23: Action (conflict)
- Chapter 24: Converge (resolution)
Having hit rock-bottom, the hero remembers their desire to succeed in Chapter 18 and finds the power within to continue on. In Chapter 22, Katniss and Peeta both start to recover from their injuries.
After deciding they can do it, the hero takes action in Chapter 23, and this action causes the plotlines to converge and come together in Chapter 24. In Chapter 23, Peeta and Katniss realise how close they are to winning, and in Chapter 24 all of the tributes are pushed towards the lake by the Gamemakers for the final battle.
Block Nine – Hero Fights and Wins
- Chapter 25: Battle (set-up)
- Chapter 26: Climax (conflict)
- Chapter 27: Resolution (resolution)
Block nine is the finale. In Chapter 25, the character has one last battle. This doesn’t have to be a physical battle – it could be a fight between friends or lovers, or a mental battle your hero has with themselves. Here, Peeta and Katniss try to survive the freezing night and kill Cato.
Chapter 26 is the final climax. The decisions the hero makes here will impact the rest of their life; it is the point of no return. In The Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta pretend to eat the poisonous berries, which leads to President Snow stopping them by declaring them both winners. However, Katniss realises that despite winning the Games, she’s now in even more danger.
Chapter 27 is the resolution or the immediate reaction to the hero’s decision in the last chapter.
The way you end your novel is up to you. You might choose to explain everything, or leave some or a lot of things up to your reader’s imagination.
Either way, congratulations! You’ve planned a novel.
When you start to plan your novel using this structure it’s important to remember it’s just a guideline. You don’t have to change your story to suit the structure; you can change the structure to suit your story. If your plot twist would make more sense earlier or later, move it.