Friday, February 04, 2011

Plotting: the 3 Act Structure

I spent January writing the opening chapters of a book that will be a sequel to both Kindred and The Quiet in the Land.

This month I've put that story aside to work on Jesse (working title), a stand alone set in 1787, in the North Carolina back country. Having decided to do something different and plot this story out as thoroughly as possible before I write one word of it (in hopes of writing the first draft in under a year's time, a feat I've never yet pulled off), I've chosen to try a technique I've heretofore shunned as too restrictive--outlining the plot using the Three Act Structure.

I'd read about it repeatedly, been taught it at conferences, but the notion didn't strike me as something I might want to actually try out until my friend Joan Shoup (J. M. Hochstetler) posted about it on her blog. Though I used the basic format Joan provided in her blog post, substituting my story information for hers, the information in the outline below pertains to her Revolutionary War novel Crucible of War, the fourth book in the American Patriot series (which I eagerly await). It is shared here with her permission (thank you, Joan!). And just to note, key story points of Crucible of War have, naturally, been omitted to avoid serious spoilers. 

Act 1: Beginning the Quest
  • Battle of Trenton and return to camp.
  • Encounters between Carleton and Elizabeth, Andrews and Blue Sky
Act 2: Crisis Points
1. Battle of Princeton
  • Elizabeth returns to New York.
  • Washington and army block British at Princeton, then withdraw to Morristown.
2. Build-up to New Campaign
New York
  • Elizabeth and Tess renew relationship with Howe and his officers.
  • Pieter returns to NY to court Elizabeth.
  • Reconstituting the army and planning campaign 1777.
  • Carleton rebuilds his Rangers from renegades.
  • Red Fox and/or Spotted Pony return to the Shawnee to seek reinforcements.
  • Carleton decides to refit several of his merchantmen in France as warships to engage in the naval war.
New York
  • Complications with Pieter and Howe.
  • Elizabeth carries intelligence to Congress, meeting with John Adams and others.
  • Progress of negotiations with France and Spain.
3. 1st Crisis and Turning Point
  • Pieter learns the truth.
4. 2nd Turning Point—Campaign 1777
  • Red Fox and/or Spotted Pony return to Morristown with a mixed party from the tribes.
  • Battles of Bennington, Brandywine, Germantown.
  • Elizabeth’s covert activities increasingly put her in danger.
  • Elizabeth learns her parents and Abby are returning to Boston.
5. Main Crisis and Turning Point—Saratoga
  • Carleton and his Rangers join General Gates at Saratoga.
  • Americans defeat Burgoyne, ending the British quest to split the colonies along the Hudson.
Act 3—Denouement
  • Tess leaves for Boston to prepare for the Howards’ return.
  • Howe prepares to move against Philadelphia.
  • Andrews and Blue Sky face a painful decision
  • Carleton and Elizabeth take leave of each other and Elizabeth returns to NY.
  • Setup for vol. 5.

Teachings abound on this well known story structure (as do opinions of its usefulness for novel writers), favored by screenwriters in particular. Googling it will turn up quite a few sites and resources. Here's one.
Earlier this week as I was starting this process I read a great blog post from author Ann Tatlock, over at Novel Journey. It's all about taking the time to listen to our characters before we push ahead with the writing.

For the past week I've combined Ann's advice with Joan's outline, and spent much time thinking this story through, daydreaming, reading over the gradually expanding outline again and again, adding details, turns and twists, the all important conflict, and generally spending more than usual time researching the relevant history and setting and frontier cultures. I now have a seven page single spaced outline, broken into three acts, and a story that's more heavily plotted from the outset than any that have come before it.

Still, there are aspects of the story that aren't clear to me. The spiritual thread is one. I suspect, but I don't yet know, what the spiritual thread of the story will look like. I never do until I've started writing, whether I've plotted the story to a fair-thee-well or am flying by the seat of my pants. Pretty early on the characters will tell me what's in the depths of their souls, what they need to work out between themselves and God.

For now though I'm seeing one great benefit of all this plotting and structure: I'm less intimidated by the mountain before me than I've been at the start of a novel since I finished my first, caught my breath, looked down to see how far I'd climbed and got a bit dizzy at the thought of doing it again. And again.
chess photo by Mrs Logic, flickr


  1. I used to get very bogged down by the very thought of plotting out a novel. By nature I'm a seat of the pants character driven writer. How will I know what the story is about until I start writing and they dictate the story?? Then I had to write my first chapter by chapter synopsis. That's when the 3 act structure came is especially handy. Using that helped me plot out my book and showed the editor that I could write a book that contained all the necessary elements of a novel. It was hard work and I still can't believe I actually did it! It made writing so much easier for me and now I try to get a synopsis down as soon as possible. There's plenty of room for change if need be and fleshing the story out, but it gives me a road map. However, I don't squelch my need to fly by the seat of my pants. If I feel the need and those characters are screaming at me I just free write. But I think they feel a little safer, and now I do, knowing where their scenes fit into the big scheme of things. Having said this, I usually write at least the first chapter without having done a synopsis at all and sometimes more. As for the spiritual thread, often times that is the one that is most clear to me from the get go. Much of the rest seems to be a shot in the dark. I know, I'm a conundrum!

    Thanks for sharing your post. I'm a slow learner with poor memory retention so I'm constantly referring back to the basics.

    I better get over to Novel Journey, I haven't been in a while. Sounds like interesting conversation.

  2. Carla, in the past I've written a free form sort of plot that looked about as smoothly laid out as an Alaskan highway after the snow melts. I have a beginning, long messy muddy middle, and a vague notion of the end, and that's all I'd need to jump in and start writing. Invariably I'd come to a screeching halt several chapters in, and again and again in the middle (Act 2), have to back up, take time to think and brainstorm and second guess some of my story decisions and figure out just how I'm going to get from Point F to Point G. In the end I'd get there, but between my last two completed novels the shortest time it took me to finish one was 18 months. That one was plotted more than the one before, which took three years. This time, with more plotting up front, I'm hoping to trim that time down even further. We'll see.

    I like to leave the spiritual thread to emerge from the actual writing, because that's when the characters invariably surprise me with their depth. I totally agree that no matter how much you plot a story, often the characters surprise you in the midst of writing. I'm good with that. If the story needs to go in another direction then it needs to. But having a road map to compare their choices with ours should enable us to make a better informed decision whether they've chosen the better route, or are simply sidetracked and heading down a dead end.

  3. Carla and Lori, it does seem to me that using a format like the 3-act structure to plot out your novel is actually freeing--with the caveat that you don't allow it to box you in and squelch creativity and inspiration. If you can at least develop a basic idea of the road ahead it speeds up the process a lot and keeps you from getting lost--which I've done a time or two. lol!

    Most of the time the spiritual thread emerges for me as I'm writing too. I may have a general idea of it at the beginning, but it's as the characters act and interact that it comes to the fore and sometimes takes surprising turns. The main thread has even ended up being something entirely different than I thought at first. I just love it when the Lord surprises me and teaches me something new through the writing process!

  4. Joan, this is so important: "using a format like the 3-act structure to plot out your novel is actually freeing--with the caveat that you don't allow it to box you in and squelch creativity and inspiration." It's something I'll strive to keep in mind, because characters can be headstrong things and sometimes they know best. :)